Why do some places attract people? Often, it is because being on the spot puts you in the know. The merchants' coffeehouses of eighteenth-century New York, for instance, provided opportunities to get the latest shipping information, to meet potential trading partners, and to exchange other important commercial information. 13 Depending on your trade, you might find the need to locate in the financial district, the garment district, or SoHo, on Harley Street, Fleet Street, or Lincoln's Inn Fields, in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or Detroit. You might be attracted to the literary salon, the corner saloon, or the Cambridge high table. It's not just a matter of where the jobs are, but of where you can exchange the most up-to-date, specialized information with the most savvy people; you may be able to do the same work and pursue similar interests if you are out in the sticks, but you are likely to feel cut off and far from the center of things.
In cyberspace, list servers soon evolved to perform some of the same functions. These are programs for broadcasting e-mail messages to all the "subscribers" on specified address lists. They are like electronic Hyde Park Corners-places in which anybody can stand up and speak to the assembled crowd. Lists may assemble formal groups such as the employees of a business, or the students enrolled in a class, or they may be constructed through some informal, self-selection process. As with physical assemblies, some lists are public and some secret, some are open to anybody and some are rigorously exclusive.
Electronic "newsgroups" were also quick to develop. Newsgroup software allows participants to "post" text messages (and sometimes other sorts of files), much as you might pin printed notices to a physical bulletin board. The notices-queries, requests, responses, news items, announcements, tips, warnings, bits of gossip, jokes, or whatever-stay there until they are deleted, and anyone who enters the place can read them. Usually there is a hosta sort of Cyber de Stael or Virtual Gertrude presiding over an online rue de Fleury-who sets topics, coaxes the exchanges along when they flag, and occasionally kicks out an unruly or objectionable participant. 14 By the 1990s there were countless thousands of these places, advertising every interest you might imagine and some that you surely would not. If you wanted to be in touch and up with the latest in your field, it was increasingly important to have ready access to the right newsgroups. And your physical location no longer mattered so much.
When there is a sudden need, ad-hoc newsgroups can spring almost instantly into existence. Within hours of the January 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, there was a Usenet newsgroup called alt.current-events.la.quake. Long before the rubble had been swept from Wilshire Boulevard and before telephone service had unjammed, it was providing a place to post damage reports and find news about friends and relatives. It was the best place to be if you wanted to know what was going on.
The virtual communities that networks bring together are often defined by common interests rather than by common location: Unix hackers, Amiga enthusiasts, Trekkies, and Deadheads are scattered everywhere. But the opposite can also be true. When networks and servers are organized to deal with information and issues of local concern to the people of a town or to the students, staff, and faculty of a university, they act to maintain more traditional, site-specific communities. So, for example, the City of Santa Monica's pioneering Public Electronic Network (PEN) is available only to residents of Santa Monica, to people who work in the city, or at thirty-five public-access terminals located within the city boundaries. 15 And the Athena educational network was put in place on MIT's Cambridge campus to serve the MIT community.