A public access Unix (or Unix-like) server is just a computer. What makes it special is that anybody can sign up for a user account and use the computer.

I would consider these servers proto-social networks: no matter what activities you participate in on the server (message boards, chat, blogging, personal projects, shared application development), you’re contributing to the server community.

The most famous public access server is SDF. It has existed since 1987 and still has a growing user base. From 1987-era Gopher sites, to traditional web forums, to multi-user Minecraft, SDF hosts a wide-range of services for—and by—its users.

Currently, on the homepage of this site, I call myself a “public access Unix server enthusiast.” I began my journey with public access servers as a member of tilde.club1 (unfortunately inactive these days), and I now contribute to tilde.town.

I understand that intentionally accessing a server via the command line, and knowing how to do that, is not something that every person can do or would want to do. However, I hope you consider the ways that these servers can offer spaces for social experimentation that can pave the way for future, more refined networks and online spaces:

  • These servers are fundamentally non-commercial. They operate on personal trust.
  • These servers promote technical literacy and offer the potential of education and mentorship.
  • Server information infrastructure is flexible and “designed” by active users. Users are the primary stakeholders, investors, and feature-implementers in their community.
  • Users intentionally create and have control over their own data.
  • These servers provide the opportunity for users to host their own unconventional websites, blogs, and web apps, for free (or some reasonable membership fee).

There is also talk of federating some tilde-named servers. You can see the beginnings of this at tilde.chat. Currently, tilde.chat connects four tilde-named servers via IRC.

For me, these are just a few reasons that make public access servers compelling. And seeing the recent success of Mastodon, and how it seemingly shares some of the same values, specifically around ownership, identity, and privacy. It validates my belief that these servers are forerunners in an emerging web culture, not just hobby spots for outsider tech nerds.

  1. See Paul Ford’s article Tilde.Club: I had a couple drinks and woke up with 1,000 nerds for more information about tilde.club.