The Simple Unix Command That Gave Birth To Social Networking

A long time ago, when people dialed (as in telephones) into Unix machines in some closet or college campus, they used a command called "w" to see who was also on the machine.

You can use this command now if you're on a Unix-derived operating system (like Mac OS X). Open Terminal enter "w" and you'll see your login name and any command line tools you might be running. (Likely just "w".)

In those days "w" was used not just to see who was logged in, but what they were using (pine, vi, irc, ftp, lynx) and for how long they had been signed in.

There was a joke about getting ideas for making new apps in the late 90's: just pick a random Unix tool.

  • Talk and IRC begat ICQ, AIM, GTalk, Campfire, Convore.
  • Usenet is at the root of Slashdot, Reddit, Digg, and the multitude of PHPBB communities.
  • Finger influenced the creation of weblogs and the idea was further refined as Twitter. (This is a forgotten history of weblogs: video game bloggers were at its birth, they took the .plan and .project updates of people like Carmack and Romero and posted them reverse chronologically. I will fight anyone on this.)

But there was something special about "w" for me. In those days of shared servers I would auto-run a shell script that would parse "w" and highlight my friends and see what they were up to and if they were available to talk. If they were in Pine of course you wouldn't bug them, but if they were just idle in a shell or working on homework, they were probably up for talking or helping you find some new warez site or to meet up for a slice of pizza.

This past week, like many of my friends, I jumped with two feet into Path. I've been pretty selective about who I will share with on Path because of that 150 person limit, but also because I am drowning in Twitter and RSS subscriptions. I like Path for the ability to clearly see my friends' statuses in a way that Twitter and weblogs no longer provide.

Path is not a remake of "w". I think AIM had and still has the ability to be the ‘w' of the modern internet. But Path has done so much right with its latest release, I think I miss ‘w' a little less than before.



Andre Torrez is co-creator of MLKSHK and runs a software company called Simpleform in San Francisco. You can keep up with him on Twitter or on his his blog where this post originally appeared.