so many machines

Finger: The First Social Software

One of the first examples of social software in an internetworked environment still ships with your operating system. Let's connect 1972 to 2019.

In the early seventies at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, Les Earnest built a small utility to help people with disparate schedules find each other for both professional and social purposes. Prior to his program finger1, users would run a version of who to figure out what users were logged in and what physical terminal they were using by mentally mapping cryptic user IDs to people and line numbers to physical terminals in the lab. Building on who, Les wrote finger to provide a richer display of this information by mapping user IDs and ttys into peoples’ names and physical places.2

Somewhere down the road, finger became a service which allowed foreign systems to query user status across a network allowing users to peek in on one another to ascertain whether or not somebody was available. The program took on more features as software is wont to do. One feature allowed users to know if a remote user had unread mail, providing a primoridal read receipt. Another allowed users to publish free-text by writing to a .plan or .project file in their home directory to indicate their upcoming availabiity or project status respectively, a la out-of-office messages and microblogging.

Presaging features that would become de rigueur in both productivity applications and social software, finger existed in a world of early networking where exposing the full names and email addresses of users was both convenient and the privacy risk introduced thought acceptable. As the Internet matured, several high-profile security incidents and controversies caused finger to lose momentum and by the late 1990’s the risks increased in proportion with a growing Internet user base. Today services no longer expose a finger server, but in the pre-commercial, shell account era, it was the social network. Amongst his inventions Les Earnest lists:

Social networking and blogging service (FINGER, 1972), which got ripped off by the corrupt Facebook, which I aim to destroy.3


The Finger User Information Protocol was last outlined in RFC1288 published in 1991. It’s dirt simple: a TCP server listens on port 79 and accepts one-line queries of ASCII text which typically passes a username and a CRLF. The server then returns whatever information it has about a given user. If no username is provided, the server should return summary information of all online users.

If you use macOS or Linux, you have finger installed today. Open a new terminal and type finger [username]:

$ finger jp
Login: jp                               Name: John Pignata
Directory: /Users/jp                    Shell: /bin/bash
On since Sun Apr 28 09:54 (EDT) on console, idle 20 days 0:46 (messages off)
On since Sat May 18 09:52 (EDT) on ttys016
No Mail.
Mail forwarded to: john@pignata.com
No Plan.

Though most finger servers have been long retired or hidden behind firewalls, a few continue to exist. What’s up, cs.cmu.edu:

$ finger @cs.cmu.edu
[cs.cmu.edu]
Login     Name       Tty      Idle  Login Time   Office     Office Phone   Host
root      root       pts/0      8d  Mar 21 13:56                           (curiosity.fac.cs.cmu.edu)

Let’s connect the past to the present. Using the finger protocol outlined in RFC1288 and the Twitter API, we can create a retro interface to Twitter and dip our toes into writing TCP servers in Go in the process.

First we’ll bind to port 79 and listen for new connections:

ln, err := net.Listen("tcp", ":79")

if err != nil {
  fmt.Printf("Could not bind to port: %s\n", err)
  os.Exit(1)
}

for {
  c, err := ln.Accept()

  if err != nil {
    fmt.Printf("Couldn't accept connection: %s\n", err)
    continue
  }

  go handle(c)
}

Each time our server receives a new connection on port 79, it’ll spawn a goroutine by executing a handler function and passing it the connection. In this function we’ll query Twitter’s API using a Go client library called Anaconda, format the results in finger-ish output, and return it to the caller:

func handle(c net.Conn) {
  defer c.Close()

  reader := bufio.NewReader(c)
  userName, _, _ := reader.ReadLine()
  user, err := twitter.GetUsersShow(string(userName), nil)

  if err != nil {
    c.Write([]byte(err.Error()))
    return
  }

  fmt.Fprintf(c, "Login: %-33s Name: %-34s\n", user.ScreenName, user.Name)
  fmt.Fprintf(c, "Location: %-30s URL: %-35s\n", user.Location, user.URL)
  fmt.Fprintf(c, "Description: %s\n", user.Description)
  fmt.Fprintf(c, "Last tweet %s from %s\n", user.Status.CreatedAt, user.Status.Source)
  fmt.Fprintf(c, "Plan: %s\n", user.Status.Text)
}

Run the daemon locally with Twitter API credentials. You can now use your local finger client to look up people on Twitter:

$ finger washingtonpost@localhost
[localhost]
Trying 127.0.0.1...
Login: washingtonpost                    Name: The Washington Post
Location: Washington, DC                 URL: http://t.co/Hq7hTYkOPg
Description: Breaking news, analysis, and opinion. Founded in 1877. Our staff on Twitter: https://t.co/VV0UBAMHg8
Last tweet Fri May 17 17:45:36 +0000 2019 from SocialFlow
Plan: Florida lawmakers rail against FBI for secrecy on voter breaches https://t.co/EgWZFFXmyu

This exercise is just for laughs. The finger client is a pretty poor interface to Twitter4, but in using it with contemporary content you can see a spark of how an earlier generation of Internet users would have found this first introduction to social software compelling.

Want to tinker? Download and play with the code example above in my twinger repo.


  1. As in, let your fingers do the walking or pointing. [return]
  2. Summarized from an alt.forklore.computers post from 1990. [return]
  3. He appears to be quite a character. To wit, he maintains an exhaustive bucket list of what he intends to do before he dies in 2043, which he plans to be at the circumstance of a gunshot wound by a jealous husband. [return]
  4. Regrettably, most implementions don’t even support multi-byte characters, so don’t expect to see any non-ASCII characters or tears-of-joy emoji and the like. See BUGS in FINGER(1) on BSD-like systems such as Darwin. [return]