What Hacking AOL Taught a Generation of Programmers

The open source ethos behind the rogue AOL add-ons communities that flourished in the 1990’s.

“I used to joke that everything I needed to know for infosec I learned on AOL,” Self says. “It’s not quite true but I did learn a lot about social engineering, testing, code sharing, reverse engineering, and putting together a polished final product.”

Self wasn’t alone. Just as a generation of programmers got their start writing BASIC on the Commodore 64, or today’s devs might start by building mobile apps, in the 90s a generation of programmers got their start by building AOL progs. “If it wasn’t for the AOL prog scene, I probably wouldn’t have become a programmer,” says software developer Patrick Gillespie. “It’s how I discovered that I enjoyed programming and that I was good at it. It changed the whole direction of my life.”

Open source collaboration is the norm today, but the prog community had to learn open source principles on their own. A thriving community emerged where developers shared code, collaborated on projects, and helped each other learn. Though most progs weren’t technically open source—they were often released with no license at all and sometimes included pirated software—the community demonstrated an open source ethos, building on each other’s work or teaming up to create software they wouldn’t have been able to build on their own.

Read More at The README Project

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