#Croydon #TechCity: Home to Europe’s first online social network

By - Tuesday 26th February, 2013

Think Facebook, MySpace and Bebo started it all? The answer is much closer to home

You could be forgiven for having never heard of ICUKWith just thirteen staff working out of a tiny office on Pampisford Road, they are far removed from the labyrinthine glamour of a Google Campus or the hubbub of East London’s Tech City scene.

Yet with over £3million in annual revenue and aggressive growth plans for the forseeable future, ICUK is typical of Croydon’s software businesses who are making great strides whilst remaining criminally underreported.

Established in 2001, ICUK began as a bedroom startup devised by Paul Barnett and his business partner, Leslie Costar. As young students, both Barnett and Costar realised that they could make more money – and have more fun – starting an internet hosting business, rather than pursuing their university studies. Over a decade later, the company has evolved to be one of the premier providers of internet hosting and telecoms solutions, with a novel suite of self-developed products.

Incredibly. the company has never done any paid advertising – online or offline – relying entirely on word-of-mouth and inbound links to rank highly on internet search engines.

Part of the ICUK’s success can be attributed to its massive reseller network. As a result, ICUK is indirectly servicing some of the biggest brands in world – Citrix and Coca-Cola are amongst the 50,000 sites they are supporting.

However, its most notable achievement to date was the acquisition of CIX in 2011.

CIX – The original social network

In many ways, CIX (Compulink Information eXchange) is the original social network; a messy but functional mix of Facebook, Twitter and Reddit – but way before these darlings of Web 2.0 became de rigeur .

CIX was created by Frank and Sylvia Thorley (from nearby Epsom) in 1983. CIX (then named Fido, before its commercial relaunch in 1987) was a bulletin board service, which allowed users to congregate for ‘conferences’ around specific topics or issues of interest.

In a time when dialup charges meant internet users were charged by the minute (remember that?), usage rocketed after the development of AMEOL (short for ‘A Most Excellent Off-Line reader’) which allowed customers to download their conferences without having to be tied up on a dial-up call.

In its heyday, CIX was home to more than 16,000 users, and its main claim to fame is that it is widely adopted by the Liberal Democrat Party as a means to convene online and discuss party policy. Paddy Ashdown has even written an essay about his love of CIX.

Today, numbers are much lower, and ICUK finds itself at a forked path as it decides how to capitalise on Europe’s longest-running online community network.

Is the Berlin Wall of CIX about to fall?

Perhaps most tantalising about the CIX community is that it is completely walled off from Google and its ilk. Conference topics – which are vast threads of conversation – remain unindexed. As such, twenty years of discussions and exchanges – valuable intellectual property – are contained with the walled gardens of CIX, away from the prying eyes of the public.

This is both a source of  joy for Cixens (as users of CIX are known) – who relish the secrecy and intimacy afforded by not having their exchanges subject to the gaze of the outside world – and chagrin for Barnett, as he considers his options to grow CIX as a business.

Barnett now faces the familiar quandary of every beleaguered leader overseeing a dying group; how to effect necessary changes amongst a community who are intensely conservative and resistant to it

CIX is one of those rare beasts; a fee-based social network where ‘Cixens’ pay a monthly subscription fee to use the service.  This has served to keep CIX an ad-free environment, but is not enough to make it a commercially advantageous property.

Behind Enemy Lines

Armed with a complementary account, I was eager to delve into the world of Cixens.

I was not disappointed.

The CIX community is a curious and offbeat place (so, basically, like everywhere else on the internet). Within the first minute of signing into the site, one contributor has already started a popular ‘conference’ around the topic title ‘Very early frog mating’.

Things didn’t get any less niche after that. A tentative fumble around CIX and I found multiple conferences dedicated to ‘Sasha Lubetkin’ – the self-proclaimed ‘wibble Queen of CIX’ and daughter of pioneering modernist Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin – as well as serious verbal sparring over such topics as the correct pronounciation of “else” (the “adventitious ‘t’ in the word ‘else’, rendering it ‘elts’” is a big issue for Cixens) and underperforming ASB sensors.

The best bit by far was chancing upon a five year old post from a local journalist that I know personally (and therefore, out of respect, shall remain nameless) who had locked himself out of the house and needed a recommendation for a carpenter.

Comfortingly, it is also nice to see that Cixens – when they weren’t wibbling all over each other or breaking and entering into their own homes – also suffer from secretive councils populated by largely incompetent malcontents :

What struck me about CIX is just how – considering it hadn’t changed in twenty years – contemporary if felt. Sure, it lacked the aesthetic whizz of modern day sites, but apart from its spartan design, it could easily hold its own against the Reddits of this world.

CIX is reflective of the Croydon it has inadvertently found itself a part of: a one-time hot-bed of innovation in decline that is now – wonderfully – brimming with potential under the stewardship of new management.

Resuscitating CIX’s fortunes and community won’t be easy, but Croydon Tech City is proud to be supporting IC UK all the way in this noble endeavour.


To sign up to CIX – Europe’s first social network – please go here: http://www.cixonline.com/

Paul Barnett has formally joined Croydon Tech City as one of its technical experts and is providing mentoring and advice to Croydon’s early-stage tech companies from March 2013 onwards.

Croydon Tech City FTW

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He owns a lead generation company. He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • http://twitter.com/greencroydon Andrew Dickinson

    I didn’t fully understand the article, but that’s down to me, but great news that we have another section of technical expert(ise)s here in the town and are adding that to your Tech City initiative to help it grow.More power to the collective!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Hein/611305563 John Hein

    CIXen – plural CIXen

  • Sasha Lubetkin

    What are ASB sensors, please?