Given how important the WebFinger protocol is to Mastodon, I got curious about where this use of the word "finger" comes from. Fortunately somebody in 1990 thought to record the story of events from 1971, so that 47 years later we can discover what happened:

@pea It's too long a story to paste here, but perhaps you can find Usenet message ID somewhere else. If not, there's a mediocre summary in, which is how I found the original in the first place.

@pea @jamey mastodon char limit does suck imo.

Here it is: In response to a number of users who read my article re: the etymology of
the "finger" command, I send mail to Les Earnest, who, according to ARPA
RFC742, wrote the original finger command. Here is the reply I got,
reproduced with his permission. I think you may find it quite amusing and

>From L...@SAIL.Stanford.EDU Mon Feb 19 21:32:35 1990

[In reply to message sent Mon, 19 Feb 90 16:02:17 EST.]

I'm glad that you are enjoying the C3 articles. I need to write another
one soon.

Here is a response to your conjectures, mostly regurgitated from an
article that I posted on Human-nets in 1985. Feel free to forward it to
alt.forklore.computers, or I can post it there if you prefer. I haven't
been reading that newsgroup, but a quick look indicates that maybe I

Finger was named for the act of pointing. I recall that sometime after it
became popular I received a message from a system administrator who
thought that it should be renamed so that users would not have to use a
"dirty" word. I gave his request all the consideration that it deserved.

I created Finger around 1971 to meet a local need at the Stanford
Artifical Intelligence Lab. People generally worked long hours there,
often with unpredictable schedules. When you wanted to meet with some
group, it was important to know who was there and when the others would
likely reappear. It also was important to be able to locate potential
volleyball players when you wanted to play, Chinese food freaks when you
wanted to eat, and antisocial computer users when it appeared that
something strange was happening on the system.

The only tool then available for seeing who was running on our DEC-10
computer was a WHO program that showed IDs and terminal line numbers for
people who were logged in. There was no information available on people
who were not logged in. I frequently saw people running their fingers
down the WHO display saying things like "There's Don and that's Pattie but
I don't know when Tom was last seen." or "Who in hell is VVK and where
does line 63 go?"

I wrote Finger and developed the supporting database to provide this
information in traditional human terms -- real names and places. Because
I preferred to talk face to face rather than through the computer or
telephone, I put in the feature that tells how long the terminal had been
idle, so that I could assess the likelihood that I would find them there
if I walked down the hall.

The program was an instant hit. Some people asked for the Plan file
feature so that they could explain their absence or how they could be
reached at odd times, so I added it. I found it interesting that this
feature evolved into a forum for social commentary and amusing

Finger was picked up by a number of other groups with DEC-10 computers
that were connected to Arpanet -- software flowed in all directions around
the net in those days. It later migrated to Un*x, probably via U.C.
Berkeley. Somewhere along the line the idea arose to provide a network
Finger service. I don't remember who suggested that but it seemed like a
good idea at the time so I stuck it in. Some other anxious people wanted
to be able to verify that their mail was delivered to specific addressees,
so the Mail feature was also added.

While I was somewhat surprised by the popularity of Finger, it has not
been as successful as an earlier program that I invented -- the spelling
checker. It too was created to fill a personal need that many others
apparently share. We didn't think about commercial development and
software protection in those days, but if we had we probably could have
made something out of it. On the other hand, I enjoyed the comradery
of those gentler times and have no regrets.

-Les Earnest (

@jamey I'll be archiving this on gopher for the day when Google inevitably kills Groups

@tomasino I wonder what it would take to get a complete copy of Google's Usenet archive into, because yes, we clearly can't rely on Google to maintain it.

@jamey for some reason I'm also particularly amused at the language and tone of "back in the old days" that the author used when this post itself is dated 1990 o_0

@jamey this alone should be the singular argument for the open web 🙃

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