The Internet Age Began on August 9, 1995

The Internet Age turns 20 years old this weekend, on Sunday, August 9.

I’m not talking about the Internet itself, which was born in the late 1960s when two computers on two different university networks first exchanged messages, thus establishing a network between networks, an “inter-net”. I’m talking about the craze, the delirium, the stock market booms and crashes, the “everything is changing” meme that turned out to be true.

Two separate things happened on August 9, 1995, both by chance emerging from Northern California though they had little else in common. The first was a scheduled event: the initial public offering (IPO) by Netscape, a startup tech firm designed to make software to power the Internet.

Netscape was controversial from the moment it was born, because up to the early 1990s the Internet was a non-profit space used by academics, scientists, and government agencies. This population had only recently begun to strain with the arrival of curious newbies who managed to gain access through their jobs or schools, or via dial-up services like America Online and CompuServe. These newbies were not always welcomed by the old-school academics who’d previously ruled the space, and Netscape was the brash new corporation whose mission was to accelerate this popular trend … and make a profit by doing so.

I was, it happens, one of those newbies at the time. I had stumbled onto USENET and the World Wide Web in 1993 via my software job, and in early 1995 I joined Time Warner’s new media venture — like Netscape, a corporate attempt to capitalize on the free and open Internet (though unlike Netscape it was doomed to fail from the start). I was in Pathfinder’s midtown Manhattan basement office on Wednesday, August 9 when word trickled around that Netscape’s first day of trading had begun — with a bang.

The successful IPO wasn’t a sure thing, and in fact up until that morning there was some suspense as to whether their controversial stock market debut would happen at all. Few expected a runaway success amidst all the controversy and negativity about Netscape’s business plan, but the actual investors that Wednesday morning were apparently not listening to the haters on USENET who swore that the Internet’s open and cooperative culture would never embrace a for-profit corporation. Who cares about the haters? The stock opened at $28 (already a remarkably high price for an initial stock offering), and shot quickly to a peak of $74.75 before closing its first day at $58.25.

This might not seem like a stunning IPO when looked at backwards, because the Netscape IPO would be the first of many, many, many Internet IPOs that would shoot to the skies on their first days of trading. But, before Netscape, this kind of thing didn’t really happen. It certainly didn’t happen to a new corporation with a shaky business model and no visible source of revenue. Netscape’s historic success took a lot of Wall Street experts by surprise, and made a few smarter experts and early insiders instantly rich.

In the basement at Time Inc. New Media, we all knew our world had just changed. The markets had spoken, and the hard-fought battle was suddenly over: the Internet would be a business-friendly place. It was now a sure thing that other tech IPOs would follow. The stakes had just been massively raised, and the entire Internet was about to become much more crowded and hectic.

I remember walking through the hallway at work that morning, probably heading for a coffee refill, when I saw a clump of co-workers and magazine editors talking anxiously. I thought they were talking about the Netscape IPO, but they weren’t. “Jerry Garcia died,” one of the editors said to me. “We need to replace the front page and get a new headline up, stat.”

Jerry Garcia. This one hit home.

It happens that I am a Deadhead, though not really a “self-identifying” Deadhead since I also like many other kinds of music and don’t usually wear the clothes. But I adore the Grateful Dead’s brilliant music, and I had seen them two nights in a row only six weeks earlier at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The first of those joyful shows had been on Father’s Day, so I’d taken my music-loving nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth with me. It happened that August 9, 1995 was also Elizabeth’s tenth birthday, so my first thought when I heard that Jerry died was that Elizabeth was going to be upset.

And I was upset, because one of my favorite guitarists and songwriters was gone. We had to move fast at Pathfinder, because even though our leadership was often famously clueless (this is another story), some smart person from People Magazine correctly realized that Jerry Garcia’s death was going to be a monster story on the Web, and was determined to get Pathfinder a piece of that traffic. My co-workers were bustling around me, but I managed to escape to my cubicle to fire up, the vibrant and popular Grateful Dead USENET newsgroup where I often hung out. The news had just broken there, of course, and the place was in a state of absolute emotional supernova.

Nobody said “going viral” yet by the summer of 1995, but that’s exactly what Jerry Garcia’s death did, and it was pretty much the biggest anything had gone viral anywhere up to this point.

The outpouring of white-hot intensity (and love, and inspiration, and empathy, and wit) that I participated in that day on occupied only one corner of the broad global online reaction to Jerry’s death. I wasn’t a member of the WELL, the famously advanced online community from the Dead’s home city of San Francisco, but I heard that the WELL had also naturally and calmly exploded in supernova fashion after hearing the news. (Of course, thanks to the miraculous natural efficiency of distributed network computing, neither USENET’s nor the WELL’s servers actually crashed on August 9, 1995, while Wall Street’s creaky mainframe-based trading systems had plenty of trouble keeping up with Netscape’s IPO). Jerry’s death was also a big event on CompuServe and AOL and Prodigy and countless similar BBS’s and emerging online communities around the world. The main Dead website (hosted by a student at Carnegie-Mellon University) was updating every few minutes, trying to keep up with it all.

Jerry Garcia’s death was the first major spontaneous news event to break big on the Internet, and the first of many to follow. There is one simple reason why it took a Grateful Dead member’s death to inspire the world’s first flash mob: the Internet’s early-adopter user base was heavy with educators and scientists and technologists, and educators and scientists and technologists tend to love the Grateful Dead. There was also a remarkable preponderance of Deadheads at magazines like WIRED as well as among the Internet’s most well-known early voices, like lyricist John Perry Barlow, who had recently emerged as the co-founder of the freedom-minded Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It’s because the World Wide Web and the Grateful Dead loved each other so well that August 9, 1995 turned out to be the first day I ever used the Internet to find out where I would be going that evening.

That spot would be Strawberry Fields in Central Park — a perfect memorial spot where a mosaic circle reading “IMAGINE” had been placed to honor John Lennon, who had lived a few blocks away. I found out on that Strawberry Fields was the place to go in New York City, and I emailed my wife to meet me there with the kids after work. We found a beautiful scene, peaceful and packed, flowing with flowers, tie-dye, guitars, songs, candles, friendly faces.

I probably didn’t reflect upon this at the time, but if Jerry Garcia had died on Elizabeth’s birthday one year earlier, we would never have known that there was a gathering at Strawberry Fields to go to. We would have stayed at home and probably watched a news report about Jerry Garcia on TV. There probably would have been a spontaneous memorial that night at Strawberry Fields — but it would have been much smaller, and I would not have known about it.

This points to the most crucial fact about the emergence of the Internet Age. The world wouldn’t change on August 9, 1995 only because our ability to communicate had accelerated. The world would change because these new abilities to communicate would open new passageways that would themselves lead to unexpected places, and these would lead to more unexpected places. Communication is not usually an end in itself, but rather is an opportunity for new beginnings, an introduction to places unknown.

Twenty years later, it’s striking to consider the ironic juxtaposition of two separate world-changing events on the same day, both emerging from the San Francisco Bay Area but quickly spreading to touch the world. The stunning success of the Netscape IPO would immediately change everything about the Internet business sector, which would now begin to grow at incredible and often unwieldy speed. Soon, nobody would ask if the Internet was friendly to for-profit corporations. Instead, some would begin to ask how the Internet could avoid being entirely destroyed by for-profit corporations. Fortunately, a natural balance seems to have kept the Internet free in the twenty years since August 9, 1995 — even though predators still threaten the fragile connections that keep the open network available and usable for all.

In 1995, Netscape was at the leading edge of corporate invasion of the free Internet, but the corporation would ultimately founder and fall. Its dominant position would soon be filled by newer but equally controversial corporations like Amazon, Google, Facebook and the re-emergent Apple. Today, Netscape’s important legacy of software innovation is kept alive via the benevolent open source foundation Mozilla, which is (of all things) a non-profit.

The Grateful Dead’s influence on the evolving culture of the Internet has always been a godsend, and still is. When music-sharing became a way of life with the advent of Napster a few years later, and when online publishers began to give content away for free, many smart observers realized that the Grateful Dead (who had always allowed fans to freely create and share concert recordings) were the greatest success model in the world for a profitable long-term business cycle based on peer-to-peer sharing. The positive and peaceful philosophy the band had always stood for seemed to fit the Internet’s optimistic emerging culture as well.

I am writing this blog post on August 8, 2015, looking forward to tomorrow’s 20 year anniversary, and wondering if any news outlet besides Literary Kicks will even write about the amazing day of August 9, 1995 tomorrow.

The anniversary doesn’t seem to be a big news story, and for all I know this may be the only article anyone will write about the fact that the best possible choice for a starting point of the Internet age was exactly 20 years ago. I am pretty confident, though, that the significance of August 9, 1995 will be understood by the time the 100th anniversary rolls around on August 9, 2095.

Perhaps the delirium of the Internet age — all the good and all the bad that have swirled into all our lives with its advent — is still too much around us to allow us to appreciate the significance of this date. The sense of feverish fast-moving change has never left. Twenty years later, we are still living inside the bell jar.

16 Responses

  1. …captured a moment in time.
    …captured a moment in time…
    …at the time a trader…
    …the market went pop…
    …the possibilities immediately recognized…
    …then the tears…
    …no, not jerry…
    …the original spacefolk music…
    …all things musical…
    …the tour had ended…
    …just in time…
    …two phenomenons collide…
    …dead ain’t bout tie die and body odor…
    …or looking like the band…
    …it’s close your eyes sounds…
    …free and easy and perpetual…
    …like the internet…

  2. So many images come to mind
    So many images come to mind when fathoming the significance of 8/9/95: a big bang of the ages, an expansion of microcosms, the conception of a new time where warm organics and cold symbols of code meld making new elements, a day impregnated with alchemic movement. Thanks to your finely crafted word-weave, I CAN imagine the triune significance of this singular day…

  3. As ever your insight and
    As ever your insight and unique view informs and rewards!
    Thanks so and … keep on truckin’ !

  4. I had installed a modem in my
    I had installed a modem in my blazing fast 486 a few months prior. gave me info on a local gathering on the evening of Aug. 9 and provided a place to converse with like-minded folks for weeks to come. It was the world’s largest wake and everyone could attend. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the way I gathered information and kept in touch with people was forever changed. I suppose one more “thanks Jerry!” is in order.

  5. I also remember Jerry’s death
    I also remember Jerry’s death, the news came right in the middle of my east coast workday. I went to lunch with my Mom who was visiting. Back at work I had 17 messages on my voicemail – mostly from friends and co-workers who knew this was a real loss for me. 20 years later I heard of (seemingly immortal) Jimmy Carter’s cancer. Thanks Jerry for the good times. It seems so wierd that it’s been 20 years. Thanks also, to Jimmy Carter, for being a PEACEmaker. Can there ever be a higher calling? No good deed ever goes unpunished. Carter paid a political price for preferring diplomacy over military action. Now that he is in his final days. show Jimmy Carter some peaceful love — send him a card, Jimmy Carter, Plains. GA. 31780.

  6. I remember an interview with
    I remember an interview with Jerry Garcia (probably in Rolling Stone but I’m not sure) in which Jerry was telling the interviewer about some kind of virtual reality goggles that had just been introduced into the marketplace. The interviewer said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

    This is such a great post, Levi. I would call it “classic LitKicks”

  7. The death of Jerry Garcia, as
    The death of Jerry Garcia, as tragic as it was, also was how I got my start at Pathfinder, and ultimately, my 20+ career in online marketing. I received a call from Pathfinder’s Maria Wilhelm, who I did the PR launch of People’s CD-ROM with earlier in the year, and Pathfinder management was looking to get the word out about their Jerry Garcia tribute site, as well as other content aggregated across Time Inc. publications. For the next 10 months, I promoted many such micro-sites, most notably, OJ Central, as well as announced the Web debut of Sports Illustrated, Fortune, People, and many more.

  8. Hi Richard Krueger – nice to
    Hi Richard Krueger – nice to meet you, and did we meet at Time Inc. all those years ago? I don’t remember your name. The one person I worked most with from People magazine was Hala Makowska, who was awesome – did you work with her? Anyway, thanks for sharing your part of the story.

    — Marc aka Levi

  9. This day was pivotal for me
    This day was pivotal for me and the day *everything* changed for me. I was a Deadhead and living on th e island of Guam after leaving Japan for a visa run and, after finding i was somehow very employable, i stayed on. Then, 1995 came and instead of joining my pals from BC, Canada and Utah and all points in between, i figured i’d work one for season as a Japanese speaking host at a private beach club – which sounds like a dream job but i could feel my brain atrophying and i’d imagine myself 20 years later as a character from a Jimmy Buffet song…

    And then in the weird time shifted hours of a 17 hour difference, i got the call that Jerry died. I was crushed and flummoxed and didnt go to work and instead starting making calls to find out “what happened? when’s the tribute? what the fck?” etc.

    I couldnt learn a thing and the newspapers operating on a day or two delay was no help – of course this hippie didnt have a TV and then again, watching some make-upped clown on CNN tell me the generic anecdotes was not what i needed. So i went down to a park where i thought i might find some other Heads and sure enough, i found tribe of wide-eyed wonderers in the same state of mind.

    I passed around a few little pinner joints – not worthy of the big man but did what i could – and commiserated with the assembled mix of oddballs who end on the island avoiding . And then 2 haoles walked up and started asking questions. By that time, despite my heritage felt mostly local and raised eyebrow with the others at the intrusion and instead starting asking them questions: how? where? wtf? and they had all the answers. Mouth agape, i asked how they knew all this and they replied, “We work at the newspaper (Pacific Daily News for the record) and we have the internet.” “Ummm… The internet?” my reply. “Yeah its send words and pictures of any kind over phone lines and onto a computer,” they explained and i thought “whoa computers can do that?”

    The next day, their write up was in the paper including a few of my quotes talking about how (paraphrasing) i’ve travelled all around the world and always found community with Deadheads to celebrate the music and counter-culture lifestyle.”

    I realized there was no way i could physically get from Guam to San Fran in time for any memorial and instead tried to call friends who i’d roust at 3AM and barrage with questions quickly as i was paying like $8/minute or something. Still no real sense of understanding so i went to an ISP called and took a one night workshop to connect to the internet using Win 3.1 and Trumpet Winsock. I couldn’t have cared less about the tech but wanted to see the words and pictures… and over the 9600 baud modem, i began to see appear with words and pictures. The page was about 1/2 way loaded when the power went down on the whole island after a (endemic & invasive) brown tree snake bit into the one of the warm electric wires and shut it all down. I had seen the future enough to know that this was something for me.

    Since i was a kiddo, i’d made ditto-machined newspapers, punk rock fanzines, the best school reports, and shared little chap-books of poetry and sketches with pals and now, i realized, i could do this at a bigger scale… take all my weird bits of knowledge and share with a larger audience. Head melted i started my first web page a week or so afterwards, a treatise and clearinghouse about the history of Hemp in Japan. The page was endlessly long as i didn’t realize the concept of multiple pages linking together but like the endless scroll feeling of the page — mountains and rivers without end, its seemed organic and right away, there was conversation and community sparked as i quickly met other folks exploring nascent hemp culture. Within a month, i was importing hemp surf trunks and trucker wallets to sell on island and also sending my research out to publications.

    Realizing the my lifestyle/hobby of the Grateful Dead was no more (ostensibly anyhow), i made plans to leave Guam and head to Olympia Washington where i could mop up a long overdue college degree and find a place in all of this new web stuff.

    Within 24 hours of landing in a strange climate and town, where i set up a tent in the woods by Evergreen College, i met some heady looking guys setting a booth to sell tie-dyes the next day at an annual campus fair. I asked them for change for the laundry and they asked “are those hemp overalls?” Yeah man,… of course this led to the usual passing of the bowls and swapping tales of tour. The next day i learned they also had just opened an ISP called “Come on by,” they said. I did and joined up and crashed coursed myself in TCP/IP, POP, PPP, HTTP and all the other acronyms i could and, seeing the 3 dudes werent exactly “people persons”, i worked my way into the biz as the marketing guy. This was a wild great ride from 1996-2000 when we sold it (a whole other story including the acquiring company requiring me to take a drug test… they tried anyhow).

    Then moved back up to Vancouver, working for Raincity Studios making new-school database driven content rich, community building sites, Warner>Rhino was a client and was able to do some work on the site which brought me to the Internet in the first place. I added my fuzzy photos and hazy memories to the list of shows and felt something about full circle. Also by this time, my first web project about hemp in Japan had been published extensively and i had High Times staying at my house and related fun and chaos.

    Then, moving on i was the first Marketing Head at Hootsuite – a social media tool in full startup mode. We were 10 in a dingy office and i was charged with growing the audience with basically no budget. But years of hustling the Grateful Dead lot and making enough to get to the next show and have a good time doing it, came in handy as i recruited an international team, fed them stories and together built community around our users including epic campaigns at SXSW where i went back to my Dead roots and created the Hootbus which was a modified short bus turned into a party on wheels as we’d roll the streets of Austin getting people “On the Bus” just like on tour — well kinda anyhow. In my barrage of public speaking which came along with the ride, i shared stories (to tech heavy audiences) of building community on tour, the resourcefulness needed to build and move, the “one hug at a time” ethos which i espoused to treat each user like our favourite.

    Then last year, The Grateful Dead did the 50th anniversary shows and Hootsuite reached a Billion dollar valuation. Im still the same guy, sitting on a porch with a smoke and cut off jeans wondering when the next show is and how i can share the story.

  10. a day that says in infamy in
    a day that says in infamy in my minds eye, jerry garcia dies

  11. Grate story brother. Been a
    Grate story brother. Been a rough couple years for me. Been broke and trying to get my contracting business rolling(Direwolf Co.)and your story lifted my spirits and reminded me of all those happy faces on tour in the 90’s. I was fortunate enough to see Jerry 137 times and i needed to be reminded of that. Just wanna say thanks and NFA….. Peace…

  12. Wow! Nice read, took me a
    Wow! Nice read, took me a couple years to see it. Just googled “August 9 1995” as I’m sitting here cryin’ in my bowl 😉 and posting youtubes & pictures of Jer on facebook as I’ve been doing on this date for some years now.

    For me there’s always been a very distinct line between the Time of the Grateful Dead and the internet era. I was using it at work, but I didn’t get connected at home until 1997… and I mean, you know he had to die. (Just as the rest of us will.) It was devastating, of course, and yet his legacy is all over the internet; for heaven’s sake! What a gift. Literally a Deadhead’s dream come true (since we literally can’t have Jerry back). Not to mention, we’ve all seen almost every picture ever taken of him, incredible artworks inspired by him, and yet there’s still always something has not yet been shared and you never know what will come to the surface.
    You have to wonder what he would think of all this. I bet some of it would creep him out (“The Followers of St. Jerome” facebook page comes to mind, & I’m totally a member of that one haha) but he would be pretty blown away by it all, for sure.

    He was something else, that one.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!