The Internet was born in November 1969, just after an exciting summer that included the Woodstock festival, the Charlie Manson murders and the Apollo 11 moonshot. The first successful demonstration of the Internet went much more quietly. A computer at the University of California at Los Angeles exchanged a series of messages with a computer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, 360 miles away, and at this moment — well, one can only imagine that champagne bottles were popped, colleagues in various corporations and universities and government offices were giddily notified, and several West Coast nerds went home very happy. It didn’t make the evening news.
The Internet grew, slowly and steadily. By the time I graduated with a Computer Science degree from Albany State in May 1984, the Internet was still nothing but a rumor to anyone I’d ever met. I worked for an aerospace firm and a robotics firm in the late 80s and never once saw a TCP/IP packet that didn’t come from inside my building. We all knew that the Internet was somewhere out there — I read about it in magazines like Byte and InfoWorld — and in late 1992 I noticed a strange new book called The Whole Internet: User’s Guide and Catalog by Ed Krol. It was published by O’Reilly, the most respected technical publisher in the Unix field, but it had a strange sort of 60s-ish San Francisco feel to it that was unlike any other O’Reilly book. I thumbed through it and read about Telnet, FTP, Usenet, Archie and Gopher, but it didn’t make much sense and I didn’t know where to find the Internet anyway.
That’s why I was so excited in the summer of 1993 when an executive named Tim English stopped by my cubicle at the JP Morgan bank on Wall Street, where I had been working as a software consultant, and asked me to set up Usenet newsgroup access for his sys-admins. This meant the Internet was in the building. And I was going to get paid to figure out exactly where. Sweet!
Finding the Internet at JP Morgan turned out to be disappointingly easy. My boss directed me to a manager I’d never met named Dave Spector who was setting up the bank’s new external network. I found Dave in a nondescript cube two floors away. “Hit rn” he said when he saw me coming. My question was obviously familiar.
Unix was all about the two letter commands (vi was our editor, cc our C compiler, rm the dreaded remove all), so I knew what Dave Spector meant, though I’d been hoping for a longer conversation. I went back to my cube, hit rn and saw a screenful of newsgroup names. I paged through the thousands of selections and found the technical groups Tim English must have been referring to: comp.unix.internals, comp.unix.wizards, comp.databases.sybase. Then there were many, many, many other groups. There were biology groups, and history, and entertainment, film criticism, politics, philosophy, literature, music. I paged up and down, taking it all in: rec.music.dylan, alt.tv.twin-peaks, alt.postmodern, alt.rap, talk.politics.tibet, rec.arts.books, alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die. I had just fallen through the rabbit hole.
Usenet had been created fourteen years earlier, in 1979, when the Internet was ten years old. A team of computer scientists at Duke University and the University of North Carolina defined a naming protocol and access rules for free-form discussion groups between the schools, and then opened the system to anyone else who wanted to join. Like the Internet that carried it, Usenet had a slow but deliberate gestation. The main reason it took so long for Usenet and the Internet to catch on was that the operating systems of the time were a disparate mess and could not reliably manage TCP/IP traffic. The most Internet-capable operating system was Unix, which was also popular because it was free and open source. Wherever Unix went, the Internet and Usenet took root. By the late 1980s Unix had become the dominant operating system for corporations, colleges and government offices, and this is why the Internet happened in the early 1990s.
By the 1990s Usenet had already become a gigantic social network, and there were other equally strong online networks as well. Compuserve was a modem dial-up service that catered to the IBM/Microsoft PC-based community. America Online was an entertainment-oriented modem dial-up service that many Internet snobs found contemptibly trivial. Both were thriving. There were also various independent BBS services, and hobbyists were free to hack up their own inter-networks at will. Perhaps there was a moment during the early 1990s when the future of the Internet hung in the air.
If so, it was Linux that saved it in the early 90s. Until a skinny kid from Helsinki named Linus Torvalds coded up a high-quality PC implementation of Unix called Linux, you couldn’t easily run Unix without an expensive dedicated server. Now you could slap Linux onto the broken PC in your basement and be on the Internet from your bedroom. Once again, the adoption of the right operating system was the gating factor for the Internet’s success. Once Linux made Internet access affordable to broke geeks with cheap hardware, the race was over. Now America Online and Compuserve didn’t have a chance (AOL would eventually become an Internet service, and Compuserve disappeared).
Around the industry, other techies were stumbling onto Usenet just at the same time I was. Two days after my first rn, I got a call from my Sybase colleague Tony Leotta, who was stationed at Citibank across the street:
“Hey. There’s this thing where you get newsgroups. There’s a group called comp.databases.sybase you gotta check out.”
I told Tony I’d been there already. I’d found it two days before.
The Usenet ethic is “think before you talk”, but it didn’t take me long to attempt a post. My son Daniel was a two-year-old Barney fan in the summer of 1993, and I came up with a good joke about Min and the Stockholm Syndrome which I fired off to a cruel but likable group called alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die. Nobody responded. The next day I posted again, and again nobody responded. They all laughed at each other’s jokes but nobody laughed at mine. Finally I ran a test post on a test newsgroup (“if you can read this please respond”) and discovered that our Usenet connection was a one-way street. I ran to Dave Spector’s cube with this complaint. He looked me over and slipped me a different path to a different version of ‘rn’ that actually worked correctly. (This is typical network manager behavior).
But, in light of all the agonies that would face me in my future adventures on the internet, I think it’s funny that my very first experience on my very first social network was an experience of panicked alienation because I was being ignored. I really had no idea how much agony lay ahead.
I must have had a deep need at the time to discuss Bob Dylan’s lyrics, because I gradually became a regular at rec.music.dylan, along with several fascinating tech-aware Dylanologists like Stephen Scobie, a Vancouver professor who’d written a book called Alias about Dylan’s notions of identity, and Craig Jamieson, a Sanskrit scholar at Cambridge University who ran a large online Bob Dylan archive. I posted an extensive analysis of the obscure Bob Dylan film Renaldo and Clara, and I basked in the gratitude and praise I received. People liked what I wrote? That was a refreshing feeling.
It’s a weird fact that, having stumbled onto the Internet, I immediately decided that the primary purpose of the Internet in my life would be to enable me to discuss the work of Bob Dylan. I guess I had years and years of private thoughts about Dylan that I needed to get out of my system. The fact that the level of knowledge, insight and clever humor regularly displayed within this Usenet group further focused my new obsession. Still, it’s strange that my first reaction to the discovery of this exciting and future-oriented 1990s technology was that it would help me talk about a 1960s/1970s songwriter who hadn’t released a good record in the past ten years. I began using a Bob Dylan quote in my .sig, which looked like this:
------------------------------------------------------------- Marc Stein = email@example.com "twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift" -------------------------------------------------------------
I did have a few other interests besides Bob Dylan. The amazing David Lynch television drama “Twin Peaks” had recently concluded, and I was eager to discuss interpretations of this show on alt.tv.twinpeaks. I also hung out at alt.rap, where a very funny and talented amateur hiphop critic and MIT grad student named Charles Isbell aka the Homeboy from Hell was a regular poster. I sent my first-ever Internet fan email to Charles Isbell, and he politely wrote back. I also tried to make friends at rec.arts.books, but this newsgroup had a stuffy feel and never gathered much heat.
(Amusingly, the one set of Usenet forums that I never bothered to look at were the ones I’d been asked to set up Usenet access for: the highly active newsgroups on Linux, C++ and relational database design. These forums looked okay, but why would I want to talk about C++ when I could talk about Bob Dylan, David Lynch and Kool Moe Dee?)
Now that I knew my way around Usenet, I wanted to explore the other services described in Ed Krol’s The Whole Internet: User’s Guide and Catalog, which was still the only book about the Internet available in any store by the end of 1993, though many would be published in 1994. Telnet and FTP worked pretty well, and Archie and Gopher seemed pretty lame. Usenet and email were easily the biggest things on the Internet, though the book contained two chapters on up-and-coming Internet access tools that Ed Krol believed to have a lot of potential.
The first, and the one Ed Krol seemed most excited about, was an indexed Internet access architecture called WAIS (Wide Area Information Server). I tried to reach WAIS but couldn’t figure out the complicated interface, so I gave up.
Then, between pages 227 and 242 of his book Ed Krol described a new thing called the World-Wide Web, which used a format called “hypertext”. I couldn’t get the “browser” called Viola to work on the JP Morgan network. So I gave up on this one too, or so I thought.