(This is chapter four of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
By the beginning of 1994 the excellent Unix operating system had reached critical mass in the corporate offices, public organizations and schools of the world. It was still unavailable in most homes, though a new user-friendly version called Linux was beginning to show up in homes with geeks. Any computer that ran Unix or Linux was automatically wired for the Internet, so this new communication platform was poised to explode.
This explosion could have gone a variety of different ways, though. A variety of early Internet publishing standards (Archie, Jughead, WAIS, WWW) jockeyed for position as the user base swelled. Fragmentation might have appeared inevitable, but instead an amazing convergence on a single publishing standard took place between the summer of 1993 and the summer of 1994. The entire Internet community adopted a presentation protocol called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), a transport protocol called Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and an open linking system called the World-Wide Web. The speed and ease with which this complete convergence took place remains astonishing, and seems to have been almost magical.
Think of it this way: over at rec.music.dylan, we couldn’t agree on anything. A Dylan fan couldn’t wish another Dylan fan a happy birthday (“and may you stay forever young”) without starting a major flame war. Flame wars were absolutely rampant on the early Internet, and yet somehow everybody in every corner of the untamed Internet came to the web format. Fifteen years later, we’re still using it exclusively.
HTML, HTTP and the World-Wide Web were invented by a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee while he was consulting at CERN, a large nuclear physics research center in Geneva, Switzerland (his supervisor wrote “Vague, but exciting” on the first draft of Berners-Lee’s “hypertext web” proposal in 1989).
A research center at Stanford University in Northern California — the school that had historically connected with University of California at Los Angeles to activate the Internet in 1969 — now had the honor in December 1991 of being the first organization outside of CERN to run a public web server. With Stanford and CERN linking back and forth, Berners-Lee’s hypothetical web had suddenly become an actual web. Many other organizations quickly joined the fun.
But the WWW couldn’t take off until a chubby kid named Marc Andreessen, an entry-level computer scientist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications invented Mosaic, the first widely popular web browser. Andreessen’s elegant design encouraged the use of graphic images, and the first “wave” rippled across the web development community as a world of text-only sites began adding graphics so they could “look cool on Mosaic”. There would be many waves to follow.
I first saw Mosaic at JP Morgan, and it certainly was love at first sight. I struggled at home to connect my cruddy old Mac notebook or clunky 486 PC to the Internet so I could check out the new Beastie Boys Homepage, or a library catalog, or a growing directory at http://akebono.stanford.edu that called itself “Yahoo”. I finally achieved connectivity (it wasn’t easy) and spent night after night exploring the web, thinking about creating a site of my own.
The spring of 1994 was a happy time for me. Just as the World-Wide Web was exploding, in some way I felt my own life was exploding, or at least had become very exciting. Meg was pregnant, my short story “Jeannie Might Know” had just been published in InterText, and my book contract with McGraw-Hill was nearly finalized. At work, I had begged my consulting manager to get me out of the dreary JP Morgan project, which I just couldn’t stand anymore, and began doing shorter and punchier assignments at Smith Barney Shearson and Reuters. Everywhere I went, the techies I worked with were all discovering the web, talking about it, trading Mosaic tips … all of us energized by what the future might bring, and what opportunities this might present for us as software developers.
There seemed to be something fresh in the air, but there were malevolent breezes too. On Friday morning on the 8th of April I read a strange article in the New York Times: anarchy had broken out in Rwanda, and machete-wielding gangs were carrying out vast massacres of entire families, entire villages. This seemed particularly brutal and inexplicable and I didn’t understand exactly what the strange article was saying.
Later that same day, the news broke that Kurt Cobain’s dead body had been found. He had shot himself in the head three days earlier.
Kurt Cobain’s death certainly meant nothing compared to the unbelievable horrors in Rwanda, which I followed closely in the news over the next few months, feeling helpless, wondering “whatever happened to never again?”. I thought a lot about Cobain too, and thought a lot of heavy thoughts. I was also reading a lot — Jack Kerouac, Joseph Conrad, James Joyce, Paul Auster.
It never occurred to me at this point that I was about to create a website about literature, or about the Beat Generation. But I had recently become enraptured by a biography of Jack Kerouac, Kerouac by Ann Charters. I had loved several of Kerouac’s books, but I found his own (sad) life story possibly the most compelling story of them all. Jack Kerouac was not popular among readers at this time, and most people had not heard of him. Just as there were only two or three books about the Internet in early 1994, there were only two or three books about Jack Kerouac, and Ann Charters’ biography was the one that sealed my fascination with this enigmatic writer.
I was in a busy, dizzy state of mind in the late spring and summer of 1994. I occasionally thought about building a website, but I was in no rush to get started; I was having enough fun reading other people’s pages. I got off the subway one night after work at the 71st Continental Ave/Forest Hills stop and walked home along Queens Boulevard, stopping at the Pioneer supermarket on 68th Road to buy some frozen yogurt, milk, polenta and spaghetti sauce. I was in the spaghetti sauce aisle trying to choose between Ragu and Prego when suddenly two words popped into my head: Literary Kicks. I remember the moment distinctly. It wasn’t as if I thought of these words, but rather it was as if the website I’d been imagining in my head suddenly told me its name.
That could work, I thought. I wondered what type of website it would be, as I stood there contemplating the tomato sauce. I ended up choosing the Ragu.