Twenty Years Online

This month marks the 20th anniversary of my first Internet account. I don’t remember the exact date but I know it was in late summer 1993, right before what became known as “Eternal September”. The Internet wasn’t new, but it still wasn’t on most people’s proverbial “radars”.

Had heard one of my professors, Kevin Tuite, talk about the Internet as a system through which people from all over the World were communicating. Among the examples Tuite gave of possibilities offered by the ‘Net were conversations among people from former Soviet Republics, during this period of broad transitions. As a specialist of Svaneti, in present-day Georgia, Kevin was particularly interested in these conversations.

During that fated Summer of ‘93, I was getting ready to begin the last year of my B.Sc. in anthropology, specializing in linguistic anthropology and ethnomusicology. As I had done during previous summers, I was working BOH at a French restaurant. But, in my free time, I was exploring a brand new world.

In retrospect, it might not be a complete coincidence that my then-girlfriend of four years left me during that Fall 1993 semester.

It started with a local BBS, WAJU (“We Are Joining You”). I’m not exactly sure when I got started, but I remember being on WAJU in July. Had first been lent a 300 baud modem but I quickly switched to a 2400 baud one. My current ISP plan is 15Mbps, literally 50,000 times faster than my original connection.

By August 1993, thanks to the aforementioned Kevin Tuite, I was able to get an account on UdeM’s ERE network, meant for teaching and research (it stood for «Environnement de recherche et d’enseignement»). That network was running on SGI machines which weren’t really meant to handle large numbers of external connections. But it worked for my purpose of processing email (through Pine), Usenet newsgroups, FTP downloads (sometimes through Archie), IRC sessions, individual chats (though Talk), Gopher sites, and other things via Telnet. As much as possible, I did all of these things from campus, through one of the computer rooms, which offered amazingly fast connections (especially compared to my 2.4kbps modem). I spent enough time in those computer rooms that I still remember a distinct smell from them.

However, at some point during that period, I was able to hack a PPP connection going through my ERE account. In fact, I ended up helping some other people (including a few professors) do the same. It then meant we could use native applications to access the ’Net from home and, eventually, browse the Web graphically.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By the time I got online, NCSA Mosaic hadn’t been released. In fact, it took a little while before I even heard of the “World Wide Web”. I seem to remember that I only started browsing the Web in 1994. At the same time, I’m pretty sure one of my most online-savvy friends (likely Alex Burton or Martin Dupras) had told me about the Web as soon as version 1.0 of Mosaic was out, or even before.

The Web was a huge improvement, to be sure. But it was neither the beginning nor the end of the ‘Net, for those of us who had been there a little while. Yes, even a few months. Keep in mind that, at the time, there weren’t that many sites, on the Web. Sure, most universities had a Web presence and many people with accounts on university networks had opportunities to create homepages. But there’s a reason there could be Web directories (strongly associated with Yahoo!, now, but quite common at the time). Pages were “static” and there wasn’t much which was “social” on the Web, at the time.

But the ’Net as a whole was very social. At least, for the budding ethnographer that I was, the rest of the ‘Net was a much more interesting context for observation than the Web. Especially newsgroups and mailinglists.

Especially since the ‘Net was going through one of its first demographic explosions. Some AOLers were flooding the ‘Net. Perhaps more importantly, newbie bashing was peaking and comments against AOL or other inexperienced “Netizens” were frequently heard. I personally heard a lot more from people complaining about AOL than from anyone accessing the ’Net through AOL.

Something about the influx which was clear, though, is that the “democratization” was being accompanied by commercialization. A culture of open sharing was being replaced by corporate culture. Free culture was being preempted by a culture of advertising. The first .com domains were almost a novelty, in a ‘Net full of country-specific domains along with lots of .edu, .net, .org, .gov, and even .mil servers.

The ‘Net wasn’t yet about “paying for content”. That would come a few years later, when media properties pushed “user-generated content” into its own category (instead of representing most of what was available online). The ‘Net of the mid-1990s was about gaining as much attention as possible. We’re still in that mode, of course. But the contrast was striking. Casual conversations were in danger of getting drowned by megaphones. The billboard overtook the café. With the shift, a strong sense of antagonism emerged. The sense of belonging to a community of early adopters increased with the sense of being attacked by old “media types”. People less interested in sharing knowledge and more interested in conveying their own corporate messages. Not that individuals had been agenda-free until that point. But there was a big difference between geeks arguing about strongly-held opinions and “brands” being pushed onto the scene.

Early on, the thing I thought the Internet would most likely disrupt was journalism. I had a problem with journalism so, when I saw how the ‘Net could provide increased access to information, I was sure it’d imply a reappropriation of news by people themselves, with everything this means in the spread of critical thinking skills. Some of this has happened, to an extent. But media consolidation had probably a more critical role to play in journalism’s current crisis than online communication. Although, I like to think of these things as complex systems of interrelated trends and tendencies instead of straightforward causal scenarios.

In such a situation, the ‘Net becoming more like a set of conventional mass media channels was bad news. More specifically, the logic of “getting your corporate message across” was quite offputting to a crowd used to more casual (though often heated and loud) conversations. What comes to mind is a large agora with thousands of people having thousands of separate conversations being taken over by a massive PA system. Regardless of the content of the message being broadcast by this PA system, the effect is beyond annoying.

Through all of this, I distinctly remember mid-April, 1994. At that time, the Internet changed.  One might say it never recovered.

At that time, two unscrupulous lawyers sent the first commercial spam on Usenet newsgroups. They apparently made a rather large sum of money from their action but, more importantly, they ended the “Netiquette” era. From this point on, a conflict has emerged between those who use and those who abuse the ‘Net. Yes, strong words. But I sincerely think they’re fitting. Spammers are like Internet’s cancer. They may “serve a function” and may inspire awe. Mostly, though, they’re “cells gone rogue”. Not that I’m saying the ‘Net was free of disease before this “Green Card lottery” moment. For one thing, it’s possible (though unlikely) that flamewars were somewhat more virulent then than they are now. It’s just that the list of known online woes expanded quickly with the addition of cancer-like diseases. From annoying Usenet spam, we went rather rapidly to all sorts of malevolent large-scale actions. Whatever we end up doing online, we carry the shadow of such actions.

Despite how it may sound, my stance isn’t primarily moral. It’s really about a shift from a “conversational” mode to a “mass media” one. Spammers exploited Usenet by using it as a “mass media” channel, at a time when most people online were using it as a large set of “many-to-many” channels.

The distinction between Usenet spam and legitimate advertising may be extremely important, to a very large number of people. But the gates spammers opened were the same ones advertisers have been using ever since.

My nostalgia of the early Internet has a lot to do with this shift. I know we gained a lot, in the meantime. I enjoy many benefits from the “democratization” of the ‘Net. I wouldn’t trade the current online services and tools for those I was using in August, 1993. But I do long for a cancer-free Internet.

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