My friend Robert is taking a MOOC on Internet History, and one of his assignments was to write up a personal internet history. Reading his confirmed that I’ve been a big ole geek for a long time. Plus, it sounded like fun, so I decided to write up one of my own.
But the first I have to change the parameters, because my history with the internet would barely tell the true story. I didn’t really discover the internet until the early 90s, but I was online starting in the mid 80s. Originally, I had been waiting for the computer add-on that was promised for the Atari 2600, but when that turned out to be vaporware, my first computer was a Commodore 64. I think that was 1985, when I was in sixth grade.
Eventually, I added on a 300 baud modem and began investigating the online services available at the time. Compuserve was popular across platforms, and I used it briefly, but it did not take advantage of the Commodore 64’s superior graphical capabilities (for the time, it really rocked those 64 bits). Quantum Link, or Q-Link as it was known, was the C64’s exclusive online service. The internet was still mostly an educational network, so these online services were walled gardens, but other than the universal connectivity, they had all of the hallmarks of later internet applications. There were chat rooms, where I first discovered emoticons and LOLs. There was e-mail. There were even online games, including a precursor to MMOs developed by Lucasfilm Games.
Late in high school, after an attempt to ride the Commodore wave into the C128, I gave up and joined the IBM clone (aka PC) tidal wave and got a 386. The next service I ended up on was GEnie. It was no-frills compared with Q-Link, but that was where I first delved into online forums. Their RoundTables had a roster of users who were like a Who’s Who of the science fiction world. Through the forums, I saw an interesting post where J. Michael Straczynski was teasing a show he called TWCNBN (That Which CanNot Be Named), which turned out to be Babylon 5. It’s also where I began to discover the knowledge base that develops around a large number of dedicated users being networked. There were in depth episode lists and analyses of cult television shows like Twin Peaks that would not have existed outside of fanzines several years earlier. So, yeah, when all the Lost-heads were scouring the episodes and gathering on forums to discuss their theories, I had a flashback to Twin Peaks twenty years earlier.
Concurrently to the big commercial online services, I began using local Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). These could do most of the things that the larger services did, only in a smaller pond. However, I mostly used them to download things. I didn’t get much into illegal warez, but I download quite a bit of shareware–the indie gaming development scene of the day. Most of them didn’t get much play, except for a multiplayer space conquest game called Anacreon, and the shooter Wolfenstein 3D which was the template for a little game known as Doom.
My first introductions to the actual internet were not auspicious. I think I was a freshman in college when I tried to TCP/IP for the first time and encountered an impenetrable wall of UNIX commands. I gave up pretty quickly. Later, GEnie introduced the Lynx text browser to interact with the burgeoning web. An all text web is quite a different experience than what we’ve got today. So I didn’t spend much time with that.
It wasn’t until Netscape came barreling onto the scene that I came fully onto the modern internet. And frankly, the whole thing is a blur and I don’t remember much about the transition. It seemed like one day “online” and “networks” were the stuff of nerds and science fiction, and the next, advertisers were sticking their urls all over their commercials. Suddenly, everything I’d done before on small networks was blown open, and could easily be accessed on the one ginormous internet. The walled garden networks still puttered along, the most popular AOL, becoming hugely successful before crashing under the new open model.
The one thing that the World Wide Web introduced that was utterly new was easy search. Before, I would have combed through multiple files or fora to find a bit of information. Then, with the advent of AltaVista and soon Google, I could find whatever struck my fancy with a few keystrokes. Like how I’ve fact-checked this post constantly as I’ve been writing it. Impossible when I was in high school, now simply a fact of life. It’s weird living in the future. Of course, I’ve been priming myself for the future since roughly 1985, so I’ve had a little head start.