The week of March 22, 2015

Behind the Internet’s first magazine

By Kevin Morris

It’s 1995 and a pair of Rice University undergrads are performing intelligence tests on Twinkies. This is something like science. The students already let loose one of the tubular cakes from the top of a six-story building, finding it surprisingly resistant to concrete. Another one they “liquified” to test its density, and from this they learned that 60 percent of a Twinkie is simply air, surely one of the major discoveries relating to sponge-cake snack foods in the 20th century.

Now they’ve got a human test subject and a Twinkie test subject behind a curtain, and they’re asking them questions. “What would you describe as the purpose of your existence?” they ask both. “To woo women,” one subject replies. The other is silent. “How do you feel about your mother?” the scientists ask. “She gives me money; I like her,” the one says. The other stays silent.

This is a modified version of the Turing test. The idea is to ask a computer and a human the same set of questions and see if there’s anything that distinguishes the two minds. The silence is suspicious. The students conclude that the Twinkie is not intelligent. They let the human subject eat the cake subject, and they move on.

• • •

This is 1995, and if you’re getting online, you’re doing it over dial-up. Your top-of-the-line computer is an Intel Pentium-100 running at a blistering 100 megahertz with 20 megabytes of RAM and 1.6 gigabytes of storage. You’re looking at Windows 95 at 800 by 600 resolution on a convex 14-inch CRT monitor, and you’re dialing up to the Internet on a 28 kilobytes-a-second modem that unfurls images on Netscape Navigator so slowly it’s like they’re actually being drawn right before your eyes, line of pixels by line of pixels.

The Internet is in its infancy, or maybe its adolescence. The early ‘net was green pixelated text on Unix machines, anarchic newsgroups united via phone lines into a network called Usenet. But now the Internet is breaking out. The Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (http), invented by Englishman Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, has liberated the Internet from the newsgroup, laying the foundation for a ‘net that begins and ends with the browser.

The early ‘net was green pixelated text on Unix machines, anarchic newsgroups united via phone lines into a network called Usenet.

The world is getting online, and strange things are happening. A new, anarchic culture is spawning. Awkward geniuses and weirdos and social malcontents are pulling themselves into the relative sunlight of the anonymous Web. People are building new communities based on weird, secret passions. There are furries and otherkin and devotees of mostly forgotten religions. And then there are the people exploiting the unrestricted speech of the ‘net to test creative limits.

If you’re Chris Gouge and Todd Stadler, you take the results of your Twinkie experiments online and quickly become one of the world’s first viral phenomena.

• • •

Nowadays, a million tweets and Facebook posts would greet their success. A hundred different news articles would be written about them. But in 1995, there was only one place that was digging deep into the Internet’s weird and porn-saturated underbelly. Earlier that year, a magazine publisher in Chicago made a gamble. He pulled a few editors from his other publications and assigned them a task: Publish a magazine about the Internet.

In December 1995, the Internet Underground launched its first issue.

It included a piece on Gouge and Stadler. Their inane but somehow still edifying experiments had transformed them into Internet celebrities. A NASA engineer gave them his stamp of approval. “A lot of people have sent us mail saying this was the best use of the ‘net,” Gouge told the magazine.

Rob Bernstein was there from the beginning. A graduate of Amherst College, he was working at a magazine publisher called Sendai Media when his editor gave him the new task at the head of a magazine about the Internet. He saw the magazine become the definitive work of journalism about the Internet, then rode the wave after it was incorporated by mega-publisher Ziff Davis and folded into the mainstream focused Yahoo! Internet Life.

We caught up with Bernstein, now senior vice president of digital content for WWE, and asked about what it was like covering the early days of the Internet from the trenches.

How do you remember the Internet of the mid-Nineties?

I remember the early Internet adopters as people with ideas. At the time there was a lot of a trivial content. But it was all just people learning how to use this thing.

You had the Twinkie Project. You had Pavement Terror, a guy whose car would backfire really loud. He just thought it would be funny to experiment with a digital camera, and he’d drive by people, and when the car backfired, he’d take a snapshot, and he had this hilarious collection of people just freaking out.

Internet Underground was this celebration of this relatively lawless, boundless network of ideas we call the Internet.”

Again, it was just people experimenting. Having fun. Generating ideas. Figuring out how to have this thing used.

At that time there wasn’t a lot of bandwidth out there yet. So people had to be really careful figuring things out. There was no streaming video [or] audio. It was all pretty basic HTML. Back then it was like this playground that no one had really discovered yet. I think everyone playing around on the Internet knew it would be co-opted by business, larger media organizations, and government. At the time it was just a playspace.

So what happened to the Internet Underground? Why did you shut down?

Ziff Davis came along and published it. And they were already publishing something called Yahoo! Internet Life. And it didn’t make sense for them to have two different publications. Then they folded it into Yahoo! Internet Life, and I worked on that for five years.

So the Internet Underground survived, to a certain degree. What it made it special though? What made it stand apart from the Yahoo! magazine?

Internet Underground was this celebration of this relatively lawless, boundless network of ideas we call the Internet.

It assumed two things about its audience: 1) You were a fan [and] 2) you knew how to use it. Otherwise the magazine would haven’t have made much sense to you.

We were celebrating this fascinating intersection of ideas and creativity; it was a platform for creators. Yahoo! Internet Life was basically TV Guide for the Internet—much more organized, and honestly much more useful than Internet Underground.

What were some of the earlier Internet beats you covered?

It’s funny; you look back at Internet Underground and some of the issues we covered look so quaint now—the battle over domain names. .biz, .sex. But for us at the time, the really big scourge was spam. These scammers hitting inboxes with hundreds of thousands of spam mail. I remember the big issue was: How do you filter this? What was interesting, you had these vigilantes who’d go out posting the addresses and phone numbers of spammers. Just taking the law into their own hands because there was no way to deal with it. It really was lawless.

“Do I miss the lawlessness? A little, but it’s still out there. And it’s not always good.”

What were your favorite articles?

One was called “A Fistful of Spam.” In that feature we looked more closely at the war that was raging between these entrepreneurs trying to sell things by spamming inboxes and anti-spam privacy rights advocates taking the law into their own hands because nobody was there trying to protect them. And it turned into this amazing flame war. It was just a really interesting story of these polarizing figures going head to head in this space.

It was an unfortunate naming convention for Hormel that one of their prime products was associated with spam. We visited their facilities in Austin, Minn., and toured their factory and they stressed that spam wasn’t a fair term for junk mail. I think we were given one of the first ever tours of the spam factory itself, a bizarre Wonka-esque facility. I remember there was thing called a hydrostatic cooker: Meat went into a can, it would go up and down the conveyor belt, up six stories and down six stories, and it would cook the meat in the can.

Do you miss the old Internet, the way things used to be?

I don’t. I look back fondly on it, like I do some of my early years as a teenager, which were awkward and painful, but I have good memories about them. The Internet has matured so nicely. Do I miss the lawlessness? A little, but it’s still out there. And it’s not always good.

But you know, the breadth of content is amazing. and the platform as video distribution is amazing. I couldn’t live without it. If I had to go back in time, I don’t know what I’d do. As cool as the Twinkie project was.

Photo via Don O’Brien/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed