The week of March 22, 2015

Remembering the ’net that was

By Kevin Morris

What did you read on the Internet a week ago today?

I don’t remember. I spend most of the day attached to the Internet. I look at my phone at stoplights, in the bathroom, walking down the street. It’s awful and all consuming and yet I can’t remember most of what I saw yesterday, much less a week ago. Now stretch that back further. Go back 10, 20 years (if you were even born yet, or old enough to go online). Recall the weird, glitch-like song-shriek of the 28.8kbs modem, the glow of a low-res gray CRT monitor loading up pixelated images on Netscape Navigator. Or even further: Green-text unix terminals with mechanical keyboards loading up messages from any of thousands of noisy newsgroups filled with chattering computer nerds and academics.

You might remember the sounds and sensations that defined your online rituals. That modem sound. The Netscape logo animation. The AltaVista homepage. But what actually happened online? All those millions of people spending millions of hours hammering away on keyboards were up to something. And some of it really mattered. Our past online selves laid out the foundations for the online culture we’ve inherited, or they changed—or even saved—people’s lives.

In 1982, for instance, Carnegie Mellon computer science student Scott Fahlman had an idea for showing emotion in text form. We’d later call it the smiley. Here’s what he suggested to the university’s computer science general board on Sept. 19:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
From: Scott E  Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use


From those two starting points the emoji spread and mutated into its thousand different forms that millions—more likely billions—of people now use on a daily basis.

Then there’s the case of Zhu Ling, a chemistry student at China’s prestigious Qinghua university, who fell sick with a mysterious and terrible illness. Doctors in Beijing were helpless to solve her case. That’s when two of her classmates loaded up their computers and sent out a literal SOS via Usenent. The response from doctors around the globe was overwhelming, and they soon had an answer: Thallium poisoning. Zhu Ling’s life would be saved, but the aftershocks of her unsolved poisoning case would rock the Chinese Internet decades later.

And let’s not forget The Anarchist’s Cookbook, the instruction manual for mindless bedlam that was spawned in the ’60s counter culture but really propagated into the mainstream thanks to the Internet. The book’s author has since disowned it and begged for publishers to stop printing it. But even if he could pull it from, say, Amazon, that would be like a single sandbag standing up to the unregulated information tidal wave of the Internet. Once it was let loose online, the Anarchist’s Cookbook was never going back in its box.

Information blinks in and out of existence so fast online it’s like we’re being trained to forget it. We move from one cute dog video to another. We hate-read one mad forum post and leave an angry comment and think nothing of it ever again. We downvote or upvote hundreds, thousands of times but can’t recall what. We become part of mass online social movements that force change or fizzle out of existence. And we forget it all.

But we shouldn’t. The history of the Internet matters. So sit back this weekend and join us on an exploration of the ‘net that was. Read about The Anarchist’s Cookbook and Zhu Ling and the origins of new forms of art. And do us a favor: Remember it.

Photo via Leif K-brooks/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman