The week of May 15, 2016

Milestones—and tombstones

By Jesse Hicks

It’s a truism in tech circles that today’s innovator can easily become tomorrow’s roadkill, overtaken by the frenetic pace of digital progress. Internet history is littered with flameouts and fadeaways, the onetime pioneers that got there first, only to see themselves passed by on the way to the future. In this issue of the Kernel we’re unearthing those often-unheralded firsts, as well as a project that has managed to hang on long past the point anyone thought it could.

First up, Tonya Riley looks at Inkpop, once lauded as the first crowdsourced publishing community backed by a major book publisher. The idea was simple: Set up a site where would-be writers could practice their craft and share it with the community. Members would vote on their favorites, providing valuable marketing feedback for the publisher; in exchange, the most popular stories would be reviewed by professional editors—and maybe even earn a book deal. And those books would have a built-in market: all the Inkpop members who’d supported them. It seemed like a win-win, but as Riley recounts, it wasn’t all that simple.

Do you remember FriendFeed? Probably not, but it’s the company that brought you that ubiquitous symbol of social media, the “Like” button. As Corinne Litchfield reports, the site was also the first to provide real-time status updates, as part of its mission to “to glue together the web.” Rather than trying to become the only social network, it tied together many that already existed—and, for users who still mourn its demise, provided a unique community they’ve never been able to re-create.

And finally, David Bixenspan shares a tale of dogged perseverance: the last wrestling hotline still in operation. You might hazily recall the era of the 900 number, when, for a price, you could pick up the phone and listen to, for example, customized messages from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. These were pre-Internet days, and 900 lines were often an inexpensive, lo-fi way to reach a wide audience. One audience that really took to the idea was wrestling fans, who dialed in for the latest news, gossip, and rants from performers. Of course, 900 lines are largely extinct today, but Bixenspan tells the tale of one Queens man keeping his wrestling hotline alive.

Enjoy the issue.


Illustration via Max Fleishman