Stories Told

Aging Netizen

It occurred to me today that I’ve been using e-mail for almost a quarter century. That’s more than half my life.

The lowly VT100

I first e-mailed at Rose-Hulman in 1985 on a VAX, using a VT100 terminal. My first e-mail was probably a request to an operator (what we now call a system administrator), but soon my friends and I all figured out that we could efficiently contact each other this way, seeing as all of us passed through the Computing Center several times a day. Yes, we had to go to a central location to read and write our e-mails. And there was no e-mail to computers other than the VAX; it wasn’t networked with anything. The very idea!

In 1989, a friend introduced me to Terre Haute’s computer bulletin board scene. A BBS was a computer that had software on it that served up e-mail, message forums, file shares, games, and chat rooms. You dialed into it with your modem; if somebody else was online, you got a busy signal and had to wait. There were many different BBS software platforms available, but most of the BBSes in Terre Haute used WWIV, which ran on DOS.

WWIV’s main menu

Terre Haute’s BBS community was large and active, and we had a lot of fun together online. We even started meeting in person. At first our gatherings were tentative and informal, but as we gelled we started having parties, summertime cookouts, and even a couple late-fall hog roasts. Those of us old enough to imbibe began meeting at a different local bar each week for a few brews. We called ourselves the Tuesday Night Drinking Society, and we had one rule: We never met on Tuesday.

At about the same time, the software company I worked for got connected to the Internet backbone (via a token-ring local network; remember those?). I’ve had more e-mail addresses than I can remember, but I’ll never forget my first one: jwg@acd4.acd.com. (I worked for Applied Computing Devices, Inc., hence acd.com. acd4 was our mail server’s name.) The first Internet e-mail I sent was to a friend who worked out in Silicon Valley, 2,000 miles away. I was amazed that I could write him a note and he could respond in seconds! We got no work done that afternoon as we e-mailed back and forth. It seems so commonplace today, but outside elite academic and scientific circles (which had had the Internet since the 1970s) this was as groundbreaking at the time as it was for a 1920s farmer to receive his first long-distance telephone call.

But the Internet was still all text-based. I had figured out how to make my beloved Emacs text editor handle e-mail and USENET feeds; I’m pretty sure I used gnus. USENET is a worldwide forum on any topic you can imagine. Oh my goodness, the time I sunk into discussions on USENET. You can still find many of those discussions thanks to Google Groups’ archive. Here’s the oldest one of my posts that I can find, from 1992, plus a 1994 post from a brief trip along US 40 in Ohio (from before my inner roadgeek was awakened). Anyway, Emacs and gnus are still around, but I haven’t used UNIX in 15 years; I have long since come to the dark side of Windows.

NCSA Mosaic logo

That happened in 1994 when I moved to Indianapolis and became an editor for the company that used to publish the …For Dummies books. That’s where I became aware of the World Wide Web, which had been born in about 1990 but didn’t really get anywhere until about 1993 when the NCSA Mosaic browser was born. I downloaded version 0.9 to my computers at work and at home and spent happy hours surfing the nascent Web. It’s hard to imagine now how small the Web was then – it was possible in 1994 to visit every page added to the Web each day. It’s also hard to imagine now a Web that was primarily static text with an occasional GIF or JPEG image thrown in.

This was the Web in 1994, kiddies

In the Web’s early days, you wrote your HTML by hand in a text editor. One of my fellow editors fought for about a year, but finally convinced the higher-ups that we needed to publish a how-to guide that demystified writing Web pages. When it came off the press in 1995, I got a copy and started building my first personal Web page. My dialup Internet account came with modest Web hosting, so I published it there.

That page evolved into my current Web presence at www.jimgrey.net. I no longer code my HTML by hand; I use Microsoft FrontPage. As the Internet has become a fixture in modern life, the amount of geekery I’ve been willing to employ in using it has dropped to almost zero, limited entirely to occasional HTML tweaking of my blog or personal site. I’ve grown lazy! I can’t imagine firing up Emacs to check my messages, using its arcane keyboard commands to get around, reading everything in monospaced text. I was willing to do that when the Internet was interesting as a technical toy. But today, what the Internet delivers is interesting and valuable, and I want the easiest and fastest way to access it. I hardly watch TV anymore, but I spend lots of time on YouTube and Hulu. At Christmastime, I set up Pandora to play endless holiday songs for my family. I keep up with my sons’ progress in school via an ANGEL Learning implementation (which, by the way, several of my colleagues helped build). When I need to know pretty much anything, I ask Google. And, of course, I still have discussions in forums and compulsively check my e-mail. The oldest applications of all this technology remain, I think, the best.

Read about how taking a speech class in high school launched me on my geek-ridden career.

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4 thoughts on “Aging Netizen

  1. Very interesting to this old techno-idiot who is tickled if things work, nevermind “how do they work?”
    Thanks for the journey into your travels through the cyberworld!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! I can’t believe how far the Internet has come. 20 years ago, we would have welcomed the technologies we have today, but not the ads. The Net was fiercely non-commercial then.

  2. anon says:

    you do realise emacs now supports a superset of unicode, antialiased fonts (also variable width fonts), images and work is under way on several fronts to support embeded widgets (ie, like a web browser/rendering engine like webkit).
    i know what it feels like looking back but the tools we used way back when haven’t all frozen in time, the good ones evolved, improved and survived.

    nice post

    • I haven’t fired up emacs since 1994, so I’ve really lost touch! Glad to hear it’s still alive and well, though. I really loved the tool.

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