Thursday, February 18, 2010

You, Disconnected

That cheesy seventies flick Logan's Run is proving to be a pretty good predictor of the future. I'm not referring to tacky DayGlo mumus or that whole "death after thirty" thing. I'm talking about the film's depiction of The Circuit. Remember that scene?
"Imagine a world in which you need never be alone. You touch a switch, turn a dial, and the perfect lover steps into your arms" [film trailer link].
The fantasy of instant connection, with interactive vividness and editable boundaries, is Logan's Run's promise of the 23rd century. Certainly it'll be awhile before we can shop for real live humans, inviting strangers to step into our rooms. But at least there's Chatroulette.

Check out my video of Chatroulette encounters [select HD for best quality]:

The wildly popular micro-social networking site, growing so rapidly that some analysts believe it's already passed the so cool-so lame threshold, has shimmered on my mental periphery for a few weeks, but I only had time last night to play.

In case you're unfamiliar with the site, Chatroulette is a bare bones webcam network, supposedly invented by a Moscow teenager [NYT story], that lets you hook up with random strangers worldwide for Single-Serving Friendships, lightly voyeuristic displays, or disturbingly kinky encounters.

Like the looks of this person? Stick around.

Feeling mildly freaked? Or annoyed? Or bored? Click to the next one.

I messed around with Chatroulette for a few hours last night. Jenny, of course, was not impressed. She looked over my shoulder for a few minutes and then marched off to bed, announcing that the whole idea creeps her out.

The next morning, I'm flipping through screen captures I surreptitiously grabbed with my laptop (it's amazing how easy it is to sexualize human-computer interaction). The screen-grabs are souvenirs of fellow-travelers willing to share after-hours microbursts of connection with me on the Circuit (one New York Magazine author citing the "Twitter-fication of face-to-face interaction" [link]). I can still see them.

Oh, and the penises. Lots of penises. I definitely remember a few of those. I'm writing this post now with the application open, occasionally peaking at the Chatroulette page for inspiration. About one in 20 clicks yields some guy's junk, usually being furiously yanked. Sometimes the scene is less overt though: maybe an underwear-covered crotch or a set of exposed abs, flexed, waiting...

Most Chatroulette clicks produce video-snapshots of grainy faced guys sitting alone in the dark, a hand stretched out of view. Wait long enough and one will stare intently into the camera. A two-tone chirp and then a red-text "Hi" pops up in the chat window.

Where's that "Next" button?
> You disconnected.
A brief wait as the next link is made. Then -
> Connected, feel free to talk now
A hipster surveys me and renders his judgment: "a big bushy beard." It takes me a while to connect the audio, but this dude's not in the mood for difficult dialogues. He's made his evaluation and there's nothing left to say. I decide to shave a bit later, realizing that I can't schlub my way around here. Most early adopters have already learned to frame themselves memorably. Not professionally in any sense, but with some style.


Kermit the Frog is masturbating to a video of plus-sized porn stars. A woman plops a mound of stomach flesh on a guy standing on all fours; Kermit gasps in amphibian pleasure. I've quickly learned why one author has described [link] Chatroulette as "like inviting pedophiles into your home."

While the site has been active for about three months, it's only crested public consciousness over the past few weeks. And I just know a hundred local television affiliates are racing to wrap up their newest iterations of "Do You Know What Your Kids Are Doing Online?" stories, with Chatroulette serving up the tangiest sweat of moral panic.


A photo this time: a bug-eyed infant. The sign reads "T**s for hungry baby." There are a lot of those actually, men and boys trolling for flashers. One guy writes, "I'll do ANYTHING for boobs." I come across a couple women who seem willing, but I don't care enough to ask. A Guardian writer opines [link]: "we seem to spend more time in our tribes and yet [are] happier than ever to let strangers glimpse our lives." No thanks. Not that kind of glimpse.


A teenage girl twirls her hair. She creases her brow, a nanosecond judgment, and the screen goes black.
> Your partner disconnected. Press "Next" to find a new person!
I get a lot of those, which is a little depressing. But I'm no better. Lots of folks suffer the indignity of my disconnects too, and sometimes for the silliest reasons. For example, I click-diss people who lack a sense of composition. That's right: new media demand new aesthetics. Position your head in a tiny quadrant of the screen? You won't last long with me. Too much negative space weirds me out.


Another penis. Oh, and this time he's going for a money shot.


A girl at a party. She smiles and lights a joint, blowing smoke in my video-screen face. This one's much cheerier than the girl who castigated me three or four clicks back. One look and she turned to her pal, pronouncing, "This one is quite elderly," before addressing me directly: "Why are you here with us? Think of your daughters." A few clicks later and I'm at another party of teenage twinks. One squeals, "Dad! I thought I told you to stay off this thing!"

Is it my -?


Chatroulette's night rhythm is a stream of eye-blink moments. Automate the next-click option and one stranger after another peers into my life. An Internet Tough Guy menaces, "What the f*** you lookin' at, man?" Click. A girl in panties lays next to her naked boyfriend. Click. A blurry, pixelated dude, his face eerily luminescent, like he's beamed in from a 60s'-era lunar broadcast, dangles a bag of weed from his fingers. Click. An older guy nods and offers a wan thumbs-up. Click. A hottie wearing a tight leather mini-skirt -
> You disconnected.
Ooops! What did I just miss? Oh well, no time for regrets. Now some guy is hoisting a squeeze-bottle. It's brimming with a thick green substance. He's about to squeeze. He smiles.
> You disconnected.
> Looking for a random stranger...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dont h8: Keyboard Got Me LOLing

A fullsize keyboard for folks who write in LOLs has arrived. It's called the Fast Finger Keyboard, and it offers a host of TextTalk options under the function keys, everything from ASAP to TTYL. The keyboard also allows you to switch from QWERTY to A-Z formats.

Of course, I'm waiting for Version 2, which features automatic English-to-TextTalk translation.

Learn more: Fast Finger website

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Overpass Mecca Part 1

Despite hectic schedules and lousy weather, Jenny and I have been looking for opportunities to return to our light painting experiments, and finally we found time to get back on the road this past weekend. Better still, we focused on one of Jenny's photographic goals, taking pictures of overpasses. The results suggest a terrific site for future shoots.

Jenny often says how much she loves things that tower over her. That's one reason she digs our trips to Monument Valley; she's inspired by soaring expressions of natural or human power. So she recommended that we turn our camera toward San José for a reasonably close urban approximation of that feeling. For me it was an obvious choice. I too am drawn to highway overpasses as sweeping icons of omnitopia. Thus we began our trip with a sense of optimism.

Conducting no research on an ideal shooting site (a common lament for us) we nonetheless agreed that we required a place where we could safely park with plenty of compositional opportunities. In short, a cluster of overpasses twisting around each other. Beyond that, we were unsure of our specific itinerary as we cruised over the hill. Luck for us, our first stop far surpassed our ambitions: an intersection of Highway 85 and 87 that even has a no-fee lightrail station parking lot.

View Larger Map

For about four hours we took turns and practiced techniques, struggling (as ever) with long distance/low-light focus issues and the need to establish a proper white balance in a zone flooded with ugly yellow sodium lights. The results reminded me of mid-century futurism: a world of blurred cars amid urban canyons.

I can't wait to get back to that retro tomorrow.

Update: Overpass Mecca Part 2

(Photographs by Andrew and Jenny Wood)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Fun Post: "I Know"

Looking forward to Sunday's delightful Valentine's Day with Jenny.

Oh, yes. There will be fondue. But no getting frozen in carbonite. I'm just not that cool.

(Image by Garrison Dean. Check out his other cards)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Shameless Media Plug - KNTV NBC 11 TV and Hitler's Downfall Videos

KNTV NBC 11's Vicky Nguyen interviewed me yesterday at a Los Gatos coffee shop about those near-ubiquitous "Hitler's Downfall" videos that have cropped up on YouTube since 2006. While new one about Jerry Brown's inevitable California governor-bid [link] was the hook for Nguyen's piece, I enjoyed the opportunity to consider the broader implications of this phenomenon.

Tolerating my academic tendency toward pseudo-profundity, Nguyen managed an interview where we explored why so many people enjoy Hitler's Downfall videos as guilty pleasures. Our chat covered a lot of ground ranging from Andy Warhol's iconography of Marilyn Monroe to Kenneth Burke's "God and Devil terms" to other historical villains who have become mutable, editable constructs.

In comments that didn't make the final piece, I analyzed one component of the humor found (for some folks) in Hitler's Downfall videos: humorous juxtaposition. In other words, producers create an absurd mash-up of a raging mass murderer set to die in a bunker against an ever-growing array of goofily insignificant, contemporary topics: Jay Leno retaking The Tonight Show, the fact that Apple's iPad lacks a camera, that sort of thing. From that perspective, I attempted to explain the role of irony in the videos' humor.

Ultimately, though, I took a more critical tack, arguing that the pleasure that flows from ripping Devil-term figures from their historical contexts, the power to flatten history into a collection of interchangeable texts, comes with a price. While I regret my generational focus (referring to a "point and click" age group - Blerg!), I feel comfortable with one conclusion that made its way into the story: "[Hitler's Downfall re-producers] might look at Hitler as Genghis Khan or Napoleon or some sort of figure we can transform into a plaything, but the people who forget this really happened are the folks most surprised it could happen again." [Note: This is from the written version; the video version used different quotes.]

And yes, I cited George Santayana.

KNTV NBC 11 Video: Hitler Video Goes Viral

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Shot-by-Shot Analysis: Jared Pandora

We've got a trifecta with this ad for cheesy baubles: consumerist-romance, gadget obsession, and obnoxious kids!

We open with an establishing shot of three girls sitting at home, playing with mobile devices. The camera gently shakes and jitters to convey homemade naturalism.

The youngest girl plays with a handheld game. The slightly older girl taps on a mobile phone. The big sister types on a laptop computer.

Keeping her eyes glued on her laptop screen, the older girl asks her sisters, "Did Dad go to Jared for the Pandora bracelet like we told him?"

The youngest girl, having put down her game, searches for signs of her parents' interaction in the living room:

"I - I can't tell."

We then see a medium close-up of Mom and Dad on the couch. Mom opens a case, revealing a godawful ugly charm bracelet (not that the jewelry's aesthetics are important in this post):

"Oh, honey!"

We return to the girls. The big sister smiles, her eyes still locked on that laptop: "Oh, yeah. He went to Jered."

The second-oldest also continues focusing on her device: "He totally went to Jared."

A voice-over calls on viewers to "Celebrate life's unforgettable moments with Pandora charms and bracelets" One is labeled, "Our 3 daughters."

A brief musical flourish accompanies a return to the living room where Mom launches across the couch to hug Dad.

The daughters trill at the sweet scene, even pulling themselves away from their electronic toys for a moment.

Big sister then marshals the kind of condescension that only a teenager can possess, "They're so cute at that age."

Difficulty seeing the spot? Point your browser here:

The spot is dated September 30, 2009 and attributed to Stern Advertising.

One final thought: Is it just me, or doesn't "Jared Pandora" sound like a Star Wars character?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wood Writing Guide: Hopefully

What's the deal with the word "hopefully"? Chances are you never thought much about it, but the word, which seems so optimistic, is mired in controversy. When can you properly use it? Well, it depends on whom you ask. But its most common use, saying something like "it is hoped," draws clucks from many would-be purists. Just to clarify, here's a potentially offending phrase:
Hopefully you read Geoffrey K. Pullum's evisceration of The Elements of Style.
Write something like that, and you may get eviscerated! In his post about sentence-adverbs [link], Richard Nordquist recalls that NBC correspondent Edwin Newman supposedly hung a sign in his office warning wayward writers, "Abandon Hopefully All Ye Who Enter Here." Strunk and White also heaped vitriol on any usage of "hopefully" not referring to acting or feeling "in a hopeful manner." They'd prefer something like the following:
Expecting to purify myself of wordy prose, I read The Elements of Style hopefully.
This articulation does indeed deliver a lovely sentiment, while the more common usage suggests wishy-washyness, if not outright incorrectness.
Hopefully I'll get to the point of this post, but, really, you never know.
So I turned to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary. After all, why would a dictionary lie to a person? Turns out, there are two correct uses of "hopefully." The first and oldest, "in a hopeful manner," is followed by a second acceptable usage, "it is hoped" (though the OED cautions that this usage originated in the United States and is "[a]voided by many writers").

I choose to continue using the word in both its meanings. "Hopefully" may have entered the lexicon "in a hopeful manner," but the word has evolved to convey a message that, despite its indecisive nature, sometimes makes its point most efficiently.

If I had one preference, though, it's that we could relax on using "hopefully" by accepting a more rigid rule for commas. Consider the following options:
Hopefully, I will attend the funeral.
Hopefully I will attend the funeral.
I think it's reasonable to rely upon comma placement to interpret both sentences. The first example's comma adds sufficient pause to suggest a degree of irony ("I go to the funeral with a hopeful attitude"). The second example's lack of comma can then communicate a default meaning ("It is hoped that I will show up"). Commas can be handy that way, as long as they're used consistently.

Even so, given that we lack common agreement on comma usage, I conclude with the OED: "Hopefully" is OK, so long as it communicates your intention without undue confusion.

Hopefully you'll agree.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Did you see that?

Bob Greene posted an interesting piece about the impact of instant replay upon our experience of life, using yesterday's Super Bowl to make a larger point about today's media saturated experience. While his historical trajectory from television sports to video-centered weddings is a bit threadbare, Greene nonetheless spins a good yarn.

His article reminds readers of an era before the constant presence of the instant replay, when if you missed the field goal, you missed it. Then in 1963, he says, a CBS sports director used fledgling video tape technology to repeat a touchdown during a televised Army-Navy game. Greene recalls the announcer shouting, "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!"

The article makes a broader point that instant replay helped foster the kinds of technology that dislocate us from reality, transforming time into a mutable prop. For Greene, "there is this nagging feeling that real life has been converted into a series of moments that are no longer expected to be here and gone, but instead are regarded as first run-throughs: performances that will be witnessed repeatedly, on demand." It's no surprise, I should add, that "On Demand" is the wave of our media future.

We live much of our lives as directors, aided especially by now-ubiquitous mobile phone technology. We establish shots, call action, crop excess, and loop meaning. Add the persistent scrutiny of security cameras and, as Greene notes, "you're on stage more constantly than Milton Berle or Lucille Ball ever were in the early days of television." [Of course, I'm even more amazed that readers under 20 may not even recognize those names.]

Watching yesterday's Super Bowl, amid the dawning awareness that the Saints would deploy gutsy plays to crush an opposing Colts team that had been widely favored to win, I observed much of Greene's argument in action. Lounging in my easy chair with an open laptop on my legs (my feet anchored by a heavy sleeping cat) I fiddled with Facebook, followed some trending news items, and read a few online articles I'd stored from the week. The Super Bowl was just another piece of stimulus.

The game was on - vivid on my flatscreen and pumping through the speakers - but I watched with little intensity. Heck, with the amount of times I used DVR to rewatch an interesting commercial, I often sought the reassurance of my clicker's "Live" button to confirm my in-sync status with the world. And even then, the experience was remote.

Bob Greene is right. The control we get from these devices, the on-demand reality they convey, is fleeting at best.

Read the entire piece: Curse of the Instant Replay

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Fun Post: Batman & Robin Comic Generator

It's Friday. It's been a long week. It's time to create a Batman comic!

Try it for yourself - Point your browser here:

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Attack of the Demon Sheep

Carly Fiorina's ad-tack on Tom Campbell, a rival for her GOP primary bid to become California's next governor, is the funniest campaign video I've ever seen.

And I remember the 1992 Georgia ad that featured Marjorie Goode Lopp sitting in a rocking chair and singing "Put Paul Coverdell in the Senate and kick Wyche Fowler out" before delivering the perfect zinger in pure southern drawl: "He's just like Ted Kennedy."

That spot was my favorite for its "Oh my God-I can't believe they aired it" goofiness (Coverdell won, by the way)... until today.

So far, I think Twitterer Todd Zeigler [link] puts it best in his description of Fiorina's attack on Campbell: "it is the spinal tap of campaign videos." See for yourself:

Oh, and wait for it... wait for it. You think it starts out strong, but wait until you learn the secret of the sheep.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Remember Your First Time? (Part 3)

I just had to figure out something called HTML...

My first chance to create a website came when I was an Ohio University grad student, receiving a message from the campus email system. Each student had been allotted a megabyte of space to store web content; they figured we'd like to know. Though written in blandly functional prose, the email nevertheless reminded me of Roy Neary's discovery in Close Encounters of the Third Kind: "This means something. This is important." Hunching over my keyboard, I got busy - wanting to join the revolution I'd read about and begun to see on campus.

I don't remember exactly how I learned enough hypertext markup language (HTML) to get started, but I surely used the Lynx browser that came with OU's telnet-based email system, scouring the web for an online tutorial. Then I set about constructing the creaky beams and girders of my site. One problem with that approach? I had no idea what I was doing. Lynx was (and is) text-only, which meant I could "read" the web but couldn't see it. Only the hours spent playing with Mosaic on campus allowed me to visualize the thing I hoped to build at home.

The process wasn't too hard, though, just a matter of using the Pico editor on the campus PINE system to initialize a public folder and add files to that domain, documents sufficiently "marked up" with HTML to be readable as web pages. The mouse was useless for that job, by the way; Lynx was a keyboard-only app. As I churned through my training, I called the email-system help desk at least once or twice, likely provoking a wry smile among the dedicated campus computer nerds. In 1994, most people still didn't know what the internet was, and I was determined to complete a website that afternoon.

Fiddling around with all those new "tags" (weird stuff like IMG SRC and A HREF) took two or three hours, but somehow I completed my first draft, which included a link to someone's "Under Construction" graphic, just to test the process of adding images to my page. I'd built a website, but I couldn't see how it looked. It was a weird feeling.

Flustered, and not wanting to drive from our rural apartment back to campus, I phoned a pal who lived in Arkansas, reasoning that he - more of a would-be netizen than I - was the only person with easy access to Mosaic's graphics-friendly browser. Practically shivering with anticipation, I asked him to visit my site.

Here's the address, though don't look for it; it's long gone:


What do you see?

Uh, hold on, it's loading. OK. I see an "Under Construction" sign.

I beamed with pride.

I made that!

It wasn't all that thrilling, I suppose. All the same, the pieces were coming together. The next step was to plan a website around some sort of project, something more useful than a mere "I am here" billboard. The open nature of the web allowed me to build pretty much anything I wanted. There were no gatekeepers and few reviewers, no risk in thinking big.

Since I was interested in utopian literature, I decided to call my site "Andy Wood's Center for Utopian/Dystopian Studies" and then began crafting pages to gather primary sources, cool links, and some pictures of imagined communities throughout history. My page was an ambitious effort - later renamed the "Center for Utopian Studies" - though hardly a professional venture. No matter. CFUS was one of the earliest sites to take an academic look at utopianism. Believe it or not, I received occasional emails from people wanting to work at my "Center."

Along the way, I tried to share my enthusiasm for the web with Jenny. Sure it wasn't scintillating, this clickable internet. It was simply a network designed to deliver knowledge by way of computer (and modem, and browser, and some degree of tech-savvy). At this point, the World Wide Web was the province of a strange few. Yet there was something elemental and profound in its potential. All Jenny needed was to see Mosaic; then she'd know.

I remember driving onto campus one day to visit the computer lab. Among those rows of boxy PowerMacs, I sat Jenny down and made my announcement: "We're going to visit The Louvre." I said it again with flourish, "The Louvre!" With a hush, I typed the web address and we watched the opening graphic slowly assemble itself, line by line. I asked with a proud smile, "So where do you want to go?"

All those links to all those paintings... I figured that Jenny was overwhelmed. She set silently and just looked at the browser and its tiny thumbnail pictures. At last, she rendered her verdict:

"This is it?"

"Of course this is it," I exclaimed, "and it's amazing! It's like watching television for the first time. You're seeing a revolution here. The World Wide Web will change, well, the world!"

Jenny wasn't impressed. And maybe she was a little embarrassed for me, getting all worked up over something so obvious. "I figured that computers could always do this," she explained. And that was it. She'd finally seen the web that I'd been gushing about, but she found it to be less than earth-shattering, if only because it was so inevitable. She asked, what else would computers do but communicate with each other? And pictures? Sure, they'd have pictures - movies, too, right?

After a while, Jenny would admit that this web stuff was actually pretty cool. And in the following year, 1995, she caught enough of the vision to join me in creating Motel Americana, an online homage to roadside Mom and Pop lodging. The site's quirky nature earned plenty of praise in those early years: a notice on USA Today's "cyberlistings" page, a Wall Street Journal shout-out by Walt Mossberg, and even a coveted listing on the original "Cool Site of the Day." We ran Motel Americana (our home page was naturally called "the lobby") for about ten years, managing to publish two books on the topic before moving on to pursue new adventures. It's now an archive that we rarely visit.

In fact, most of my old web pages have disappeared, except for occasional bits and pieces that somehow got saved in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine [link]. By the time I took a position as a communication studies professor at San José State University, I'd let most of my early pages fade into oblivion. The only real souvenir from those days is a 1996 or '97-era logo from my Center for Utopian Studies. For some reason, an Italian website maintains the image on its servers, like graffiti waiting to be wiped clean.

I'm glad to find some of that history floating around today, because my initial experiences with the web launched a research agenda that led to my current job, indeed to my livelihood. More importantly, those old pieces of detritus remind me of a time when everything - really, no hyperbole here - everything was changing. Many web historians are even willing to lump the early WWW alongside the Gutenberg Bible as an example of transformational technology.

With a broader perspective, we may reveal deeper layers of strata that connect other points of memory, coming to see the web as little more than a middle-ground between broader epochs not yet named. And yet, I still take pleasure in remembering 1994-1995 as a time when I wandered an open frontier of potential and forged worlds of my own on the World Wide Web. That's a memory worth storing.

How often can we say I was there, when anything seemed possible?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remember Your First Time? (Part 2)

It took one click, and then...

Nothing much happened.

In an earlier draft of this note, I wrote something about seeing the web for the first time in 1994 and knowing that everything had changed. Of course that's not true.

I'm pretty sure that the first website I saw was the home page for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications - and believe me, it didn't make a good first impression. It was little more than a "You Are Here" site with some "Suggested Points for Internet Exploration" in a sea of gray, that then-ubiquitous background color selected by the practical nerds at NCSA to reduce eye strain. [click for an archive image].

So, that's the web, huh?

At first glance, the early web was a real snooze. Even worse, it offered little sense of orientation. Supposedly, I was looking at a "page" of text, as if from a book, delivered from a computer server somewhere, but I could see no correlation between this page and the thousands of others available somewhere else. Eventually, some wag would upload a farcical "last page of the Internet," [link] reflecting the unbounded experience of this strange domain, a place so otherworldly that only William Gibson's literary concept of "cyberspace" could offer some degree of coherence:
"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding."
Despite Gibson's literary flight of fancy, the early web was a small collection of scientific and university sites, each a sort of cul-de-sac or Walled Garden of disconnected content. Getting from "here" to "there" was difficult and time consuming, unless you knew where you were going. Without some means of orientation (a map? a directory? an index?) you had to click from link to link, searching for a few bread crumbs scattered by searchers who'd already surveyed the territory.

Early guides to the web allowed for little of the creative randomness that would later appear with keyword search engines. Like the first automobile road guides, which offered a few maps but mainly page after droning page of "turn here, then turn there" directions, the first web directories were organized by category and subcategory, with links listed according to the idiosyncratic schemes of their collectors.

Those first explorers created bookmark lists to induce some shape to the web, following the same altruistic impulse that inspires some folks to leave food and even build shelters for travelers making their way along cross country hiking trails. With these guides, it became easier to find "cool sites of the day" that offered more than some grad student's list of clever light bulb jokes. Easier, that is, but hardly easy.

That was the beginning of the web for me. A dim but dawning awareness that this network of homebrew pages could shatter the formerly intractable divide between mass media producer and consumer. Indeed, I quickly realized that if some of these yahoos could build a webpage and further shape this consensual hallucination, then maybe I could too. I just had to figure out something called HTML...

To be continued...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Remember Your First Time? (Part 1)

Do you remember your first experience with the World Wide Web? Saying it now, sounding out those ambitious syllables, reminds me of the early '90s when it seemed we'd discovered a strange and exotic place. Indeed, I'll bet there's a fine cultural history project underway somewhere that collects narratives about the first time people saw the web - and really understood what it meant.

Part of the fun is renewing the wonder we felt at the unfurling of a revolution in communication, computer software, and cultural exchange, a social tsunami that's all the more remarkable for the speed it washed over us. So soon, the once wonderful web has become commonplace. Almost boring. A generation that has never known a world without the World Wide Web is now finishing high school and starting college. This is a story of their lives.

Of course in the early 1990s, the web wasn't everywhere like it is now; it was somewhere out there, a foreign country you could visit only with a special visa and some tolerance for technical hassles. Before the first browsers, a few pioneers encountered the web through telnet applications. They learned arcane text commands and sometimes searched for servers operating after sunset, hoping to avoid the snarl of business traffic.

Those early surfers found a mishmash that was variously banal and bizarre: supreme court rulings, ASCII porn, the top 40 reasons why Kirk is better than Picard... stuff like that. It didn't matter. The kick of the whole thing was the illusion that you could fly your computer around the world and seemingly hack into someone's database. The illicit high of breaking and entering, slipping into houses of data under cover of night.

Without such dramatic imagery but nonetheless recognizing the limitations of the early text-based universe, the supercomputing nerds at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign released a graphical interface to the web in 1993. Their Mosaic web browser opened a world of images, sounds, movies to anyone who could click a mouse. The relatively tiny internet community knew this was cool, but the endlessly clickable continuum that stretched forth thereafter, that ever-sprawling Encyclopedia Humanis that we now take for granted, wouldn't burst into public consciousness until the following year.

In fall of 1994, I launched my grad school years by getting an email account ( - yep, I can still remember my first online address) and playing with the PowerMacs in the computer lab. I'd heard of the web, but I'd never seen it. Then one day I saw the icon for Mosaic on the friendly Apple desktop. It took one click, and then...

To be continued...

Read More: Check out Gary Wolfe's breathless coverage from Wired, October 1994

December 12, 2010 update: fortystones: The First on the World Wide Web