Not the good old days

A black desktop computer consisting of a keyboard, a low-profile system unit and a colour monitor on which several menus, a file manager window and a dock of icons down the right-hand side of the screen can be seen.
The NeXTStation, the computer developed by Steve Jobs’s company on which the first web browser was written. Its operating system is now known as macOS.

In today’s Guardian, there is a feature on people’s experiences from the early years of the public Internet, in the mid 1990s to the very early 2000s; the feature consists of user-submitted stories edited by two journalists who describe the early Internet as a “friendlier place” than today’s net. The stories include couples meeting through an old-fashioned Listserv mailing list, people competing to trick people with fake photos (and ending up on Snopes being a badge of honour), a friendship developing when someone added to their chat friends list someone they thought was their housemate but was in fact on the other side of the world, and keeping up with friends though a fan forum for a band none of you like much. The World Wide Web (the aspect of the Internet that consists of the hyperlinked pages with just-about human-readable locations, as opposed to the back-end features, email and file transfer facilities that also use the Internet) is 30 years old this month and there has been a moral panic about “what sort of place the Internet has become”. I can’t agree that the early public Internet was a vastly friendlier place than today’s.

I first got online at college in 1995. That was how most people first got exposed to the Internet back then; very few people had home Internet and it was all dial-up; broadband did not exist then. It was certainly more primitive; web browsers were in their infancy and most people used Netscape, the forerunner of today’s Firefox browser, to browse. Web pages were a lot simpler; monitor resolutions were a lot smaller (often 800x600 or even smaller) and font sizes were larger compared to today’s. Because people had both less storage and less bandwidth, images sizes were often a lot smaller than they are today and websites rarely used images as background, although annoying animated GIF images were a common sight (until a patent on the format was activated, whereupon the PNG format was developed and became a standard very quickly). Usually, they used a serif font such as Times New Roman rather than the sans fonts that are normal on most websites today. There was a lot less automation: most web pages were static, i.e. you accessed one file at a time, not a program that would make up a website for you out of a set of templates and a database, which most sites now do, using software like WordPress. Interactive web software was in its infancy and forums rarely used the web: people used email lists, “newsgroups” and IRC (Internet Relay Chat) to chat with each other. Secure web connections were not in widespread use then either: to buy things off the Internet, you would send your debit card number down an open line, in plain text. No encryption. I bought CDs from the US using that method several times when at college, using CD Now and CD Connection. Crypto-currency had never been heard of.

Fewer people had access to the Net back then: you got online at college or in a select group of large companies or maybe through a government department, and some of the online services such as CompuServe and AOL added Internet access in the 90s, though these were often costly and their users became the butt of jokes as they were often ignorant of the Internet’s customs or ‘netiquette’; the period after AOL added Internet access to their services in 1993 came to be known as the “Eternal September”, in reference to the outbreaks of stupidity that had often followed a new batch of college students getting their accounts which were now happening all the time as anyone could get an AOL account any time of the year (and frequently got them through a free CD off the front of a magazine, or through their front door). If you had Internet access, you were assumed to be wealthy, particularly as computers themselves were expensive (you would pay over £1,000 for a computer with a 486 processor and well under a gigabyte of storage). When I got offline in 1998, I had never heard of blogs; Blogger and LiveJournal would not be founded until the following year, and Movable Type (the ‘serious’ blogger’s system of choice in the early 2000s) and b2 (the predecessor of WordPress) not until 2001.

However, I don’t really remember it being a lot friendlier back then. True, most users were adults, because families rarely had access at home, so some of the problems such as school pupils using the Internet to bully others did not happen online then (they relied on ‘traditional’ methods such as physical violence and face-to-face verbal abuse and rumour-spreading). Pornography was in its infancy and the lack of bandwidth and storage made it not worth people’s while, initially, to use the Internet for this (this was already changing during my college days). RealAudio originated during this time but some universities (including mine) did not allow their users to use it because it used too much bandwidth. However, email lists and news groups were frequently the scene of vicious arguments as people were shielded from the feelings of the people reading their words; they thought of them as mere “words on a screen” and the recipients “faceless typists” (a phrase I saw used by an abusive person on a music fan email list). It was during this time that ‘spam’ came to be a major issue; as people could easily post one message to several newsgroups, people would do so automatically, often filling whole groups with nothing but advertisements for fraudulent products, pornographic images or sex lines, herbal pills or a “snail-mail” Ponzi scheme, requiring a community of “despammers” to use “cancel messages” to get rid of them after the fact. Some organisations tried to use the cancel message system to censor criticism; a certain US-based quasi-religious group would use them to get rid of messages containing extracts from their “secret scriptures” and had a group of spammers bombard the same group with extracts from an approved text. You had some downright malicious activity too: on one occasion, someone posted a message containing a rape fantasy to dozens of newsgroups, including an abuse survivors’ group, and on another, a message advertising child abuse pornography was sent to dozens of email addresses, leaving (for example) some people wondering if their partner was actually a user.

There were moral panics about the Internet in the 1990s as there are now. I recall an Observer feature from about 1998 headlined “These men are not paedophiles; they are the Internet abusers”, and one of the men featured was the operator of an “anonymous remailer” service called Penet which would post a message anonymously through email or to a newsgroup. It alleged that people were using this facility to send pornographic images, including of children, though he said that it would not allow images larger than about the size of a postage stamp through, making it useless for that purpose. It was shut down shortly afterwards in a dispute with the religious sect mentioned above, after police in Finland prevailed on them to reveal the overseas users who were posting the copyrighted “scriptures” to newsgroups, although this was misrepresented as being about pornography. As a result, people who had been using the same service to post messages to the abuse survivors’ newsgroup, who did not want their real names used, were forced to find another way of doing so. These days, the same people would use a web forum for their discussions, and web forums can keep out people who are there for malicious purposes and are not as vulnerable to spam as Usenet groups were.

Many of the problems now appearing on the Internet are reflections of problems in wider society. To some extent the Internet has made some forms of abuse easier, but it has also made it easier for people to talk about their problems, to get help, to get advice, to help each other through difficult times in their lives, and to discuss things that could protect themselves or their loved ones from abuse. For example, parents of autistic children have discussed conditions in various psychiatric units to which their children might be admitted, to warn each other that a given institution is abusive or has a history of safeguarding issues. People have definitely been saved from abuse through the Internet, and wrongdoers — abusers and people in authority who neglected their duty — have been exposed. People have campaigned (not always successfully) against cuts to services or benefits, organised to take legal action or to mount protests, given each other advice or pointed each other towards where they can get qualified advice or legal help. People have pointed disabled friends towards medical help and shared their ways of managing their conditions and information on useful products. Of course, to people who cannot easily get out because of illness or disability, the Internet provides a way of contacting other people and breaking the isolation. There are all manner of ways the Internet has been of benefit to society. It is just a mode of communication and there are bad people in society and bad people communicate bad things, but for the rest of us it has been valuable and for some, a life-saver. It is too big to say that it is a less friendly place than the Internet of 20 years ago; there are many ‘places’ on it, some friendly and some not so.

I was asked earlier today whether I missed the days of “Muslim bloglandia”. The answer is that I do, although that period comes after the period I am talking about in this entry, which is the late 1990s. Blogs took off in the early 2000s which is when the software became available and the 9/11 attacks gave a big boost to the new medium. In a sense, that period is a transitional one between the early public internet of the late 90s and the social media age which started around 2008 or so. A good thing about that period is that people would sit down and actually write articles for people to read, rather than writing short snippets for a social media site like Twitter — people would put more effort into their writing; blogs also lacked the “Snitchbook” feature, whereby a social media platform will automatically tip off your friends if you comment on a public post. In 2009 I attended a group talk on the Muslim blogging scene and I was asked about what future I thought blogging had; I responded that I believed that there would probably be a “blog crunch” in which a number of the blogging sites which were based on freebies and long-shot business models would run out of money and close down. In the event, this proved to be true of old-media websites, which have failed to survive online through advertising alone and have opted for subscription models, but blogging simply declined in popularity in favour of social media.

Image source: Marcin Wichary, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

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