Flame Wars, Punctuation Cartoons, and Net-heads: The Internet in 1988

I remember having, in the late 1980s, an old PC with a monochrome monitor, amber on black, that was hooked up to the Internet through Prodigy. I was on the Internet, but I had no idea what the Internet was. All I knew was that I could now get near-realtime updates on the score of Mets games.

Back in November, the Washington Post’s tech page posted the text of an article from the newspaper covering the Internet in 1988, right about the time I was messing around on Prodigy:  “Here’s how The Post covered the ‘grand social experiment’ of the Internet in 1988.” It’s a fascinating portal into what feels like another world, sort of. I usually think of the modern Internet experience first taking shape with the World Wide Web in the early and mid-90s. Reading this article, I was struck by how early many of the contours of the web as we know it, and the language we use to describe, began to appear. To be sure, there are also striking discontinuities, but the Internet in 1988 — before AOL, WWW, the dot-com bubble, Web 2.0, social, mobile, and all that — exhibited characteristics that will be readily recognizable. 

Consider the early example of “crowd-sourcing” or collective intelligence with which the author opens the article:

Kreisel was looking for an efficient way to paint patterns inside computer-drawn shapes. Paul Heckbert, a graduate student in California, did not know Kreisel, but he had a pretty good piece of code, or computer programming, to do the job. He dispatched it to Kreisel’s machine, and seconds later the New Yorker’s problem was solved.

Of course, the snake was already in the garden. The article is, in fact, occasioned by “a rogue program, known as a ‘virus,'” designed by a student at Cornell that “did not destroy any data but clogged computers and wasted millions of dollars’ worth of skilled labor and computer time.”

The virus, we’re told, “frightens many network visionaries, who dream of a ‘worldnet’ with ever more extensive connections and ever fewer barriers to the exchange of knowledge.” (Cyber-utopianism? Check. Of course, the roots of cyber-utopianism go back further still than 1988.) According to a Harvard astrophysicist, the Internet is a “community far more than a network of computers and cables.” “When your neighbors become paranoid of one another,” he added, “they no longer cooperate, they no longer share things with each other. It takes only a very, very few vandals to … destroy the trust that glues our community together.”

The scale clearly appeared massive, but today it seems quaint: “Together the news groups produce about 4 million characters of new material a day, the equivalent of about five average books.” But don’t worry about trying to keep up with it all, “90 percent of it is complete and utter trash,” at least as far as that astrophysicist was concerned. Hard to imagine that he was far off the mark (or that the ratio has shifted too much in the ensuing years).

At the time, “thousands of men and women in 17 countries swap recipes and woodworking tips, debate politics, religion and antique cars, form friendships and even fall in love.” Honestly, that’s not a bad sample of the sorts of things we’re still doing on the Internet. In part, this is because it is not a bad sample of what human beings do generally, so it’s what we end up doing in whatever social spaces we end up creating with our tools.

And when human beings find themselves interacting in new contexts created by new communication technologies, there are bound to be what we might kindly call “issues” while norms and conventions adapt to account for the new techno-social configuration. So already in 1988, we read that the Internet “has evolved its own language, social norms and “netiquette.'” More than twenty years hence, that project is still ongoing.

The author focused chiefly on the tone of discourse on Internet forums and, rightly I think, attributed its volatility to the characteristics of the medium:

Wouk’s riposte is a good example of why arguments sometimes intensify into bitter feuds known as flame wars, after the tendency of one character in Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four to burst into flames (“Flame on!” he shouts) when he is angry. Is Wouk truly angry or just having a good time? Because the written word conveys no tone of voice, it isn’t always easy to tell.

“In a normal social setting,” said Chuq von Rospach of Sun Microsystems, “chances are the two of them would have a giggle over it and it would go away. On a network it tends to escalate. The feedback mechanisms that tell you to back off, or tell you that this person’s joking, aren’t there. The words are basically lifeless.”

Not only would I have failed to guess that flame wars was already in use in 1988, I had no idea of its etymology. But the author doesn’t use emoticon when describing their use:  “True net-heads sometimes resort to punctuation cartoons to get around the absence of inflection. They may append a :-) if they are making a joke (turn your head to the left) or use :-( for an ersatz frown.”

“Net-heads” appears not to have caught on, but what the author calls “punctuation cartoons” certainly have. (What we now call emoticons, by the way, first appeared in the late 19th century.)

Finally, lest the Internet of 1988 appear all to familiar, here’s one glaring point of discontinuity on which to close: “The one unbending rule is that thou shalt not post commercial announcements. It isn’t written anywhere, but heaven help the user who tries to broadcast an advertisement.”

And for good measure, here’s another snippet of the not-too-distant past (1994) that nonetheless manages to feel as if it were ages ago. “Allison, can you explain what Internet is?”

4 thoughts on “Flame Wars, Punctuation Cartoons, and Net-heads: The Internet in 1988

  1. I just finished reading “The Hacker Crackdown” (Bruce Sterling), about all the legal goings-on in the BBS/Early Internet Formation period, which struck a similar chord in my mind at a couple points. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I recommend it – it is dated at this point and not particularly rigorous in source details but offers some insight an interesting take on some of the social aspects of why both the hackers and law enforcement did what they did and how the EFF came to be. The anarchistic/semi-Utopian bent of many early computer nerds is an interesting backdrop to our current “understanding” of the internet’s purpose in our lives.

    Funny that the term “snail mail” has been around that long, as well.

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