A 23-year-old book about the internet predicted the web’s worst problems

A 23-year-old book about the internet predicted the web’s worst problems
Image: Bárbara Abbês for Quartz
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When “Government Alien Announcement” was published to the Usenet group alt.alien.visitors on Dec. 1, 1993, the internet was already over.

Referencing everyone from J. Edgar Hoover to a pre-presidential George W. Bush, the rant-cum-essay warned of an impending alien invasion. “[The Greys] will come bearing gifts, technology that supposedly will heal cancer and AIDS, retard aging, etc.” it read. “They will tell us they are the ‘saviors’ of humanity who have come to defend the earth against an invasion of man eating aliens called Reptoids. This story is a lie. The Greys already work for the Reptoids. Their plan is to unify the world into a One-World Government, a ‘New World Order’ with the argument that only this can defeat the invasion of the Reptoids….”

At the time, Usenet was the central arena of the pre-graphical internet, one of a long list of then-thriving digital, text-based communications protocols like Gopher, TELNET, BBS, IRC, and MUDs. Having existed since roughly 1980 for a community of university employees, students, and those inclined to spend a few grand on a home computer and internet connection, Usenet was in September 1993 made available to all AOL customers. The influx of newbies became known as the “Eternal September,” and arrived nine months after Marc Andreessen created the first graphic web-browser, Mosaic. In 1994, Andreessen brought Netscape Navigator to market, and the net was over. Long live the web.

While Andreessen was writing the software that would end that world, a 22-year-old Harvard grad named JC Herz was writing a book, Surfing on the Internet, that would preserve it in amber. (Jacket copy: “A digital Dian Fossey loose in the jungle of Net life.”) Published in 1995 by the same editor who acquired David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest three years earlier, Surfing on the Internet is at its heart a tour through the classic online activities: discussing the best sugary cereals and caffeinated beverages, posting instructions for making explosives with household products, documenting Elvis sightings and other urban legends, playing Jeopardy with a robot Alex Trebek, role-playing violent conflict with Barney the Purple Dinosaur. But it’s also a portrait of the social dynamics that are increasingly troubling the online world, and a map to digital patient zero.

“[I wanted to] dive down the rabbit hole into this invisible, globally interconnected world and its culture,” Herz said in an e-mail in May. “The publisher bought the book but wanted it finished in eight months, which is fast for a book—they didn’t want to publish the second book about the Internet.”

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Flooding the Net

When I found Surfing on the Internet in a rural New Hampshire library in 1997, after my family acquired its first PC and a 35-kilobit-per-second internet connection, the book might as well have been ancient history. (It was located next to the Internet Yellow Pages, a large volume that quite literally listed websites you could visit.) But Surfing enthralled me as a middle-schooler, and not just because it excerpted the above alien conspiracy theory. Herz’s book catalogued a new world that was absurd and chaotic, not infrequently problematic, and, bafflingly, important.

When new users were “flooding onto the Net at rate of a million per month”—ha!—Herz wrote that “the population explosion is putting a lot of stress on the system. Not so much the physical system of hardware and phone lines, but the social structure is beginning to fray. Noise levels are up. Signal quality is down…even die-hard Net addicts now admit that it’s impossible to wade through the daily traffic.”

Indeed, reading Surfing now, there’s an unmistakable sense that what made the internet cool was also what made it impotent, at least in real-world terms: There wasn’t really any capitalism, even though it was a specter hanging over the digital landscape. But what made the internet bad then is also what makes it bad today—the people who are on it.

Influencers, famous for nothing but their fame? Consider James “Kibo” Parry, who claimed to read every mention of his handle on the net and somehow became a celebrity, complete with a newsgroup of his own, alt.religion.kibology. Vituperative Twitter warfare? That has nothing on the newsgroup flame wars of yore. Even reminders that your experience is more mediated and less authentic than in the past existed in the form of phreakers, old-timey hackers of the telephone system who would share “always the same refrain: times were simpler then.”

Amid the flood of newbies, Herz writes of finding a home at MindVox, a hip online community (“The Algonquin Round Table meets the World Wrestling Federation”) founded by two former members of the hacker group Legion of Doom. LOD was in the news this year when presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was revealed as a former member, known not for his coding prowess but his posts. (Asked about Beto’s net history, Herz says “national politics is a clown show, period full stop.”) The idea of someone being respected online because they could write compelling essays is only baffling if you don’t grok the text-only Net.

The dream of the nineties.
The dream of the nineties.
Image: AP Photo/Greg Gibson

Among the net community, Herz also finds, well, let’s call them pre-incels. “I’m having my mid-20s breakdown a year or so ahead of schedule,” posts one graduate-school dropout, who added “I need a woman, so I can pay attention to her and not me.”

One user—a prominent MindVoxer known in the book by username Kieran—merits an entire chapter. He says he’s been on the internet since 1982, when he was 12. Kieran is caught up in angsty dynamics with other netizens, frustrated by his struggle to advance in the world, and irked by his lack of fruitful real-life relationships. He loves his internet life and hates it at the same time. He’s also mad at the media, then in the throes of celebrating broader public interest in the net, for lauding this real-fake community.

*Kieran* That's why all this pseudo-cyberpunk, cutting edge WIRED-is-God bullshit pisses me off so goddam much. THERE IS NOTHING NEW ABOUT ANY OF THIS EXCEPT THE SIZE OF IT.

Months prior, Kieran—real name, Aaron Dickey; real job, systems operator at CompuServe—had a chance to ask vice president Al Gore a question in an online forum. (You may remember Al Gore took an interest in the internet.) Dickey asked if “eventually we ALL may be spending too much time … on the Net, and not enough time in face-to-face conversations/socialization?” “Yes,” Gore replied, according to the Washington Post, “but it’s better than the same amount of time [spent] in front of a non-interactive screen.”

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Ethics in internet Journalism

What stands out most in reading Surfing on the Internet today is the sheer misogyny Herz encounters online. “Chicks on computers are considered to be chicks first and human beings second (if at all),” writes one male Usenet poster. Herz tends to hide her gender behind her initials or an ambiguous handle, but sometimes the truth comes out. “Ugh, I’ve been outed as a woman on a late night IRC session,” she writes. “I don’t want to deal with this tonight.”

*kilgore* What do you look like?
*jimv* How old are you? Are you still in school?
*casper* Would you care to talk in private?
*crackerjack* What do you look like?
*synapse* HI THERE :- ))
*vito* Where are you?

When Herz ventures into a MUD—a multi-user online dungeon, a kind of text-only Second Life or MMRPG—she finds herself harassed by another user who acted as a friendly guide until he discovered her gender. “Sticks and stones and techie-boys who can’t deal with women, that’s what MUDs are made of,” she concludes. During the inevitable chapter on cybersex, Herz winds up impersonating a man in a gay chat room. It was an exploration of fluid identities in the anonymous internet, but also, one can’t help but think, a good way to avoid talking about sex with ostensibly straight men.

Nearly three decades later, techies still have a problem with women. “It was given a pass because it was overgrown adolescents catering to each other,” Herz says today of the gamer culture that she went on to chronicle as a technology journalist. “In that context, it’s really about the ability to Not Grow Up as a lifestyle.”

Now, though, that lifestyle has been weaponized: The events of  #gamergate made social-media harassment campaigns a trope of internet discourse, not a rarity. Toxic male angst, played out on message boards among self-described incels today, isn’t just online but acted out in Walmarts by digitally radicalized shooters. This remarkably consistent internet culture is a reminder: It’s easy to become nostalgic about the anarchic and weird internet but, like most nostalgia, it is blind.

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The Good Old Days

At the end of Surfing on the Internet, Herz gives up on the net after, frankly, getting bored. She was a digital version of Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond: It was the internet that got small.

I asked Herz how long her self-imposed exile lasted. She told me she mostly passed on the web, got into games, and did the requisite stint on social media before giving most of that up too. “More people hear about what happened on Twitter than actually engage with it,” she told me. “Technology got boring. It became kitsch. Elite culture became kitsch. …As a writer I love the idea of a culture based on reading and writing. But I’m not sure that could ever last.”

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Image: Little Brown

My generation—call us elder millennials—largely missed out on the world Herz experienced, as I found in youthful attempts to retrace her trail. Soon we had AOL Instant Messenger and shortly after the century turned, blogs happened. For a weird moment, posting was en vogue again. But the web rolled on, and the bloggers got hired or tired.

Surfing on the Internet is filled with a palpable foreboding about what the internet will do and be when unleashed en masse. “God help us when the Information Railroad is actually built,” Herz writes. “We’ll be talking about the good old days—these days—eighteen months or two years from now, when every post has a ‘Send me MORE information about this product’ checkbox in its sig. We’ll remark about the few places where the Net and real life touched, how strange, and in a way, how charming they were.”

Twenty-five years later, the web and real life don’t only touch, they overlap and interact in uncanny feedback loops. As the rest of America wakes up to the same things that Herz struggled with in her first encounter with the internet—”the online world and the offline world aren’t staying in their boxes like I thought they would”—she offers up some wisdom.

“The only real hope we have is to get to know each other, find things to love, like or enjoy about people we disagree with and strengthen our local relationships and communities,” Herz says. “If not, we’re one natural disaster and grid-takedown away from the zombie apocalypse. The more concrete, local and physical a topic is, the more people seem able to forge fellowship around it. You see a lot of humanity in streams of participation around fitness, food (the BBQ cults…), DIY maker-type things, and local communities.” There’s a reason Herz’s most recent book is about the subculture of CrossFit.

Still, I miss that dial-up modem magic. “The Matrix was produced post-Web, but no web page was as dramatic, intimate and compelling as a black screen with text unfurling in real time,” Herz told me. I asked my former digital spirit guide—had she found anything that matched the old thrill of logging on?

“It is encouraging to see how persistent certain high-value commons are,” she notes, listing Wikipedia,  Khan Academy, GitHub, and “even commercial commons like Tasty and RetailMeNot, and pure enthusiast data aggregations like Dahlia Addict.” Herz today is also into flowers, and Instagram. “There’s still some of the old charm of the early Internet associated with lifestyle stuff—fitness, food, crafts, farms and gardens—that transcends geographic boundaries,” she says. “I can post a photo of tulips that get hearted from eight different countries.”