CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WEB KIND

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(This is chapter seven of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

The World Wide Web was a social network from its earliest days, but it wasn't much like the social networks of today. It was a small world, for one thing, and everybody in it had some degree of technical skill. Maybe that's one reason the earliest creatures to populate this society tended to be such strange specimens, and also why our friendships often had an obsessive edge.

Soon after launching Literary Kicks in the summer of 1994 I got an email from Malcolm Humes, webmaster of the Brian Eno homepage, who wanted to collaborate with me on a new site about William S. Burroughs. I didn't want to collaborate, but I found that Mal and I had an awful lot to talk about. We began emailing several times a day, and it meant a lot to me to be able to compare notes with another creative techie soul.

The web was quickly getting looser, friendlier, crazier. My favorite site in these days was probably Links From The Underground, curated by a sweet-tempered Swarthmore college student named Justin Hall who had an appealing way of throwing his entire personality online. I was always cagey about how much of myself to reveal on LitKicks, but Justin Hall just let it all go. He scattered photos of himself and his friends, shared the disturbing memory of his alcoholic father's suicide, changed his pages to reflect his daily moods and whims. Yet there was much art to Justin's casual and unabashed style, and I know that Justin Hall took website design very seriously, because after I sent him an email introducing myself he responded with a long unsolicited list of problems with LitKicks and suggestions for the site. He pointed out a couple of technical errors (which I fixed) and mentioned that some ethnic characterizations on my Beat pages could be offensive (which I fixed too). I was impressed that Justin took the time to give me this extensive troubleshooting report, though I disagreed strongly with one thing he said. The first sentence on the LitKicks front page was this line from the Beatles song "Tomorrow Never Knows":

Turn off your mind relax and float downstream.

Justin said I should format the quote like this:

"Turn off your mind relax and float downstream"
-- John Lennon

But that wasn't what I wanted on my front page. I wasn't trying to say "here's a quote from John Lennon". I was trying to say "Turn off your mind relax and float downstream" (and I did attribute the quote to Lennon further down on the page, so I wasn't stealing anything). I was a little annoyed that a web reader as intuitive as Justin Hall thought my big opening line was an error, but I was still very pleased when he raved about LitKicks on his literary links page.

I had originally planned to move on from the Beat scene after launching LitKicks, but some of my pages began to take on lives of their own. I was surprised to discover how much interest there was in Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac's best friend, who died in 1968 and was both a catalyst among Beat writers in the 1940s and 1950s and a key figure in the San Francisco rock scene in the 1960s. He was a main character in both On The Road and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and no page on LitKicks ever generated more activity or interest than my brief biography of Neal Cassady.

This began immediately after I launched the site, when I learned that an elder hippie named Tim Bowden who ran a countercultural online storytelling community called Nerdnosh had loved and lived with Carolyn Cassady after her husband's death, and had privately circulated a reminiscence of this affair. A copy of his story fell into my hands, and Bowden agreed to let me put it online. This was a hit with LitKicks readers, though it caused me trouble years later when I got a chance to meet the charming and very funny Carolyn Cassady, who has never stopped scolding me for publishing Tim Bowden's "awful lies". I thought he wrote a tender piece, but Carolyn didn't see it that way.

The biggest Neal Cassady fanatics in the world are not Kerouac readers but Deadheads, since Neal was a part of the early Grateful Dead scene and was memorialized in songs like "The Other One" and "Cassidy". I'd never been a serious Deadhead myself -- I liked them and had been to three concerts, which made me a complete amateur in Deadhead circles -- but the warmth and humor of the rec.music.gdead community increased my interest in the band, and I was blown away in September of 1994 when the rec.music.gdead circles put me directly in touch with John Perry Barlow, who later became well-known as an Internet activist and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but who I then only knew as Bob Weir's childhood friend and the co-author of many excellent Grateful Dead songs like "Cassidy", "Looks Like Rain", "Mexicali Blues" and "Throwing Stones". Barlow had also privately circulated a reminiscence of his friendship with Neal Cassady -- (I was starting to see a pattern here) -- and of how he came to write the song "Cassidy", and again a copy fell into my hands. I emailed John for permission to publish the piece on LitKicks and he graciously allowed me to do so. I must have made an ass of myself, though, when I asked him if he wanted a copyright message on the page ("I don't believe in copyright", he responded) since it turned out he had published an article in WIRED Magazine about the flaws in the copyright model earlier in the year.

A couple of my web-oriented personal encounters were disasters, like every attempt I ever made to visit the Soho loft where an entrepreneur named Josh Harris was trying to turn himself into the 90s equivalent of Andy Warhol with a pop-culture/online-culture factory called "Pseudo", already in 1994 a glorious and large mess of garish web pages, primitive online audio streams and in-person events reflecting subcultures such as hiphop, graffiti, alternative sex and spoken word poetry. An East Village slam poet named Robert Galinsky who worked for Pseudo -- this website actually had major funding, as Josh Harris was a successful information/research systems entrepreneur -- invited me to appear one night as a guest on Pseudo Online Radio, an internet show that was not broadcast online but somehow on an actual radio station. I met with Galinsky, but I think he was disappointed to meet me, because he seemed to expect the proprietor of a Beat website to be some kind of jive-talking finger-snapping goatee-wearing hepcat, which is really the polar opposite of the rather shy and diffident persona that is myself.

I actually thought the whole Pseudo scene was great fun, and I only wished I had the kind of outrageous and larger-than-life personality that would have allowed me to fit in. Instead, I succumbed to a ridiculous panic attack as I sat in my apartment waiting for Josh Harris to call me live on the radio, and when he asked me "what's up" I had nothing to say and Josh Harris hung up on me after about six seconds.

There was plenty of room for us introspective poetic types on the Web too, though. In September an illustrated web poem called "Life With Father" by Joseph Squier got some attention on Usenet, and as far as I know it was the first serious or widely read poem designed specifically for the web format. The rather sad tale of child abuse inspired me to spend more time on my own writing ideas, and I began dreaming up a new project called Queensboro Haikus (I knew the name needed work).

I was then invited to submit a piece for a new online literary journal called Enterzone by a California tech writer named Christian Crumlish. Christian and I discovered we had a lot in common and became fast friends, and I created an illustrated memory piece called "7 Pinoak Lane" -- format-wise, a straight-up bite of Joseph Squier's "Life With Father" -- to appear in Enterzone.

I also began corresponding with the other Enterzone editors, Briggs Nisbet, Rich Frankel and an up-and-coming novelist named Martha Conway who shared many of my literary interests and frustrations. I also introduced the Enterzone gang to Malcolm Humes, who eventually brought in a few webby friends like Annette Loudon, Janan Platt (AlienFlower Poetry Workshop) and Scot Hacker (Birdhouse.org) to form a secret society called "antiweb" that would go on to encompass many other creative web people for years to come.

The significance of some of my new online friendships wouldn't come clear for a couple of years. I still posted often to the rec.music.dylan Usenet group, and one day I was invited to lunch by a fellow Dylan freak and music industry insider named Dan Levy. Dan's media interests spanned many formats -- as a book publisher, he'd recently created the Citadel Underground imprint, which published Ed Sanders and Emmett Grogan -- and he was now building an online countercultural gathering spot called Levity.com, which he invited me to be a part of. He also hinted that he had big connections within the Bob Dylan management circle, and wanted to know if I'd be available for future web development projects involving Bob Dylan. "Is this serious?" I emailed Dan. He emailed back, "If you knew how serious this was, you would plotz".

I never got to meet some of the interesting creative web people who started turning up in 1994, and in some cases that was fine with me. Just a couple of weeks after I launched LitKicks, a guy named Glenn Davis launched the popular "Cool Site of the Day", which profiled one new notable or creatively original website each day (the August 1994 offerings include "The Froggy Page", "WWW Tennis Server", "Future Fantasy Bookstore", "San Francisco Examiner", "Le Web Louvre" and "The Tori Amos Home Page"). I kept waiting for Literary Kicks to be the Cool Site of the Day, but Glenn Davis never chose me. I'm still pissed off about this.

Another web writer I was interested in Carl Steadman, who published stories in Intertext and had a beguiling way of over-sharing that was similar to Justin Hall's, though with a moodier and darker edge. I didn't know exactly what was so intriguing about his pages, and I'm not sure he ever lived up to his apparent early potential as a web writer, though he would eventually get his picture in Rolling Stone magazine and go on to found Suck.com and Plastic.com.

Another site I became aware of in late 1994 was Beatrice.com, founded by a guy named Ron Hogan. I scanned this site eagerly the first time I heard of it, expecting to find a lot of material on Dante Alighieri. I never found Dante on Ron's site, and somehow I never met or communicated with Ron over the years, though we had many friends in common (I would eventually meet him years later when we both became part of a little something called the literary blogosphere, but we've got a lot of ground to cover before we get to that).

When I think back to the driven individuals I met on the web in 1994, I sometimes think of the scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where a few people around the world start getting obsessed with a shape, and start drawing that shape or building it in mounds of mashed potatoes or dirt. Like them, we worked in isolation, but we all seemed to be doing the same thing. Still, the people in Spielberg's movie eventually figured out what it was that beckoned them to create these shapes. And us? I guess we beckoned each other, and the main thing we found was ourselves.

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is JOB-HUNTING: HOTWIRED, DELPHI AND PATHFINDER. The previous post in the series is ENTER MOZILLA.
15 Responses to "CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WEB KIND"

by Eli Stein on

You can add this bit of trivia: the station that aired "Pseudo Online Radio" was WEVD (as shown in the banner you posted). The initials stood for Eugene V. Debs, the perennial Socialist candidate for President in the early 1900's.

by Duncan Brown on

Does the web have a patron saint. Such an important outfit shouldn't be without one. everybody else has one, and no self respecting outfit would want to deny themselves the possibility.
Television has Saint Clare -she had visions- a good friend of Saint Francis of Asissi who had influence, we might be covered by that.Seems a bit cheapskate though, we should have our own bona fide kosher saint.
Dorothy Parker has real possibilities,Saint www Dottie - you know. Got a ring tone to it as well.
This is serious no one will accept you until you have a real deal saint attached to your calling.
The 'Devils Advocate' should be contacted immediately.

The metaphor, i.e., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is very apt!
Isn't it attachment of the worst kind to be angry about something from the '90s?

Queensboro Haikus has 5 syllables, the first and third lines of a haiku.

Queensboro Haikus
I knew the name needed work
Queensboro Ballads

by Galinsky on

Memories! HOLY COW.... you took me back.... :)

by Levi Asher on

Haha -- great to hear from you, Galinsky! Good times, good times ...

Mr. Galinsky, did you not write something for the book Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web? Or am I thinking of another Galinsky?

by ed on

Pseudo Radio! Oh man, that guy was a relentless self-promoter. But I saw through his pranks and wondered how I could get that kind of money for a farce. Alas, I didn't quite have the go-getting impulse that I have now.

I knew it! I pulled my copy of Coffeehouse off the shelf and there it was: Seven Times 7, on page 7, by Galinsky, and the same poem is over on your website place. Good one.

I've always thought Coffeehouse: Writings From the Web was a great book.

by plump comfort on

I am certainly fond of this site, and LOVING your writing, Levi
St. Clare is the patron saint of television.
St.Dymphna the patron saint of mental illness.
How bout St. Sylvia. Too dark?
(After all, she died of remorseless self loathing)

by xian on

Nerdnosh sure brings back memories. It was one the inspirations for Enterzone.

by mike on

let's see in 95 I did a 10 part computer lecture culminating in programming and getting the classroom on the net, no browser yet though.

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