The Internet Age turns 20 years old this weekend, on Sunday, August 9.
I'm not talking about the Internet itself, which was born in the late 1960s when two computers on two different university networks first exchanged messages, thus establishing a network between networks, an "inter-net". I'm talking about the craze, the delirium, the stock market booms and crashes, the "everything is changing" meme that turned out to be true.
Two separate things happened on August 9, 1995, both by chance emerging from Northern California though they had little else in common. The first was a scheduled event: the initial public offering (IPO) by Netscape, a startup tech firm designed to make software to power the Internet.
Netscape was controversial from the moment it was born, because up to the early 1990s the Internet was a non-profit space used by academics, scientists, and government agencies. This population had only recently begun to strain with the arrival of curious newbies who managed to gain access through their jobs or schools, or via dial-up services like America Online and CompuServe. These newbies were not always welcomed by the old-school academics who'd previously ruled the space, and Netscape was the brash new corporation whose mission was to accelerate this popular trend ... and make a profit by doing so.
I was, it happens, one of those newbies at the time. I had stumbled onto USENET and the World Wide Web in 1993 via my software job, and in early 1995 I joined Time Warner's new media venture Pathfinder.com — like Netscape, a corporate attempt to capitalize on the free and open Internet (though unlike Netscape it was doomed to fail from the start). I was in Pathfinder's midtown Manhattan basement office on Wednesday, August 9 when word trickled around that Netscape's first day of trading had begun — with a bang.
The successful IPO wasn't a sure thing, and in fact up until that morning there was some suspense as to whether their controversial stock market debut would happen at all. Few expected a runaway success amidst all the controversy and negativity about Netscape's business plan, but the actual investors that Wednesday morning were apparently not listening to the haters on USENET who swore that the Internet's open and cooperative culture would never embrace a for-profit corporation. Who cares about the haters? The stock opened at $28 (already a remarkably high price for an initial stock offering), and shot quickly to a peak of $74.75 before closing its first day at $58.25.
This might not seem like a stunning IPO when looked at backwards, because the Netscape IPO would be the first of many, many, many Internet IPOs that would shoot to the skies on their first days of trading. But, before Netscape, this kind of thing didn't really happen. It certainly didn't happen to a new corporation with a shaky business model and no visible source of revenue. Netscape's historic success took a lot of Wall Street experts by surprise, and made a few smarter experts and early insiders instantly rich.
In the basement at Time Inc. New Media, we all knew our world had just changed. The markets had spoken, and the hard-fought battle was suddenly over: the Internet would be a business-friendly place. It was now a sure thing that other tech IPOs would follow. The stakes had just been massively raised, and the entire Internet was about to become much more crowded and hectic.
I remember walking through the hallway at work that morning, probably heading for a coffee refill, when I saw a clump of co-workers and magazine editors talking anxiously. I thought they were talking about the Netscape IPO, but they weren't. "Jerry Garcia died," one of the editors said to me. "We need to replace the front page and get a new headline up, stat."
Jerry Garcia. This one hit home.
It happens that I am a Deadhead, though not really a "self-identifying" Deadhead since I also like many other kinds of music and don't usually wear the clothes. But I adore the Grateful Dead's brilliant music, and I had seen them two nights in a row only six weeks earlier at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The first of those joyful shows had been on Father's Day, so I'd taken my music-loving nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth with me. It happened that August 9, 1995 was also Elizabeth's tenth birthday, so my first thought when I heard that Jerry died was that Elizabeth was going to be upset.
And I was upset, because one of my favorite guitarists and songwriters was gone. We had to move fast at Pathfinder, because even though our leadership was often famously clueless (this is another story), some smart person from People Magazine correctly realized that Jerry Garcia's death was going to be a monster story on the Web, and was determined to get Pathfinder a piece of that traffic. My co-workers were bustling around me, but I managed to escape to my cubicle to fire up rec.music.gdead, the vibrant and popular Grateful Dead USENET newsgroup where I often hung out. The news had just broken there, of course, and the place was in a state of absolute emotional supernova.
Nobody said "going viral" yet by the summer of 1995, but that's exactly what Jerry Garcia's death did, and it was pretty much the biggest anything had gone viral anywhere up to this point.
The outpouring of white-hot intensity (and love, and inspiration, and empathy, and wit) that I participated in that day on rec.music.gdead occupied only one corner of the broad global online reaction to Jerry's death. I wasn't a member of the WELL, the famously advanced online community from the Dead's home city of San Francisco, but I heard that the WELL had also naturally and calmly exploded in supernova fashion after hearing the news. (Of course, thanks to the miraculous natural efficiency of distributed network computing, neither USENET's nor the WELL's servers actually crashed on August 9, 1995, while Wall Street's creaky mainframe-based trading systems had plenty of trouble keeping up with Netscape's IPO). Jerry's death was also a big event on CompuServe and AOL and Prodigy and countless similar BBS's and emerging online communities around the world. The main Dead website (hosted by a student at Carnegie-Mellon University) was updating every few minutes, trying to keep up with it all.
Jerry Garcia's death was the first major spontaneous news event to break big on the Internet, and the first of many to follow. There is one simple reason why it took a Grateful Dead member's death to inspire the world's first flash mob: the Internet's early-adopter user base was heavy with educators and scientists and technologists, and educators and scientists and technologists tend to love the Grateful Dead. There was also a remarkable preponderance of Deadheads at magazines like WIRED as well as among the Internet's most well-known early voices, like lyricist John Perry Barlow, who had recently emerged as the co-founder of the freedom-minded Electronic Frontier Foundation.
It's because the World Wide Web and the Grateful Dead loved each other so well that August 9, 1995 turned out to be the first day I ever used the Internet to find out where I would be going that evening.
That spot would be Strawberry Fields in Central Park — a perfect memorial spot where a mosaic circle reading "IMAGINE" had been placed to honor John Lennon, who had lived a few blocks away. I found out on rec.music.gdead that Strawberry Fields was the place to go in New York City, and I emailed my wife to meet me there with the kids after work. We found a beautiful scene, peaceful and packed, flowing with flowers, tie-dye, guitars, songs, candles, friendly faces.
I probably didn't reflect upon this at the time, but if Jerry Garcia had died on Elizabeth's birthday one year earlier, we would never have known that there was a gathering at Strawberry Fields to go to. We would have stayed at home and probably watched a news report about Jerry Garcia on TV. There probably would have been a spontaneous memorial that night at Strawberry Fields — but it would have been much smaller, and I would not have known about it.
This points to the most crucial fact about the emergence of the Internet Age. The world wouldn't change on August 9, 1995 only because our ability to communicate had accelerated. The world would change because these new abilities to communicate would open new passageways that would themselves lead to unexpected places, and these would lead to more unexpected places. Communication is not usually an end in itself, but rather is an opportunity for new beginnings, an introduction to places unknown.
Twenty years later, it's striking to consider the ironic juxtaposition of two separate world-changing events on the same day, both emerging from the San Francisco Bay Area but quickly spreading to touch the world. The stunning success of the Netscape IPO would immediately change everything about the Internet business sector, which would now begin to grow at incredible and often unwieldy speed. Soon, nobody would ask if the Internet was friendly to for-profit corporations. Instead, some would begin to ask how the Internet could avoid being entirely destroyed by for-profit corporations. Fortunately, a natural balance seems to have kept the Internet free in the twenty years since August 9, 1995 — even though predators still threaten the fragile connections that keep the open network available and usable for all.
In 1995, Netscape was at the leading edge of corporate invasion of the free Internet, but the corporation would ultimately founder and fall. Its dominant position would soon be filled by newer but equally controversial corporations like Amazon, Google, Facebook and the re-emergent Apple. Today, Netscape's important legacy of software innovation is kept alive via the benevolent open source foundation Mozilla, which is (of all things) a non-profit.
The Grateful Dead's influence on the evolving culture of the Internet has always been a godsend, and still is. When music-sharing became a way of life with the advent of Napster a few years later, and when online publishers began to give content away for free, many smart observers realized that the Grateful Dead (who had always allowed fans to freely create and share concert recordings) were the greatest success model in the world for a profitable long-term business cycle based on peer-to-peer sharing. The positive and peaceful philosophy the band had always stood for seemed to fit the Internet's optimistic emerging culture as well.
I am writing this blog post on August 8, 2015, looking forward to tomorrow's 20 year anniversary, and wondering if any news outlet besides Literary Kicks will even write about the amazing day of August 9, 1995 tomorrow.
The anniversary doesn't seem to be a big news story, and for all I know this may be the only article anyone will write about the fact that the best possible choice for a starting point of the Internet age was exactly 20 years ago. I am pretty confident, though, that the significance of August 9, 1995 will be understood by the time the 100th anniversary rolls around on August 9, 2095.
Perhaps the delirium of the Internet age — all the good and all the bad that have swirled into all our lives with its advent — is still too much around us to allow us to appreciate the significance of this date. The sense of feverish fast-moving change has never left. Twenty years later, we are still living inside the bell jar.