A new book by Jim Boulton traces the 100 most significant moments in the history of the internet, from webcams and emoticons to blogging and – of course – pornography.
Here, in an exclusive extract, we pick 10 highlights from 100 Ideas That Changed The Web.
1 | The Space Race
Following World War II, the US formed the RAND Corporation to continue the innovative spirit that had produced radar and the atomic bomb. RAND’s first project was the production of an artificial satellite. Unbeknown to them, the Soviet Union was ahead of the game and achieved the huge propaganda coup first. The US vowed never to be humiliated in such a way again, eventually putting a man on the moon in the ultimate display of one-upmanship.
Key to winning the space race was the establishment of ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the first director of which was Joseph Licklider. Not only did Licklider want to put a man on the moon, but also he wanted to create an Intergalactic Computer Network. It was 1958. Over at RAND, Paul Baran was tasked with designing a communications system that could survive a nuclear attack. These two projects would later come together to create the internet.
2 | Porn
Even in the early 90s, before there were graphics on the Web, enterprising individuals were creating pornographic pictures. In the mid-’90s, when browsers started to support images the demand for porn exploded.
One of the earliest adult sites was created by ex-stripper Danni Ashe. After reading Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital in 1995, Ashe decided to create her own website. Two weeks later she had created danni.com. The site launched in July 1995, with subscribers paying $9.95 a month to access soft-core pornographic pictures. The site crashed immediately due to the huge number of visitors. While investors poured billions into loss-making dot-com businesses, Danni’s Hard Drive was quietly making millions of dollars. Operating outside normal business constraints sites like danni.com were able to innovate. The porn industry created the first online payment systems and continually pushed technology beyond its recognized boundaries.
Even today, online businesses look to porn for innovation. As well as pioneering teledildonics (yep, you guessed it), the adult industry is one of the leading developers of anti-piracy software. If you want to know what is round the corner, watch the porn industry. Just make sure you activate ‘private browsing’ first.
3 | The Emoticon
The first use of the smiley face on a screen was in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon University. Jokey remarks on the computer science department’s online bulletin board were often misinterpreted and a ‘flame war’ would result. At best, the original intent of the thread was lost. At worst, people were offended. Research professor Scott Fahlman pragmatically suggested it would be a good idea to mark posts that were not to be taken seriously: The convention caught on and spread to other universities and research centres. The Smiley and other emoticons, like the wink ;-), grin :-D and tongue out :-P were very quickly in common use on bulletin boards across the internet. Of the phenomenon he created, Scott Fahlman says wearily, ‘I had no idea that I was starting something that would soon pollute all the world’s communication channels.’
4 | Netiquette
How we politely use new technology is not a new conundrum. When the telephone was invented, people were often silent when they picked up the receiver, waiting for the caller to introduce themselves before they spoke. Like the telephone, the Web has its own social conventions. People quickly realised that, online, humour and sarcasm had to be used with care. Insulting exchanges, known as flame wars, were common on the early Net, and sideways smiley faces started appearing to make sure jokes were notmisinterpreted.
Many other inventive uses of typography to portray facial expressions followed. Emoticons are now an essential part of our online vocabulary. The first generation of Net users also established other conventions to keep things civil. Some are obvious. Read the FAQs before asking a question. Writing in caps is TANTAMOUNT TO SHOUTING. Criticizing people’s grammar is irritating. Hijacking a discussion thread is plain rude.
5 | Webcam
It all started back in 1991 at Cambridge University’s Computer Laboratory. Hard-working students faced a perilous situation on a daily basis. Could they make it to the coffee pot before all the coffee was gone? Quentin Stafford-Fraser worked in the Trojan Room. The coffee pot lived in the hallway just outside. He set up a camera facing the pot and ran wires under the floor to his computer. His friend Paul Jardetzky wrote a program that captured images of the pot every 30 seconds.
No longer would Quentin and Paul and their fellow students make the journey to the coffee pot in vain. Two years later, in November 1993, students Daniel Gordon and Martyn Johnson adapted the program so the coffee pot could be seen via a standard Web browser. The Trojan Room coffee pot became an international sensation overnight. The first commercial webcam was introduced in 1994 by the US company Connectix. Only available for Apple Macintosh computers, the QuickCam was expensive and the image quality poor. Crucially, other than a variably full coffee pot, there was not much to look at.
As with many Web technologies, interest was eventually fuelled by a seminaked woman (see Pornography). In 1996, Jennifer Rigley switched on JenniCam, an uncensored window to her bedroom. At her peak, Jenni was receiving 4 million visits a day. A flurry
of webcam girls followed.
6 | Blogging
In 1994, Dave Winer started DaveNet, an email newsletter that discussed the latest developments in the computerb industry. Frustrated with the lack of coverage his software company received in the trade press, Winer saw DaveNet as an opportunity to bypass mainstream media. The flagship product of Winer’s company was Frontier, an early scripting language for the Mac. By 1996 it had evolved into software for the creation of websites. Winer used it to create and manage his own website – Scripting News – which continued where DaveNet left off. Winer’s daily updates attracted an audience of like-minded people.
One of these people was Jorn Barger, who adopted Frontier to manage his own website, Robot Wisdom. In December 1997, Barger began posting daily entries on his website and started referring to it as a ‘web log’. His prolific postings, on everything from artificial intelligence to Kate Bush, gained global attention. It was not long before the term web log was adopted by other people to describe their daily musings. In 1999, Peter Merholz jokingly wrote it as ‘we blog’ on his website. Regularly updated web journals have been known as ‘blogs’ ever since.
7 | Viral content
Viral content has existed as long as we have been able to replicate objects. With the invention of the printing press, the camera and the record player, reproducing content became an industry. Viral content is now understood to be content that is shared peer to peer, bypassing traditional media channels. While there are some pre-Web examples, such as the trading of bootleg VHS copies of the cult classic film Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the Web has proved to be a perfect breeding ground for sharing viral content. Digital content is easy to copy, and the Web makes it easy to share. While computer viruses are often sinister, viral content is usually harmless fun.
One of the first viral phenomena was a 3D animation of a dancing baby. Appearing on our screens in 1996, the demo file was first shared across email, websites and forums before featuring on TV shows like Ally McBeal, 3rd Rock from the Sun and The Simpsons. It was to be the first in a series of unusual dancers, including hamsters, elves and inmates of a maximum-security Filipino prison.
8 | Internet memes
Have you ever played an April Fool’s joke? That’s a meme. Have you ever worn your baseball cap back to front? That’s a meme too. A meme is a behaviour that is transmitted from person to person. The term was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, from the Greek, mimema, meaning ‘imitate’. Memes differ from viral campaigns in that they evolve and change over time. Crasher Squirrel is a meme, appearing in a different photograph each time it’s shared.
9 | The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project cost less than $50,000 to shoot. Filmmakers Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick developed a script around three students investigating a local legend. They provided the framework for the story and then dropped the cast on locationwith the camera equipment. Each day, the three actors would improvise the dialogue and shoot the film themselves. The hand-held, amateur-looking footage they shot gave the film a documentary feel. The film was screened on 24 January 1999 at the Sundance Film Festival. The opening sequence portrayed the events as real. ‘
In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, while shooting a documentary .... A year later their footage was found.’ Artisan Entertainment picked up the film for $1 million, as intrigued by the background story as by the film itself. They created a website leveraging the idea that the film was the product of recovered videotapes. By adding police reports and interviews with grieving parents, they added to the mystery. Background information on the legend was supplied to online communities interested in the supernatural. Instead of broadcastingto the passive masses, interest was stoked in those most likely to talk about and share the legend. weekend the film opened, Artisan bought a full-page ad in Variety.
It read: ‘Blairwitch.com ... 21,222,589 hits to date.’ It was the first film advert promoting a website rather than the film itself. For the first time, the website was as much a destination as the film. Shot by amateurs with virtually no filmmaking experience, The Blair Witch Project demonstrated that in the age of the Web, anyone could reach a global audience. And even more than that, if you engaged that audience, they would market the film for you. For free. The message of The Blair Witch Project resonated far beyond Burkittsville Woods.
10 | Photo sharing
Before the Large Hadron Collider, LHC stood for Les Horribles Cernettes, a doo-wop band made up of CERN employees. In 1992, a photo of the group was the first image uploaded to the Web. The photographer was Silvano de Gennaro, a developer at CERN, who managed the band. His co-worker Tim Berners-Lee was looking for an image to test a new version of his browser that could support images. So a badly Photoshopped image was the first picture on the Web. It was a sign of things to come. Surprisingly, brands like Kodak were slow to take advantage of this new opportunity. Despite developing a digital camera in 1975, Kodak stuck stubbornly to film, fearful of sabotaging its own business model As digital cameras became cheaper, photo-sharing came into its own. Launching in 2004, Flickr soon became the premier image-hosting site.
Allowing you to share your pictures, and follow and connect with other users, it was much more than a photo-sharing platform. It was a social network. Originally starting out as a geolocation service, Instagram saw that Foursquare had beaten them to it. It changed its focus to one simple aspect of its service – photos. Allowing users to share photos on the move gave it the edge. Also offering simple filters to make images look better (and the photographers’ lives look cooler), Instagram usurped Flickr as the photo-sharing platform of choice.