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In The Beginning

Sandra Prior
Jul 23, 2008
The story of the Internet is rather different. It didn't start with a patented and aggressively marketed product from Bell, Marconi or IBM. In fact, it's hardly overstating matters to say that the Internet pretty much happened by accident. It 'just growed', and managed to do so without any serious involvement from the commercial world.

The interesting thing is that the Internet back in those early days grew and evolved in direct response to what the people using it wanted. It was driven by user and customer demand rather than the potential capabilities of a technology.

As people wanted new functionality from the system, the technologists found ways of delivering it. By the time that business started muscling in on the Internet turf in the early 90s it already existed in fundamentally the form it does today. Sure, it was a lot smaller - but it was still sufficiently vast to suggest that the pre-commercial Internet, along with other, related systems of electronic communication that have since absorbed it, was actually doing a pretty damn good job of delivering something that a lot of people out there actually wanted to use.

Most works on the early days of cyberspace focus on the development of the technologies that today's Net uses - TCP/IP and so forth. Understandably, they therefore look primarily at ARPAnet and Milnet, the academic/military pairing that, in physical terms, is where it all started. At the core of this online soul is a system called the WELL (the Whole Earth's Lectronic Link), originally a kind of bulletin board on steroids which - since its origins as a 'closed' system - has since migrated to the Web.

What the WELL succeeded in doing during the mid 1980s was getting people to discuss things in cyberspace with as much openness and clarity as they would face to face. In the early days, it is probably fair to say that everyone who used the WELL was part of a single virtual community - those who were mad enough to crouch over a computer screen and exchange thoughts with people they didn't know. In due course, however, it settled down or fragmented into a number of such communities.

Getting Together

It wasn't enough to be online - you had to be online and have a shared interest, such as mediaeval literature, Harley motorbikes or old claret. However, the nature of the beast meant that communities overlapped, were more than the simple clubs they seemed to resemble. And that stemmed from the use of technology. Because it was so easy and quick to move between different discussion areas, you could talk about books, bikes and Bordeaux over a single evening - even over a 15 minute period. And nothing in the real world could deliver that.

As the WELL succeeded in attracting an unusual number of those who later became maverns of the online world its easy to think that it provided a unique service. Far from it. Americans had access to a range of alternatives, of which one of the most interesting was BIX (the Byte Information eXchange), sponsored by Byte magazine, which was then at the height of its success. BIX provided less philosophy and a good deal more technical nuts and bolts than the WELL, but provided an equivalent environment for society's propeller heads.

Meanwhile, Europeans had their own equivalents. The granddaddy of them all is CIX (the Compulink Information eXchange), a UK based system which I was using in the mid 1980s. The French had CalvaCom, which started out as a simple BBS for Apple users (Calva, or Calvados, is brandy made from apples) but soon developed into a full blooded gallophone home for various communities.

Then, of course, the French had Minitel screens. Originally intended simply for an electronic telephone directory service, these tiny terminals (available free to anyone with a telephone) soon showed they could be used for other things. Key among these were conversation, particularly on the notorious 'messageries roses' (pink messages), the popular sex chat lines.

That may seem typically French were the equivalent not happening in other countries. 'What are you wearing?' may not have been a popular question on WELL or CIX, but it was still being asked across the wires.
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