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Marvel with Me at the Internet’s Origin Story

Before social media’s invasion, I was blessed to enjoy discovery and fun adventures on the wild digital frontier.
on May 12, 2021 · 6 comments

Once upon a time, we had fun going to the internet. It was a magical world in a far-off place, full of wonders. But then giants invaded and took over the land, wielding powerful algorithms. Cybernetic zombies spawned and assimilated people into ever growing factions and armies. Now our once-beautiful digital realm has the hallmarks of a hellish battlefield. Even worse, the barrier between our world and this newly polluted cyber world weakened and tore. The giants and zombies threaten to consume everything else we love.

Of course, the internet has improved in countless other ways. My connection today is faster than my childhood dial-up modem by a factor of one thousand. The internet of 2021 gives me access to more content, more media, more people, and more tools than I ever thought possible. But for some reason, it’s everything except fun.

So what exactly happened to Ye Olde Worlde of the internet? How was it killed off right before our eyes? Why did it become so dystopian? Can it ever become fun again?

Let’s Terraform the Internet: the series

I imagine you’ve had these questions yourself, even if you haven’t been passionate about computers your whole life. Growing up, I loved learning about telephones, walkie talkies, Ham radio, and internet modems. I majored in Telecommunications Engineering Technology because it sounded fun. I’m from the Oregon Trail Generation, so for me, computers have always been fun.

I have such warm memories of the early internet partly because I was one of the last people to graduate college before Facebook took over. But we’ll get to that in part 2 of this series. First, I want to marvel you with the wondrous days of what we once called the “world wide web,” or “the net.”

“Oh man, it’s still here,” Scott whispered to Peter

My two high school English classmates stared at the screen. Scott quietly loaded up a video game while Peter kept a lookout for the teacher. They had stashed the game in an obscure directory on the school library system. Peter logged in on a nearby machine and pulled up the hidden files from the network. Soon, they were playing each other and trying not to get caught.

This was the first time I realized that a computer game could be played on more than one screen. I had always had Nintendo games, but they used to only work on one television and thus were air-gapped from everything else. Scott and Peter’s “internet game” was something even more basic than a NES video game. It was probably “Tank Wars” or something similar, I can’t remember. But the idea of connecting with someone remotely was astounding to me, even though in this case they were in the same room.

“Do you have ICQ?” Geoff asked me after physics class

I had no clue what he meant. He and Grant explained it to me. It was kind of like AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), but you didn’t need America Online (which I didn’t have). They instructed me how to download the program, how to get a User Identification Number, and how to find them by their UINs. It was crucial to write all this down before I went home, because we wouldn’t be able to call each other then. We all used dial-up modems, so we had to use our home phone lines to connect to the internet.

Later that afternoon, I was chatting with Geoff and Grant, mostly about The Simpsons, with each message delivered with a high-pitched “uh-oh” sound. Soon, I added Eric and several other guys from our youth group to my friends list. Hours flew by as I dove into this incredible new experience of instant messaging.

Mostly, we would just talk nonsense and joke around. Then we started creating personal websites on GeoCities and sharing them. I don’t even think we had email by this point.

“Do you know what MP3s are?”

We were on the bus to freshman orientation at college. The guy sitting next to me introduced me to the concept of digital music. When I plugged in my Dell desktop computer to the 10BaseT ethernet in my dorm room, I followed his instructions and navigated to our local file-sharing system, “ResNet.” Hundreds of other computers were presented to me, all with varying kinds of shared folders. There were MP3s galore. Mind you, this was before Napster or the iPod.

We found many other wonders besides illegally shared songs. Like text documents with jokes. Low-quality (but high production quality) videos like Troops, a parody of COPS. Highlight clips from our university’s football games. Sound clips from The Simpsons.

“Look at all this stuff”

One computer on the ResNet stood out above the rest: Hobbes. It was a hub of hubs, a node to find all nodes. Anything you wanted to find on the ResNet could be found through Hobbes, a special server set up by a fellow student. This was late 1990s, so before Google really took off.

Hobbes also had a forum, and I became an active user. Back in high school, I had heard about bulletin board systems (BBS) from my friend, Andy, but didn’t see the point. The Hobbes forum immediately clicked for me, since it was just for students at my campus. Most of our discussions were hyper-localized. I also engaged in numerous evangelistic discussions. We started arranging meetups in person at the dining hall. Online friendships (and rivalries) translated to the real world.

The Hobbes community was very ephermal, just like the forum itself (rest in peace). We all had email, but it was our school account, so not something we kept after college. Hardly anyone had cell phones—and remember, I graduated before Facebook, which now basically acts as your persistent online ID. It was easy to lose touch with people after college.

(Just now as I wrote this, I remembered the usernames of two Hobbes friends and found them on Twitter!)

“How do you type with boxing gloves on?”

If the glory days of the internet had a mascot, it would be a short antagonist wearing a Mexican wrestling mask and boxing gloves named Strong Bad. This “grumbly, masked wrestler” set the gold standard for internet comedy. New cartoons came out every Monday, and my roommate, David, and I made a pact to wait until we returned home to watch them together. My coworker, Adam, and I still talk in Strong Bad’s voice every time we talk on the phone.

Polygon sums this up well:

One of the biggest sins on the modern internet is trying too hard to be funny. It has caused the internet’s sense of humor to turn cruel in the last decade and our knee-jerk response to earnest humor to be negative. Putting oneself out there creates a risk of ending up in a cringe compilation or as the subject of a devastating quote tweet. Strong Bad is representative of a time in the internet’s past when there was something new every day, and there was room for simple jokes.

Everybody to the limit!

Time doesn’t permit sharing all my many other fond memories of the net. But that reminds me of the absurd Timecube website I used to show everyone. Or the Hampsterdance website we’d prank people with (before Rickrolling). I couldn’t tell you how many hours I spent on Quake II or Counterstrike.

“Live journaling” (proto blogging) became a thing just as I graduated, starting with Mark telling me about his Xanga webpage. Jonathan also set up a Blogspot site, detailing his adventures in being newly married and going to seminary. It was so cool but weird all at once, and I didn’t know the rules. When I talked to my “blogger friends” in person, could I reference something they wrote about on their page? Or could I only reply in the comment section?

Then I lived in East Asia for two years. Staying in touch digitally and finding online resources became crucial. Before the Kindle happened, I discovered how to get ebooks on my Palm Pilot. I purchased and read the entire Left Behind series that way. Then the Christ Clone trilogy. Then loads of other books, none of which I have access to anymore because “Palm Reader” went out of business. But having an entire bookshelf in my pocket for the first time ever was fun while it lasted.

Naomi and I had just met at an overseas conference and started dating long distance. Skype was brand-new and our ticket to talking for free (internationally!), which was unheard of at the time. We went on dates at Yahoo Games. We went to virtual worship services together (before COVID-19 made that a thing) by listening to MP3 sermons from my home church. She had a special email address that delivered messages directly to her phone and notified her instantly. The excitement of a budding romance was accelerated by these emerging technologies. It was loads of fun.

A dark new chapter

It’s important that I (and you) hang onto these fun memories of the early internet. It wasn’t always the soul-draining dystopia that many people experience today. There was a time when it was mostly serene. A time before the cannibalistic giants descended upon the villages in Attack on Titan. An Age of Legends before saidin was tainted by the Dark One in The Wheel of Time. We have to remember the original world wide web to see more clearly this mirror universe of today’s internet. And remembering the good world will help us build it again.

Our disgust with the modern online world gives Christians an opportunity to create new realms and terraform cyberspace. I’ll explore more about this journey in parts two and three of this Make the Internet Fun Again series.

Chief engineer Zackary Russell is a Fightin’ Texas Aggie and proud member of Generation X-Wing. After conquering the Oregon Trail, he traveled to Hyrule and the Island of Myst. His heart for the nations led him into a ministry for international students, where he works as a videographer. He writes science fiction, and is the producer and co-host of the Fantastical Truth podcast. He lives in Texas with his wife and four children. His digital home base is zackaryrussell.com.
  1. You express the journey so well, Zack. I sigh as I remember. Our first computer was a Tandy, and I printed off college essays with a dot-matrix in the computer lab–using big floppy disks to haul around each project. The early years of internet were fun and clumsy. But yes, now it’s swallowed up our lives. To think there are some people who have only known the world with internet.

    • So true, Darlene. And you bring up a good point: there used to be more physical aspects to using the internet. It wasn’t all accessible through your thumbs on a screen. You had to fetch other items. It was like going on a quest and collecting all the relics.

  2. I used to be a SysOp of a tiny BBS. I regret to say that there was still drama and unpleasantry in those halcyon frontier days, because humans gotta human, but at least you still had the option to meet the perpetrator at a local coffee shop and hash out your differences in person. I once threw a user party, with cake.

    • I remember some flame wars, too. But yeah the difference is there was more of a sense of locality. And I’ll bet the community on your BBS was a lot smaller than what we typically deal with nowadays.

  3. L.G. McCary says:

    Badger badger badger badger badger badger badger badger SNAKE!
    (That’s my main memory of the early internet, and it still makes me laugh.)

What say you?