Thursday, August 26, 2010

What were the earliest hints of the internet as we know it?

Here are a few, in reverse chronological order:

1. A 1981 report on "electronic journalism" -- or, "newspapers by computer."

"We're not in it to make money." Good thinking!

At the end, the newscaster reports that it takes 2 hours to transmit the full text of a newspaper, which costs $5 an hour. She concludes that electronic journalism clearly "won't be much competition" for traditional newspapers.

2. A 1969 vision of online shopping, complete with soothingly traditional gender roles:

3. Reader comments in the 17th through 19th centuries. That Slate article is largely based on a book from 1995 -- before the world wide web became widely used -- called News for All by Thomas C. Leonard. The article quotes Leonard's thesis: "'When Americans chose the news, they were often not simply thinking of stories they wished to read; they were thinking of another reader.'"

The article goes on:

Leonard's example is the Boston News-Letter, first published in 1704. Its proprietor, John Campbell, deliberately left blank space in its pages so subscribers could annotate and otherwise append their ideas and "news" to the newspaper. These amendments weren't aimless jottings, either. Newspapers were routinely shared after purchase, and the notes readers added in the spaces and margins were designed to edify the friend or acquaintance the reader next forwarded his paper to. . . .

As newspapers evolved, readers found new ways to comment. . . . [L]ater subscribers in Boston paid a premium for wrappers "so they would have a generous writing space as they sent the paper along." In the 1800s, as pioneers moved West, the mailed newspaper became "a natural greeting card," as Leonard puts it, that allowed friends and family back home to know that the traveler had arrived at his destination. Friendships and courtships were advanced by the exchange of newspapers, much as friends and lovers trade URLs via e-mail today. By forwarding a newspaper—or a URL—the sender validates the information transferred. But usually, the information being transferred is dwarfed by the sender's expression that he is just thinking of the recipient.
So, the "comments" sections at the end of articles and blog posts, and "content sharing" through "social networking" sites, aren't just fads. They appeal to deep-seated human urges:

(1) to contribute actively to what you're reading, rather than letting elite content and thought be the last word in everything, and

(2) to transmit content to other people you know. If you read something you're excited about, you naturally want to share it with someone else instead of having a reading experience that's completely isolated and alone.

We've been doing these things for hundreds of years. It's just more efficient now.