1 The Year September Never Ended

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went on to delete old messages evidencing the less pleasant side of this character's personality. Some of the disaffected got as far as planning a revenge prank: starting a conference named dead_biker, joining the mourners to it, and then removing themselves. It was a common trick of that era in CIX's history that has largely disappeared with the near universal use of offline reader software: an example of technology's influence on behavior.[5] By now, few outside his circle of friends remember him; people come and go from CIX all the time, most only scratching a tiny percentage of its surface.


I'd argue instead that what makes a community is a mark of difference between the community members and the rest of the world and, more importantly, an external threat, real or imagined. Who hasn't at some time felt a temporary sense of kinship with other members of the same minority, whether you're Americans abroad in a non-English-speaking country, VW Beetle owners, tennis fans, or folk musicians?


The Net started like that, as a loose group of people who all used computers but knew that other people were desperately bored by them. Older systems that prompt newcomers for information about themselves always ask what type of computer you use. A depressingly large number of people fill this in, even though any normal person would unplug his or her modem to avoid the folks who fill in the make, model, and serial numbers of their work, home, and portable computers. I'm sure in the days before we useless non-academics were allowed onto the Net, those who were wired had the heady sense of excitement that comes with having your own private, almost secret, playground.


That was then; this is now. Older online communities like the WELL and CIX have survived through years of fussy, unstable equipment and bad phone lines, through business challenges posed by dropping prices and Internet competition, to today, when the biggest perceived threats are coming from governments and other organizations seeking to regulate the Net. In between there have been enormous social changes as the size of the Internet population has shot from an estimated 30 million in early 1994 to as many as 60 million in early 1997.


What makes the Internet such a difficult beat to cover is that no two people experience cyberspace the same way, just as no two people ever quite experience real life the same way. What you find online very much depends on what you're looking for. This, along with the fact that with so much to choose from you simply stop seeing the parts that don't interest you, is one reason why the Net can look so innocent to those who have been online for years, but simultaneously so full of subversion and filth to outsiders whose only contact with it is through media coverage or police complaints. Such a wide disparity of views is a significant difficulty in determining whether and how the Net should be regulated or governed; the choice so far seems to be between people who understand the Net and insist it can't (and shouldn't) be controlled and people who don't understand the Net and are overeager to make bad laws in the hope that they will stick long enough to win a couple of elections. Coming to grips with how the Net works and disentangling issues for the Net from matters that are properly dealt with in the physical world are important steps in understanding what a digital future may be.


I was not one of the first settlers, although I thought about getting a modem as early as 1983. It was the summer of 1991 when I started out on online services-- primarily CompuServe and the London-based conferencing system CIX, both of which now hook to the Net in the wider sense--after I bullied an editor into believing he really did need a feature about bulletin boards by a beginner for his beginners' computer magazine. Usenet came later, sometime in 1992, when I began sporadically reading a couple of newsgroups, primarily r e c . s p o r t . t e n n i s, through CIX's read-only gateway. When the United Kingdom's first and still biggest domestic Internet service provider (ISP), Demon Internet, started up in mid-1993, I had direct, two-way Internet access for the first time.[6] Life online wasn't as easy back then as it is now: a technically literate friend of mine, one of


    

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