Saturday, January 15, 2011

Viral Loop and My Early Forays Into Cyberspace

I'm currently listening to an audio version of the book Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. Before getting to the meat of his story, NYU journalism professor Adam Penenberg begins with a little background on what a viral business model looks like. The Ponzi story of 1919-1920 is quite interesting. So is the Tupperware story, with its end result being that there are probably very few homes in America without one of Mr. Tupper's wares.

This is all setup for the story of the Internet itself, how it went from being a geek world to becoming something totally pervasive, now woven into the fabric our modern life.

I'm not that far into the book so I do not know whether Penenberg will present it this way, but the promotional reviews about the book sure make it seem like we should all be gazillionaires by now, if only we understood how viral ideas can grow and make us rich, and how the Internet makes viral marketing easier than ever.

Anyways, as I listened to the story of the early days of the World Wide Web, I couldn't help but think about what I was doing at the time. I got my first Mac 512ke in 1987. These were the days when geeks passed around discs of Shareware, with programs you could try out, many for fun, some for serious. At some point (maybe around 1990?) I was introduced to a program called Hyperstack or Hypercard. It was a way of creating pages that you could jump to in non-sequential order. Little did I know that in a few short years there would be a global hyper-stack that enabled users to jump all over the cyber-universe in a non-sequential manner.

In the early 1990's there were several fledgling companies that used the networked world to disseminate information and create communities. One early champion of this realm was CompuServe. Another was America Online. A telephone line and a modem would connect users to hundred of thousands, and eventually millions, of other users who formed communities and used the service for a variety of purposes. For example, in 1992-94 I was researching and writing a series of articles on ethical issues in terminal health care. To gain new points of view I initiated discussion groups on the topic, and ended up with many insights I had previously been unaware of for my article on the "Pros and Cons of Doctor Assisted Suicide." The power of this new medium was quickly evident for journalists.

In the spring of 1994, because I could see that the Internet was going to be a force, I took a one day class at the University of MN, Duluth called Internet: Introduction to the Global Information Resource. My suspicions regarding the power of the Net were confirmed when I got home that night and found that article abstracts I'd found at libraries in Berlin and Pisa were on my Mac SE, successfully downloaded from across the seas.

At the time, the World Wide Web had not really gone mainstream. The only browser was Mosaic, a remarkable piece of programming that enabled people to see images and colors and not simply lines of text. The instructor at UMD was absolutely gaga over this "new thing" (not exactly raving, but fairly excited) but I was a little less so. The university had a T-1 line and super fast connections to the Net, and even so the program loaded so slowly you could take a bathroom break while the page loaded. Knowing how most of the world was on a telephone line with a 14 kb modem, I assumed this was not going to catch on all too quick.

But I was wrong. That fall Mark Andreesen, who was instrumental in writing the code for Mosaic, had outdone himself and led a Silicon Valley team that produced the Netscape browser... and, as Penenberg details, the rest is history.

As for me, I soon purchased a book called How to Learn HTML in Two Weeks, and believed that it was possible. Sure enough I was soon building a website. In late 1994 I launched my first pages, calling it Ennyman's Territory. The "ennyman" moniker came about like this. When I first signed up for AOL, I had to choose a "handle" and I wanted something cool, a little defining, but something I could identify with. I made a list of five names. One of them was SeaLion, thinking it played off my first name (Leon) and said something about swimming the cyber seas. The name was already taken. So were the other four.

AOL had a way of helping indecisive people select a name. The program suggested enewman4042, which is the first initial of my middle name plus my last name and the numerals from my address. No one else was likely to have this the AOL team surmised. I began typing en... and then thought of Everyman, the common man, and took a stab at the name Ennyman. A spontaneous impulsive whim. This was accepted and I've been ennyman ever since.

In 1995-6 I wrote a column for Printwear magazine called Screen Net, which was my way of helping others learn about the basic features of the new technology. I wrote articles like "What Is A Browser" and "The Top 25 Search Engines" in order to learn as much as I could about this emerging world.

Penenberg's book reminded me of how early I was to have staked a claim for real estate on the world wide web. At the time there really weren't that many websites, relatively speaking. Yes, there were surfers, but in 1995 a simple site like my own could catch the attention of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and be tagged one of the Top Ten Sites in Minnesota. (I was even sent an icon to wear on my home page.) I'm pretty sure that what caught their eye was my Virtual Gallery featuring crayon art by Don Marco and Jeffrey Robert. For some reason, even though I have removed this section from my current website, it still remains out there somehow, like a remote ghost town that has yet to crumble and can still be found on the fringes of the prairie.

Back then, a website was a novelty and easy to draw attention to. Now, they're swallowed up in a cyber-galactic universe of blogs, Facebook pages, and whole continents of content competing for eyeballs. Where it goes from here is anyone's guess.

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