This is an ancient thing I wrote back when you could put up a good, long article on Kindle Direct Publishing for $2.99 and people would buy it since the medium was so new to most people. Here, I've published the latest revision from some time around 2018.
The Internet as we know it today began life as ARPANET, and was developed as a way to connect universities. A common misconception is that it was built to survive a nuclear war, but the network’s durability came from designing for the unreliable technology of the time. That it’s (probably) sturdy enough to survive a nuclear war is a nice side-effect, and a testament to the engineers who built the protocols and technologies we still use today.
This book is roughly chronological, but dates and years are hard to pin down in most cases, and there’s a lot of overlap.
The Internet Protocol (IP), central to the Internet, was a basis for communication. It provided the fundamental language for any computer to communicate. But it wasn’t much use on its own, so protocols were built on top of it.
The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is the big one, because it adds a suite of features to IP in the form of TCP/IP. It added things to IP to make sure data moved about reliably. And it worked great. You can be sure of that because it’s still in use today handling trillions of connections every year.
But TCP/IP was just a way to encode and decode data and reliably transfer it over unreliable connections. It didn’t provide a way for people to communicate meaningfully.
Email was one of the first human-facing communication protocols to catch on. Anyone with any level of technical skill could type a message into an email client and get it to where it needed to go using a simple human-readable address, like firstname.lastname@example.org.
But email could only do so much. It was disorderly if you were communicating with more than one person, and didn’t provide a way for people to see the conversation after the fact.
Usenet and the endless September
That’s where Usenet comes in. Before the Internet, people dialed in to Bulletin Board Servers (BBS) where you could exchange files, discuss things with communities at each end, and see what was going on. But this was limited. A BBS server was only accessible to as many people as the server had phone lines.
Many protocols existed to make mass discussion on the Internet possible, but most of them were commercial and expensive to license. Usenet, on the other hand, was free and simple to implement. So Usenet took over, and it worked great.
It let you find discussion on just about any topic, from science fiction to knitting, and any niche topic you could think of.
But there was a chaotic period every September when new students came to Internet-connected universities. They eventually settled down to become productive members of the global Usenet community.
This worked out fine when the Internet was mostly contained to universities, businesses, and a small group of early adopters. This would change when dial-up ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like Compuserv and AOL showed up and did everything in their power to popularize the Internet.
With masses of people come masses of problems. Usenet was born in universities where people learned the social norms, and expected behavior could be enforced. Most ISPs in the late ’80s and early ’90s provided Usenet access, and did little to control the behavior of their users. AOL was notorious for failing to penalize users who used their access to Usenet for disruptive purposes.
Usenet has poor moderator controls, and even the best-run newsgroups collapsed under the strain of spam and trolls. This is usually referred to as the Endless September.
Usenet was under attack from two fronts: bad users, and the rise of web-based message boards that gave moderators tools to deal with problem users. With that and declining provision of free Usenet access by ISPs, Usenet is effectively dead. Most groups are overun by scams and spam, and no one’s around to do anything about it.
You can still access it through Google Groups and paid Usenet providers, but it’s nowhere near as vibrant as it used to be. Most of the interesting discussion moved to web forums and social media.
Most of my memories of Usenet are from using it to argue about whether or not the Gamecube was winning the Console Wars, or joking around in alt.fan.sonic-hedgehog. Older readers will realize I grew up in the waning days of Usenet and never got to see the network in its full glory.
The big, famous worms like Code Red and Slammer got all the attention in the news, but The Morris Worm was the first to do widespread damage, and it wasn’t even on purpose. Robert Morris created his worm in 1988 as an experiment to gauge the size of the Internet. The worm worked by exploiting known vulnerabilities common to most Internet-connected systems of the era.
A bug in the worm caused it to reinfect some machines that were already infected, making the systems crash under the load of infinite copies of the worm in memory.
Morris was among he first to be tried and convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in United States v. Morris. He was sentenced to 400 hours of community service, 3 years of probation, and a $10,000 fine.
The World Wide Web
My experience with the web started when I figured out what that little blue button in AOL did. I was very young and didn’t document much of my experiences, but some of it is still in memory. These are the most interesting things I can remember.
The reign of AOL
This was back when ISPs still billed by the hour. It was a dark time where hours were traded on the black market, and people were mugged for the codes on their trial offers. Light was brought to this dark time in the form of plastic and metals forged into tablets of various shapes, on which codes were inscribed.
These tablets (known as floppy disks and compact discs) granted access to the Internet, and they turned up everywhere. They showed up in mailboxes. You could find them at the gas station, grocery store, book store, and any place where open counter space was found. A lot of people had computers, and modems were inexpensive and easy to install, so there was no reason not to enter this new era.
After a time AOL did away with hourly billing and charged by the month, giving you as much time as you could consume for one flat rate. Editorials were penned on the hazards of spending so much time on the Internet. It turns out this wouldn’t be a problem. The success of the new billing method and the exponentially rising popularity of AOL brought the entire service to a crawl.
For months you were lucky if you could connect at all. They just weren’t ready for the amount of demand unlimited access would bring. No one could prepare for that, especially in a time when people still doubted the viability of personal computing. These problems went away, and AOL became a Big Deal.
AOL screeched into the public consciousness so fast and hard that it was a key plot point in the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail. The movie, unlike AOL’s doomed merger into Time Warner, was a resounding success.
I mostly used AOL to play games and try new and interesting pieces of shareware in the software library. I wasn’t quite old enough to appreciate the significance of a service with a brand powerful enough to have other companies declaring their AOL Keyword in advertisements in TV, newspapers, and terrestrial radio.
Happy times continued until the dot com bubble burst.
There was a strange era early in the life of the web when everyone and their gerbil thought they had a great business idea that centered on the web, and investors were happy to ignore the impracticality of most of these shoddy business ideas while throwing money at them.
The result was predictable. The dot com bubble exploded, dragging the world economy down with it. Companies with sound business ideas behind them — like Google and Amazon — survived, but most went down the tubes.
The tech industry has found a safe balance where it starts flooding bad ideas with money, then someone says “hey maybe this isn’t a good idea,” and the market cools again.
Some day the heat will be too much to keep things from boiling over again.
NetZero and freedom
NetZero took AOL’s monthly billing model one step further and gave Internet access away. You just had to have a banner ad on your screen. That is, until you figured out that you could bypass the NetZero ad-displaying dialer and connect through Windows’ own dialing program.
It wasn’t long before details on how to do this spread through IRC and Usenet, forcing it to become a normal ISP with billing and other businessy things. NetZero was pretty good. It looks like they’re still around, but I can’t vouch for the quality.
Eventually broadband came along and negated a whole era of computing. Now dial-up is a thing you get as a last resort, and most laptops and desktops have stopped coming with dial-up modems.
Namezero let you register a domain name for free as long as you ran their banner advertisement in the lower quarter of the browser window. The idea was doomed.
All their attempts at forcing people to run the ad failed, and at some point they turned into a normal paid domain registrar.
Microsoft Internet Explorer
Microsoft liked to add new things to their browser. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if their additions weren’t completely incompatible with other browsers, forcing web developers to create versions of their sites specifically for Internet Explorer.
Internet Explorer 6 was the bane of existence for all who dared to weave webs during the reign of Microsoft. Their browser’s downfall was heralded by the rise of Firefox and the new era of fancy interactive UIs, ironically driven by a thing Microsoft created but had no ambitions for.
Internet Explorer has yet to adopt a system for plugins as simple and robust as that of Firefox and Chrome.
File sharing and the liberation of culture
The new millennium and the latter years of the last came with the rise of broadband as a standard of connectivity through cable and DSL. The culture of mix tapes found its way on to the Internet in the form of file sharing programs like Napster and Kazaa, and websites like MP3.com
A battle between file sharers, record labels, and other traditional media organizations went on for years before the dust settled. This was the era when grandparents sharing the Matlock soundtrack were labeled as pirates, and the Recording Industry of America (RIAA) earned the ire of every reasonable person.
We’re in a relatively peaceful time where you can find most media online legally at a reasonable price, and it’s increasingly flexible. But the damage is still visible in the form of Digital Rights Management (DRM), which relies on the goofy notion that you can give the keys and the safe to someone and expect them not to open it.
The full extent of the file sharing wars is documented in this Wikipedia entry.
This was the dawn of Web 2.0, where the tech media was flooded with trendy buzzwords and new companies whose names made no sense, like flickr and del.icio.us. Firefox’s plugin system changed everything. You no longer had to learn arcane incantations to develop plugins like with Internet Explorer.
Most importantly, Firefox’s plugin system gave full control over the browser to developers. You could completely change the interface without touching the underlying code of the browser. This led to plugins like Firebug, which let web developers peek under the hood and see why their pages looked weird.
But Firefox started down the dark path Internet Explorer followed with bugs and incompatibilities. Google depended on the proper display of sites showing its ads, and Firefox increasingly didn’t work. So Google published and promoted Chrome, saying “this is how you do the web.”
Chrome pushed Firefox to get better, and it worked. Together, Firefox and Chrome blew holes in Microsoft’s once-dominant market position, so much so that even Microsoft had to start thinking about how to build a better browser.
The mobile web
Engineers have tried to cram the web into mobile devices for as long as both have existed, but it wasn’t until 2008, when Apple released the iPhone, that it worked well enough to create a consumer market for mobile technology. Like most early movers, Apple’s iPhone languished without any serious competition. Blackberry was still focusing on the business market that Apple had no interest in, and most competing phones were duds.
Then, in 2008, Google launched the Android mobile operating system. It wasn’t as shiny and polished as the operating system on Apple’s phone, but it was open, free, and based on well-understood technologies like Linux and a Java-based programming language.
This is all too new as of this book’s publication, so I couldn’t do much more than speculate. It seems like Apple is faltering while Google and Microsoft are on track to take the lead, with Blackberry making an honest effort to stay relevant. But it’s still too soon to say anything with certainty.
We are here.
The Internet is still a wild place, but it’s gaining mainstream power fast. From its role in the 2008 elections to collective self-protective efforts by Internet users to shut down attempts at censorship, the Internet has gone from a toy for academics to a serious social and economic force.
It’s hard to predict where it’ll go from now. It’s still new, and it’s very weird. The Internet shifted the balance of power from distributors to creators, which is how you’re reading this right now. In the past I would have had to find a magazine to accept a submission for one of its issues, and I probably wouldn’t have been paid for it.
We could revert to a tightly controlled content distribution network with publishing houses and media conglomerates holding all the power, but things are looking up for now and the near future. For now, the Internet is the realm of creators.
And you’re a part of it. Thanks for reading.
Here's the glossary that came with the original. It's informative and sometimes silly. I tried to do better than the glossaries in most technical books by making you want to read it, not just refer to it if you needed clarity.
America Online (AOL), now mostly a content provider, was among the most popular ISPs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
ARPANET was the precursor to what we now call the Internet. Universities, governments, and authorized businesses (usually government contractors) used it to collaborate and communicate efficiently.
Compact Discs were flat, round pieces of plastic and some kind of reflective metal on which data was inscribed using lasers. It evolved over the years into DVDs, Blu-Rays and other mediums using similar manufacturing processes. They were read by the computer using a weak laser and optical sensor.
Compuserv was a popular dial-up Internet service provider.
In the early days of the Internet, most people didn't have a direct connection. It was simply too expensive, if it was available at all. This was solved by using the existing voice network that reached the point of near ubiquity around 1980.
Dial-up modems converted data into tones and screeches that were translated back into data on the receiving end. They were originally used to connect to local Bulletin Board Servers, but ISPs like AOL and Compuserv bought connections to the Internet at bulk discounted prices and sold access to it via modem.
The screeching and tones were usually made audible by the modem during the connection process for diagnostic purposes. This is a point of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the dial-up era. You could hear an automated voice telling you it was the wrong number, or the angry person on the other end insisting that their ear wasn't a modem.
A domain is a human-readable string of text that represents the computer-readable numbers used internally by most Internet-connected software.
Floppy disks were an early, low-density form of portable storage that used spinning magnetic material to hold information. They held about two megabytes of data in more advanced forms. There were other takes on low-density portable magnetic storage, like Zip disks, but they never gained traction.
Internet Service Provider (ISP)
Internet service providers sell access to the Internet, usually through coaxial cable or phone lines, but increasingly through fiber optic links directly to homes. Wireless technology is, as of publication, too slow and expensive to fully replace physical connections.
Metadata is information around a piece of data that describes the contents. It's like the cover page on a book, but it's usually in a format that a computer can understand.
Before around 2007, it was common for all Internet access to happen on large, bulky computers attached by wire to the Internet. Increasing processing power in small devices and spreading wireless access to the Internet sparked a transition to computers that required few if any physical connections.
Plugins allow users to extend the functionality of software in ways the developer might not have thought of, and allows software to do things the developer considered impossible or impractical.
A protocol is a collection of standard metadata that allows a server and client to communicate.
Domain registrars are entities empowered to distribute human-readable domain names to people and organizations.
A server is a computer that handles requests from a user.
Shareware is a limited or early version of a piece of software offered for free to entice you to buy the full version. Many games came in multiple parts where the first was given away, and you were strongly encouraged to buy the next one, usually through popups before, during, and/or at the end of the game.
Web 2.0 was a concept popularized in the early years of the 21st century. It referred to the interactive nature of websites enabled by Ajax, which was a collection of existing web technologies brought together under a single concept. Web 2.0 was distinguished from the websites of the previous era, which were mostly non-interactive.
This marked the transition of the web away from a simple repository of interlinked information to a platform for powerful applications. Software that ran inside the user's browser would soon replace most classic applications, which run directly on the user's computer.
World Wide Web
World Wide Web refers to the mass of linked text (or hypertext) that connects entities on the web to each other.