The other day on a podcast I heard someone talk about being in school “before the Internet.” Since this person had graduated later than I did, what she really meant was “before the World Wide Web.”
I have been online since 1985, when I was a freshman at Brown. (Yes, you can work out my age from that date, and no, I don’t care if you know how old I am. It’s not a secret.)
I wasted many hours on BITNET Relay, the predecessor of IRC, sitting in the basement of the computer center using a dumb terminal connected to the mainframe. All those hours of looking at green glowing letters on a black screen left me with retinal sunburn by the time I got home.
At that time, Brown University was part of BITNET. Not all networks had yet been subsumed into one. If I wanted to send email to friends at Wesleyan, who were on ARPANET, I had to jump through some hoops. Unlike BITNET, ARPANET was a real “internet” because it used the Internet Protocol.
Since the Internet Protocol (that’s what puts the IP in “IP Address”) dates back to 1974, there’s a very real sense in which the Internet is at least that old. As networks of networks and thus a small-i internet, ARPANET is even older: it was first deployed in 1969 to connect four different universities.
I graduated from Brown in 1989 and I don’t remember doing anything online in my first year of graduate school at the University of Michigan. But somewhere in my second or third year, I had cause to create an email account and discovered that there was now a thing called the Internet and the University of Michigan was connected to it. (Not only that, I got to be [email protected] instead of [email protected])
There was plenty happening on that Internet. Email, of course. FTP. Gopher. Usenet. I started an electronic journal about ancient theater and published it via FTP and Gopher. And actual not-very-geeky classicists read it, too. Even after the coming of the Web, I used to find recipes and join discussion groups on Usenet quite regularly.
In 1994 I saw the World Wide Web for the first time. The Web was invented in 1989, but its very first incarnation wasn’t graphical and so its revolutionary nature was less apparent.
The World Wide Web blew me away, even on a grayscale monitor. It was only a few months before I taught myself HTML and built my first website. (Funny how people talked about having a web “page”, even though there were many interlinked pages.)
As time went on, the Web came to take over many of the functions of the pre-Web Internet. Instead of Usenet, people gravitated toward Yahoo! Groups and Google Groups. Even when they did look at Usenet, it was through a web browser, just as many people use a web browser for sending and receiving email. (Though apparently Usenet still exists.) FTP became the realm of developers, and ultimately only of developers who weren’t using something else to deploy their files. (I used Git for the first time earlier this week.)
So these days, it’s understandable that a person might say “the Internet” and mean “the World Wide Web,” especially if that person is young enough not to remember a time before the Web.
But I am an incurable pedant, and I cringe whenever I hear someone refer to the 1990s as “before the Internet.” Especially when they’re old enough to know better.