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Move over, Bill Gates, or: Memoirs of an Internet pioneer (who chickened out)

Memoirs of a not-quite Web pioneer

7 minute read
What I'd look like today (if I hadn't quit too soon)
What I'd look like today (if I hadn't quit too soon)
I was a Web pioneer!

Really!

But like many pioneers, when I encountered the Badlands, I turned tail and skedaddled home. If I'd stayed on the virtual prairie and played out some of my ideas, I'd be a multi-millionaire today. And probably miserable.

In the mid-1990s, I was weaning myself from editorship of the Welcomat, the alternative weekly now known as Philadelphia Weekly. My first online account was through my daughter Morgan at the University of Pennsylvania (she and her kids were living with my wife Linda and me in Powelton Village at the time). All I remember clearly is sitting on the third floor of our Baring Street house and looking at the screen of our minorly upscale Mac, trying to figure what this e-mail business was about.

Then one evening, Linda and I tripped over the Internet while wandering the byways of Penn's online system. This article with the numbers in brackets that we're supposed to type in"“ what does that do? We tried it and suddenly we were in... Sweden? How the dogsippering hell did we get here?

We'd landed at a vegetarian recipe site that, for whatever benighted reason, also included meat recipes under "dead cows" and "dead chickens." Confused, intrigued, delighted, we downloaded a recipe for Thai chicken that we still use.

Sam Johnson's Revenge

Soon, Linda gave me a book on the Internet as a holiday present. That's how I learned about Mosaic, the first graphical user interface to what would become the Web. You could download Mosaic from the supercomputing site at the University of Illinois. Somehow I knew, immediately, without a doubt, that this would be the Next Big Thing.

A few months later, after leaving the Welcomat, I was out of a job, though (as always) not caring much about being out of a job. With nothing otherwise constructive to do in my upstairs room, I decided to start an online magazine. In the mid-'90s, there were few online mags, and most of them were e-mail distributions. But I was blindly hooked into the Web when I created Sam Johnson's Electronic Revenge. The title came from the fact that I edited that more or less weekly magazine in tandem with the ghost of the grand lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

(You've never heard of Sam's Revenge? Sigh. It seems to be one of the few things successfully excised from the Internet. So far as I can tell, its complete files exist today only on my iMac.)

Student techies


Deciding to use the Web was easy. Publishing on it was something else, especially since my knowledge of technology amounted to slightly less than diddly. Fortunately, a note that my former managing editor Suzanne Ross inserted in the Welco about my idea for Sam's Revenge brought out Reuven Bell, a Penn student techie, who showed up in a yarmulke topped by a crocheted Cookie Monster.

Reuven and his dorm mate, Meng Weng Wong, from Singapore, were setting up an online company, pobox.com, where you could rent a permanent e-mail address that followed you even if you changed service providers. Somehow they decided it would add to their prestige to host Sam. So Meng, a near genius in online programming, put the site together, complete with forms and passwords and all the goodies that made it look like I knew what I was doing.

Along the way, I learned to write html. (In those days, there were no page-design programs; coding was done by hand.)

My major sin

I incorporated a few of my own writings, along with new stuff and reprints form the Welco. Sam hosted some wonderful pieces (including reprints of Jim Knipfel's early "Slackjaw" columns in the Welcomat) and some delightfully skewed crap that I wouldn't apologize for today, despite the current fashion of apologizing for everything but your shoe size.

What was my major sin? Paying writers for their stories "“ including reprints. I had the nebulous idea that once Sam was solidly established, people would shell out money to read it online. I even begged a loan from my brother Vic (who must have hoped that some day I'd learn how to make a living).

When I asked my small but faithful band of followers if they'd be willing to pay for a subscription, a solid four of them said Yes. After a year and half (or less), I realized I was simply shoveling money into the great maw of cyberspace and reluctantly escorted Sam Johnson back to his eternal rest.

Still, it was great fun to feel part of a slowly blossoming discovery. It was the only time in my life when I thought, Wow, I'm part of the evolving culture.

Before Netscape

Marc Andreessen, the student who had developed Mosaic at Illinois, started a company to enhance and market the still buggy, barebones interface. At the time, most of the verbal rattle that later became blogs and chat rooms was conducted in the "user news groups," a voluble, independent corner of the Internet. As Mosaic went through development (changing its name to Netscape along the way), Andreessen would leave notes telling when the latest beta was available for download.

I checked that news group every few hours. Along about 1 a.m., the long-awaited posting came: Netscape Navigator 1.0 was go.

I read the message 20 minutes after it went up, so I was one of maybe the first couple dozen people in the world to open the fully functional Netscape release. That still gives me shivers.

What else did your crapout pioneer attempt?

Random complaints


In 1994, Scott Pakin at MIT set up his wonderful "random complaint generator" on the Web. (It's still available!) You plug in the name of the person you want to complain about, add a few variables and it generates squalling, whining letters that sound remarkably like what we received every week at the Welco.

(I printed one that skewered the Welco's business manager, Larry Singer, who believed it without reservation— but then, Larry, wonderful soul, would have accepted the real thing with a broad smile.)

The generator got me wondering... What would happen if I developed a random PR generator? Most PR, after all, is spewed out by terrified, squirrelly English graduates who know only that piles of gelatinous adjectives can be randomly slathered across anything. I actively considered it, then... enh, maybe in another life. I hate PR.

Sears and Penney's

My next brainstorm was Catalogue Central. By 1996, almost no consumer companies had put their catalogues online. I saw a wide, uncluttered skyline. Set up a site that would design and host catalogues for, oh, J.C. Penney, L.L. Bean, Sears"“ you name it. I'd be stupefyingly rich, an unapproachable sumbitch who could hobnob with... with... all those people I despise.

OK, forget it.

The one that might have been truly useful for writers was Query Central. A prospective author with a clever book idea could post a query to a central clearinghouse where publishers, editors and agents could look at it, say, hmmm, and make an offer.

There was a major problem: How do you keep publishers and other authors from appropriating your idea? My feeling was and is that you can establish safeguards"“ for instance, only publishers, not other authors, would have access to the full site; an author would be notified automatically each time a publisher checked his area, etc.

Weirdly enough, I think that today, when the publishing industry is rolling over and whining like a beaten dog, it could work quite well. So go ahead guys, appropriate your little hearts out.

These days, your humble pioneer is home in his drafty upstate Pennsylvania cabin, roasting hoecakes over the woodstove. And he's probably as happy a miserable dude as he would ever have been.♦


To read Derek Davis's memories of the Welcomat, click here.


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