Before the Web: Collecting History Online

BTW LogoBy 2002 people were already describing the “history of the Internet,” and leaving out the essential embers on which the Net rose so quickly. Having been part of the nascient online service industry that grew through the 1980’s, I chaffed at this, well, oversight.

We had by some miracle (did you ever use comm software at 300 baud and wake it up by typing: ATDT?) devised ways to get some 10 million paying subscribers online before Mosaic and Netscape appeared: a handy beta test population that essentially meant everything to the rapid adoption of the net.

I proposed a small project to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which at the time was interested in how the Internet might be used as a complement to collecting oral histories from the scientists and engineers that most of its programs supported. I had the good luck to partner with the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and to have access to the unique collection of online services industry materials and memorabilia and newsletters published in those years by my good friend Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications.

The web site was created, entreaties went out to old colleagues, and personal accounts soon started arriving to be organized by several categories. The problem with oral histories, which motivated the Sloan Foundation to try the net, is the excessive time it takes to record, transcribe and then make public such recollections; sometimes years.

In the brief project period (about five months), action at the web site showed that personal accounts could be collected and presented extremely quickly (each entry was reviewed). Many score of industry practitioners came to the site, many left commentary, and those that refrained said that the online history of the 80’s was indeed important to capture.

The process also showed that the open online capture and presentation of personal accounts we employed was not a replacement for oral histories, by any means, but could serve to expedite and to clarify any oral recordings. It was precisely what the Foundation was looking for.

The project also illustrated the important fact that many of us were still at work, creating businesses, e-commerce sites, Web ventures or “normal” employment of our own, and that it was perhaps a little too soon to stop in mid-sales-call to record the businesses of the 80’s.

(The project site is offline.)

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