Category: net

1995: 20 years ago, I joined the Internet

Twenty years ago today (roughly), I joined the internet. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous affair, but was necessitated by MSN (not the website, the original ISP service that debuted with Windows 95) having shut down its service in Korea, forcing me to find a local ISP (and convincing my parents that 7,000 won a month (about $6) was worth connecting to this nascent world wide web. For that, you’d get access to Chollian’s ISP, and 15 hours of access to the “internet” via PPP dial-up.

I was 10 years old and my family had just moved to Seoul from the United States for reasons that I still am not quite sure of, and in the demise of MSN, the ISP, I had just lost a major connection to the English speaking world that I had left behind. Quite sad, I know, but all that was about to change. I chose a Korean ISP called “Chollian”–which literally meant “vision of a thousand li” (li was a unit of distance in old Korea). No reason why i picked it other than that I got a CD with a trial; think of those old AOL CDs.

I spent a while trying to pick a screenname and email address, and ended up with: It was 1995 and ISP emails were the only way you’d get reasonable email. (Go ahead, spam it all you want. I doubt it even exists anymore. Oh where oh where do the lost emails go?) Anyone who asks about the origins of the name will be regaled with a rather hilarious story of the hours I took to come up with it. (Okay fine: one involves my name Alexander {obviously}, the E. and the R. stand for “Enforcer” a screenname I used frequently in Duke Nukem 3d multiplayer matches, and “Riker” as I believed the good TNG number one was a badass, esp as Admiral). Need I remind you, dear reader, I was 10 in ’95 and personal identity was an important thing to a kid.

It’s hard to recall what my first experience online was like; certainly I had an awareness that “holy shit, I’m connected to the world!”. But in 1995, (especially in Korea where most families didn’t even have a computer), with barely 0.4% of the world on the internet, there really wasn’t much to do other than, well browse here and there and try to find interesting things. I had already been online over the past year on closed-ISPs which made it quite easy to have a curated, though highly limited, online experience (recall AOL, Prodigy, and MSN, which kept their own little communities? Lest we forget, this was a big part of the “online” world in the 1990s. I was involved with a Doom map making community rather early, and I was blown away by how much interesting stuff I could find and explore.). By comparison, the discovery experience for new world wide web user was quite brutally obtuse. Imagine you have never heard of the internet and you open a browser for the first time (one without a decent portal); without knowing that a search engine exists, how would you even know what to enter into the blank URL bar? I remember being confused even at the syntax of a URL: <- a web URL is second-nature to us now in 2015, but in 1995, at first glance, it was quite foreign.

(On a side note, when my family moved to Korea one of my chief concerns was falling behind in my learning, and not being able to keep up if/when I returned to the US. My early use of the internet absolutely turned that around, and I was able to learn at my own pace, to my own interests. The internet absolutely was a formative experience of my childhood.)

But the “Internet” was quite different back then. I didn’t even know what a search engine was, let alone what to do if i didn’t have one of those mysterious “URLs” to go somewhere interesting. The blank page and address bar were like big question marks. It seemed like the only way I could find anything was via links from other pages; which turned my internet activity into some sort of scavenger hunt. I’m telling you, you kids today don’t know what it was like back then. My first modem was 14.4 kbps. That’s KILOBITs per second. I developed mental math to convert megabytes into time, (turned out to be roughly 10 minutes per megabyte, which is still ten times faster than New Horizons is sending data to NASA right now…), which was an important conversion when using the internet meant nobody could use the home telephone line. Trust me, however old you are, it is not easy convincing your parents that it’s ok that their phones aren’t working, and having them plan out their calls… lol.

But what was I doing back then? Most of the time, I was reading the news about what’s happening in the world (in English, before the internet it was quite difficult to find content in the language of my choosing), finding new shareware games to download and play, and/or picking up random fun things to do. I learned both Doom map making and Photoshop at around the same time.

By 1996, I was 11 and had at least one other friend from school that would explore the internet with. Yahoo chatrooms were particularly memorable. He would enjoy trolling people, whereas I’d find the most interesting person in each room to figure out/learn something new. We’d coordinate using an ancient IM platform called ICQ. I don’t even remember my ICQ ID. I was also an avid PC gamer at the time, and I’d frequent many tech sites oriented towards games and the PCs needed to run them.

Still, it was a very impersonal affair, and while the internet always was about connecting people, back then, it was certainly not easy, and most definitely not “encouraged” by the media, which seemed oddly terrified at the idea of a computer that was connected to gasp other people. I recall at least a few random people chatting and making sorta/kinda friends that existed somewhere in the world. It was like pen-pal discovery for the digital age. “a/s/l?” Do people still do that?

(Aside: I feel like the real-name orientation of Facebook has taken away some of the fun and mystery of discovering the human behind a screenname. “Add Friend” is just not nearly as intriguing as “a/s/l”, even if most of those interactions were rather silly and pointless.)

That’s how I recall the internet back in the mid 1990s, a curiosity for most people, at least for me, with hardly any means for connecting with anyone. But by my local standards, I was already exposed to a small but growing population of internet users, barely 0.4% of the world population, and a phenomenon that would be hugely upend everything. It was pretty obvious by the late 1990s, especially in Korea, which like a crazy stampede, everyone suddenly decided that mobile infrastructure and the broadband internet were top national priorities. Hot damn. A bet well played.

All that changed with the emergence of social media, and real-time communication media; which turned the web from static place, into the living, breathing, web that connects a growing majority of the world’s people and information. Half of the entire planet’s population, three and a half BILLION people, are just an IM/SMS away.

How amazing is that! We’ve come a long way in 20 years, and the march goes on. Let’s connect everyone!

“Fuck you and crowdSPRING too.” – Crowdsourcing is not cool anymore?

Here’s an old article, but since I’m sitting at a talk discussing the wisdom of crowds, it seems appropriate. Crowdsourcing has become an increasingly dominant force on the internet ever since “social media” became a meme. Anyone can produce anything, and distribute/produce it for a fraction of the traditional cost. This is a big win for consumers of content and the advertisers that support it, since distribution is basically free and the directory of content on the Internet is massive. People who believe in open-source, free access, and free content are nearly religious in their support of it. One simply needs to observe the sheer number of manhours going into the Linux, or Mozilla project to see how much people care, and love to hate things like DRM. Some are killed off publically by the old model of business (Napster comes to mind), but they’re quickly replaced by analogous services that make it even harder to derive value out of consumers of content.

Whether this is good or bad for the world at large is debatable, and there’s an increasingly vocal group of individuals, organizations, and companies opposing this disruptively open world, and their ranks seem to grow with each new web service designed to leverage the masses. The claim is made that today’s internet model is devaluing the work of traditional creative forces everywhere, music, movies… to which the average American consumer (and certainly, moreso elsewhere in the world) discounts as corporate greed. While the local-culture movement has helped sustain small-scale artists, ultimately if/when they get signed by a larger label, the ultimate value that can be derived from their work is declining.

However, now a couple new startups–crowdSPRING and 99Designs–are quickly bringing this to another group of creative forces: artists and designers. These services allow a content consumer (for example, a business needing a logo), to connect with a huge number of designers. For each post, submissions can be received from several designers, for which, only the poster selected work receives compensation. Clearly, this is great for the consumers of content, but what about the producers? Judging by the backlash against these sites, designers don’t seem to like being reduced to doing “speculative work” without any guarantee for pay. Then again, maybe this is just market forces at work. Jeff Howe writes that “The demand for low-end design has ballooned in recent years… so has the supply of what we might call “low-end designers” (amateurs, recent grads, and the like).” He goes on to mention that there are some eighty thousand freelance designers in the U.S., a shockingly high number, but if there’s demand, why not create the market?

The two startups are certainly doing well–and for creating a marketplace where creative forces can meet consumers, why not? Apple did it with its App Store, and Microsoft with Xbox Live. Yet there’s a fundamentally different dynamic here; in that, while the aforementioned two services help producers find a market of consumers, crowdSPRING exists more to level the playing field for designers. “Professional” designers now compete in the same space as freelancers, and that’s where the complaints come in.

In my mind, all this yelling is a sign that traditional economic models are changing; some win, some lose, but those doggedly holding onto the old will most certainly fall. If you, as a professional designer, can’t compete against new college grads, and hobbyists, too bad. There are a couple instances where I feel the model fails, for example, this story, where it’s said the Twitter “bird logo” designer only got paid $6 for his work, seems a little unjust. But this may be just a matter of too much supply–when you have 80,000 freelance designers, it’s not too hard to find someone that will work for just a little less.

Ultimately, it’s still a free market; if designers don’t want to work for $6 then they don’t have to. Tough luck for design firms; hopefully they’ll be able to find a way to differentiate their services. I do have one small consolation for the $6 designer; he might as just made the Twitter bird for $6, but I bet his next assignment will come a lot easier.

Facebook/Twitter Connect, Disqus brings blogs together

In the last few years, there were leaps forward in web services world that changed how we think of digital identity and how it comes to be used in the blogging world; the former occurred when the idea of delegated authentication came to fruition via OAuth, Facebook Connect, Windows Live ID DelAuth, and others; and the latter happened via Disqus.

Previously, online communities were like closed silos of people and content; each member could post on a family of pages that the service provider operated, be it Blogger, Xanga, Live Journal, or Facebook. You logged into a site, and you got to use that identity within the site. This worked if your community of readers and writers were all affiliated with the same site, but the general web trends at the time were of users being on multiple sites, having multiple identities. For the blogging community, this posed a challenge, especially if you were hosted your own blog; each user had to register in order to give them a personalized experience. It was difficult to track comments from anonymous users, and verifying identity was very difficult. It was a world of anonymous cowards and spammers.

Things changed in late-2008 when Facebook released Facebook Connect and the opening of their developer APIs. Facebook Connect allowed your identity on Facebook to be used (in a secure fashion) outside of Facebook, and allowed external applications to get Facebook data for use. While the principles of Facebook Connect had been around since  2006 under a more generic term (delegated authentication), Facebook was unique since it had nearly global membership (upwards of 90% in most U.S. colleges).

Facebook represented a new wave of online services where people began to care about “Real ID”. Whereas most digital identity in the past had relied on aliases (who remembers who CrouchingTigr45 was?), Facebook emphasized real names, and real connections. This had two implications; first, the user was much more attached to their identity (changing an alias = easy; changing your name = hard); second, the identity was no longer was mentally constrained to the site (you use your name outside of Facebook, don’t you?). With Facebook Connect, this meant that nearly everyone on the web (that mattered) had a way to carry their identity across unrelated services, as long as the service trusted the Facebook identity. Then along came Disqus.


Disqus,  is an outsourced commenting system that can rely on either it’s own identity, or a connected identity from Facebook, Twitter, or Open ID. Instead of hosting the comments directly within WordPress, you can install a Disqus plugin on your self-hosted blog, and suddenly the singular blog is entitled to all the features of a massive web community. Bloggers benefited since it allowed individuals to participate immediately in the discussion, upping the community’s activity, and also provided services at scale that individuals may have had difficulty managing on their own. For users, it let users seamlessly use an ID that they already knew how to use.

Advances such as this don’t come all too often in the web services world; but every few years, it can greatly change how we interact with the social web.

This post was originally published by Skyrien on the Taco Bell on Ogden community blog.