The Ghosts of Internet Time

by Andy Oram
December 17, 1999

In the murky light of dawn I was bestirred by a sound I had not heard for a long, long time. Groggily stumbling toward the piercing beep, I exclaimed, “Why, it’s the old Unix talk program! That strange little full screen utility—discussed by Douglas Hofstadter in Metamagical Themas—that prefigured chat and instant messaging.” In response to the letters flashing on the green monitor, I quickly entered talk ghost and pressed the RETURN key.

“This is the Ghost of Internet Past,” wrote my mysterious correspondent. “NSA, poppy, Castro. I shall show you the Internet in its glorious early days. Tools were clunky back then, but we all studied a bit and learned to understand the medium we were using; and such a wonderful community we built online!”

I remembered what the ghost was talking about. True, 99% of all newsgroups degenerated into philosophical spats between leftists and libertarians, and three-quarters of all the alerts circulated had been hoaxes, but we still exploited the incredible power of instant worldwide diffusion to carry out some impressive campaigns. Lotus was a pretty big company when an Internet protest made it withdraw its database product on consumer spending.

“Look, Andy, you were more idealistic then too,” admonished the ghost. “It’s been years since you contributed to free software projects. Look at the dates on these files.” A stream of file names, dates, and sizes dribbled down my scream.

I squinted at the vaguely familiar output format. “Yeah, those dates are old. Where did you dig up that list?”

“Archie,” typed the ghost.

“Oh, Ghost,” I hammered out. “What has happened to the flame of Internet community? Why do so few of the new users understand it?”