The Web at 25: Out of the ashes and onto the Friendster
In part 3 of his four-part series reflecting on a life lived largely on the Web, Crave's Eric Mack recalls fleeing the dot-com bust fallout for Alaska, only to be drawn back to a digital world that was growing up fast.
In part 1 of "The Web at 25," I recalled the early days of the Web and how it exposed young, emerging nerds like myself to whole new worlds online. In part 2, the story continued as I came of age alongside the Web during the era of the dot-com boom and bust. Today, on the actual 25th birthday of Tim Berners-Lee submitting the concept that became the World Wide Web, I'll revisit the long, painful hangover (it was a literal hangover, in my case) that followed until the eventual emergence of Web 2.0 that laid the foundation for today's social and mobile renaissance.
In 2002, in San Francisco, the South of Market district that once bustled with startups paying high rents had become a wasteland of empty offices. There was a mass exodus of tens of thousands from the Bay Area, including me. After years of being a teenage Web monkey and writer in high demand for just my most basic skills, I took the only job offered me, sight unseen, in Galena, Alaska, at an AM radio station where I was one of two full-time employees.
After a decade of living the digital revolution, I had gone all analog. And unlike in Silicon Valley, where loyalty was only as strong as the next best offer and hopping from startup to startup was common, I had signed a two-year contract. The penalty for breaking that contract was to pay back the thousands of dollars in moving expenses it took to relocate someone from the lower 48 to a tiny fly-in village that's closer to Siberia than to the state capitol in Juneau. I was already in plenty of debt thanks to some paychecks that never arrived from now-bankrupt startups, so I wasn't about to leave. I was locked in until at least 2004.
For a while, I tried to juggle the responsibilities of running the only radio station within 250 miles in all directions -- news, weather, and country music in the morning, more news and classic rock in the afternoons -- with trying not to freeze to death and still keeping a toe in the digital waters from a distance.
I gathered up other dot-com refugees from my Ironminds days and edited an online concern called Nine Planets that probably looked way too much like McSweeney's in retrospect. That only lasted for a few months, before eventually being demoted to dwell in the forgotten spaces, much like the no-longer ninth planet the name references. In mid -2002, I posted this excuse for the demise of the site, which would also come to serve as my final goodbye to the Web 1.0 world:
"The straight and strange truth is that Nine Planets currently lives in a remote rural village on the Yukon River in Western Alaska to which no roads lead. This makes it particularly difficult for Nine Planets to get a decent computer system and/or Internet connection. 24 hours of sunlight during the summer made it particularly difficult to continue spending extra hours at work where the only digital devices reside. When Nine Planets did find a decent computer on eBay, it took a month to be shipped from Maine and appears to have gotten royally f****d up in the process. But more darkness and equipment are on their way, and hence more depression and content will surely follow."
More content did not follow. At least not from me.
A cyborg no more
After that, I spent the next few years living life as a "normal" person. I was no longer an early adopter; I did not own a cell phone or have access to broadband; I did not use the word "content" in an online context. After spending most of my life plugged in, I was now less wired than my mother, who was just beginning to use email at the time.
Strangely, I didn't miss it much. Perhaps because there was plenty to distract me. Besides the fascinating landscape, people, culture, weather, and Northern Lights, the local bar charged just three bucks for any drink you wanted. ANY drink. During evenings and weekends, I was generally a bit tipsy. But during working hours I was getting more intimate with tech that I used to take for granted. I could service and maintain a 12,000-watt AM transmitter on my own, and helped the village set up an ad hoc cell phone network run off of our station's tower. It was more empowering than being able to design Web sites poorly, and by the time my two years was up, I was also starting to sober up (thanks in no small part to my future wife). More on what all that was like here.
Even largely removed from the Web, I watched Web 2.0 slowly emerge. If something caught on in my tiny village so far removed from civilization, it was going to take off. Strangely, I found that this made Galena a better barometer for the direction the Web would take then the words of supposed gurus in the Silicon Valley hype zone.Village teenagers and other young adults went absolutely nuts for Friendster early on in the life of the pioneering social network, and of course MySpace followed, and even Facebook was talked about in 2004, before it was available to those beyond Ivy League schools. This kind of chatter was rarely heard at my own high school just seven years prior. The Web had completed the transition from the fringes of youth culture to becoming the bedrock of its mainstream foundation.
Slightly older transplants like myself were also hip to nascent social networks, and started to flock to early blogging platforms like Blogger and LiveJournal to chronicle our great Alaskan adventures. The emergence of Google as a superpower and its many successes in organizing the Web were also evident and undeniable as far away as the Yukon as it filed for its IPO in 2004.
Out of the wild
When I finally left Alaska in 2005, having successfully survived the ordeal and scored a brilliant wife in the process, there were more than 8 billion Web pages online, more than one for each person on the planet. Broadband had become much more commonplace, opening the door for the success of YouTube, Skype, iTunes and even wackier digital environments like Second Life.
This period may be the second dot-com boom that nobody noticed. Or they did, but didn't want to say anything and jinx it all, given what happened last time. By 2006, Google had indexed more than 25 billion Web pages, or almost four for every person on Earth, along with 1.3 billion images, and the search engine was process 400 million queries per day.
During the Web's years in the virtual wilderness of sorts, and while I was living in the literal wild, the next-generation www was quietly being built and seemed to emerge all at once around that time. Digg and others helped introduce us to the power of sharing and viral content; Flickr and YouTube enabled a more visual Web worth sharing; and a crowdsourced free encyclopedia popularized the term "wiki" as it became the biggest reference source online, with more than 750,000 articles by 2005.
With this arrival of Web 2.0 came the maturing of Web culture, and the creation of a new generation of celebrities created, nurtured, and exploded by social media. (Where have you gone, Amanda Congdon?)
Before returning to the lower 48 to reconnect with the digital world and the sun in the winter, I spent half a year in Asia and witnessed the other dimension of the reinvigorated Web that was soon to crash on these shores. In China, due to the high cost of cellular voice calls, everyone was texting, all the time. Like, even more than we do now. It was already all mobile, all the time over there, and it was easy to see why. Young middle-class Chinese breezed through their days, dashing off brief communiques 10 at a time to lay out and adjust the day's agenda on the go.
Seeing this helped me to understand the success of Twitter that would soon follow in the United States, even as microblogging bewildered many people who simply could not understand the point of communicating in short bursts. Even then, before Facebook finally overtook MySpace, before the iPhone, it was clear that the world was becoming more social and more mobile.
The Web and I came of age at the same time and had to be separated for a bit to get through our growing pains independently, but by 2007 we were both fully embracing our adulthood. The cool thing about coming into your own is that it allows you to focus on just creating and building amazing things. In the next and final installment of this series I'll wrap it up with a look at today's golden age of the fully grown Web.