Julian Sanchez has a great story up (I was late in getting to it, though I try reading him often) about our Internet’s humble and cultish origins. Here’s an excerpt:
For many in the ’80s and early ’90s — isolated gays, abashed alcoholics, or just disaffected teenagers — finding that first board was a dial-in to Damascus experience. It also afforded a first taste of the online world’s empowering anonymity. A shy kid could craft a new identity, even become a respected system operator.
I bring this up as sort of a side note to what Dave was talking about in his post. The handy-dandy Internet which some evangelicals are looking at as a useful tool for proselytizing (and playing hooky on) Christianity had its own blend of philosophy, particularly an anarchist bent which still affects hackers properly understood. The dissemination of information was really the prime motivation to create BBS’s on a private scale, which is why it’s really interesting now to see the progression. You wouldn’t see much by way of religion, let alone mainstream media on these boards — instead, you would find the early versions of ye olde Anarchist’s Cookbook, a misappelled document with formulas for destructive behavior, role-playing and fantasy games, or technical information about this or that computer-related topic. Because they were mainly local, you wouldn’t have world-wide access, but rather local interactions; it was far more possible to get to know people in your own neighborhood. But it was still an instance of democratized media.
Many working professionals didn’t know what a bulletin board was, and only a handful of users in the late ’80s and early ’90s were beginning to use services such as Prodigy and America Online for general entertainment and information-lite needs. My father had an account at Prodigy for use of its encyclopedia. Through the ’90s, everything changed. Now, even priests can say, as Dave noted, that traffic will spike on the website as families gather round the computer.