May 2, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

My first experience using a chatroom was in 1988. Some group in Toronto, Canada, set up something called the “Free Access Network,” or FAN. It wasn’t really the internet: it was all dialup, with perhaps 100 phone lines or so. And it was, true to the name, free.

FAN was amazing, and still maybe the most addictive thing I’ve experienced in a life with a decent amount of experimentation. After school we’d run home, Lisa, Karen myself, Quaid and others (Onil was always skeptical), 15 year-olds all, and “war-dial” FAN desperately trying to get an open line. I developed a Pavlovian response to the sound of the modem’s carrier – a kind of deep excitment that comes back just by thinking about it.

As an aside, I remember Cory Doctorow, the writer and Boing-Boing editor, well-known to readers here, was also on FAN. Cory and I went to primary school together, and even once colloborated on a short film, but since high school we’d drifted apart. My last memory of Cory on FAN, at the last time I would see him in a decade, was the day Robert Heinlein died, May 8, 1988. Cory, of course, wanted people to quit talking about nonsense and recognize the importance of what had happened.

But back to FAN — what drew us in? There was, of course, flirting, which to a 15-year old has a power not dulled by the drudgery of dating. But, to me, really it was something else — this sense of vastness of opportunity. The feeling, oddly enough, that you can get in the Grand Canyon, or walking around parts of New York City, when you think, who knows what you might find or become. Something about those simple lines of text made the imagination run free, like all the dust at Black Rock City, and I’m still not sure why.

That was how it was — when the internet promised deliverance from the hassles of identity. And when the internet mostly was stuff that took you away from the “real world,” or what sometimes was called “meatspace.”

Where’s that vision, nearly 20 years later? Certainly, some of it is still there, and its maybe better, especially in places like Second Life. Today’s online worlds, have way more users than FAN ever did and get alot deeper. But what’s different is there’s alot, maybe most of the internet usage that’s not really personally transforming or an escape, unless you consider writing responses to eVITE personally fulfilling. Sometimes I feel a little sad about that, sad that email doesn’t have the same thrill it did in 1993 — when “you have mail” felt like getting messages from a burning bush.

What happened over the long run is interesting. The principles of the network’s design, in short, trumped the power of the applications, as compelling as they were. That may seem a subtle point, but one with enormous meaning for how the Net is governed.

Alot of the early apps were indentity-twisting and escapist. That, among things, led to a strong sense that self-governance could handle most problems (as it does on Second Life). That’s even what seemed to be what the Supreme Court had in mind in ACLU v. Reno, or when it called the internet as a “unique medium–known to its users as ‘cyberspace’–located in no particular geographical location but available to anyone.”

But the infrastructure, the basic protocol design, itself never believed in or promoted self-enforcement or independence from law. Instead, it just pushed difference and tolerated diversity. That meant, in time, more replication of realspace activity — banks, ebay, amazon, orbitz. Apps not designed to get away from the real world, but instead trying to improve it. That meant more demand and need for laws to control the effects of what the network had given birth to. That led to what we see in the book: more government involvement, sometimes out of necessity, and for better or for worse.

In short, the framers of the Net maybe might have, but didn’t actually create a Net that would rule itself. They created something that could be anything and many things. And that’s what it has become.

  • Cory Doctorow

    God, I loved that BBS.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    A decade or so ago, when the Internet was first hitting broad public awareness, I used to try to explain it to various groups. I’d have lines like “There is no such thing as “cyberspace” – it’s only people communicating with each other”.

    I think the flower phrasing, of “place”, while great for poets, has deeply misled much of the community to very naive ways of thinking. Kind of like “Woodstock Nation”, from an earlier era. Though that doesn’t make me popular with the poets.

    P.S.: You miswrote “Eldred v. Reno” for “ACLU v. Reno”.

  • Richard Bennett

    …a power not dulled by the druggery of dating…

    So you’re accustomed to slipping your dates a Roofie? I think you may have misspelled “drudgery” and I only point it because it’s a funny slip.

    PS: BBSs were fun.

  • Nicholas Cotton

    So called cyberspace communications (chat boards, FAN, the Well, etc) are well suited to self government and self policing of anti-social behavior. The problem, on the other hand, is in online mediums where the reward for misbehaving is higher, then the model fails because people are willing to put in the effort to achieve their anti-social or criminal goals. Once you start doing real world commerce online, you start needing real world policing as well.

  • Mind Booster Noori

    Hi there, and thanks for giving me a very good description on why I still love talkers, and why I think there’s something magical in such an old form of communication that we can’t see in nowadays internet applications…

  • john

    Among the lost histories of computer-mediated communication are the on-line communities of pre-dialup-BBS systems of the 1970s. I am thinking, for example, of the people who used the X,TALK and PPC systems at the University of Minnesota on their CDC Cyber 6600 system. 10s of users could engage in simultaneous text chat. They used pseudonymous handles. They connected from remote locations across Wisconisn, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. There were even hacker-originated e-mail systems such as +WRITE+. There was at least one teenaged “tribe” called “Various Users” that understood themselves as a group tied together by the interactions of their on-line personae. To be sure, these programs did not run on the Internet, but they facilitated geographically-disbursed real-time communication.

    Many of the features we associate with contemporary on-line communication were present in this era.

    This is a sitting duck for a chapter in someone’s doctoral thesis on the origins of computer-mediated communication. There was some discussion long ago on David Bennahum’s old cpsr-history e-mail list, but these events are still lost in the great backward of time.

  • Tim Wu

    Those were funny typos, whoops.

  • Dinna

    I just googled “Free access network” and found this blog site. Oh how you brought back the memories! I was only 9 years old at the time, and was taught how to call FAN by my older brother who was a total computer geek (and is now still into the computers, but a lot less of the geek). It was an amazing place, and allowed me a social outlet unlike anything found in my classroom. I remember another user proposing to me by sending me an engagement ring made of “x”s in an email, which I printed out and kept with me. I still remember his user name- “Navigator”. The FAN users once had a meetup at High Park, and I remember being devastated that I wasn’t allowed to go and meet my suitor. LOL! Oh the memories.. Thanks again.

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