When modems used to hiss

I grew up on dial-up and AOL chatrooms. Little did I know the Internet and I were coming of age together

Topics: The American Reader, Internet, America Online, ,

When modems used to hiss
This piece originally appeared on The American Reader.

The American Reader If you comb through the Google Internet Cache—the Roman ruins of the 21st Century— you might stumble across long-abandoned GeoCities pages, lost Usenet postings, and other defunct websites. Over a decade after they were first created, some of your co-workers’ instant-message handles probably still channel the zeitgeist of junior high school. Dig into that forgotten desk drawer and you’ll find dozens of America Online CD’s stashed alongside floppy disks, joysticks, and tape drives.

Web 2.0 long since came and conquered. Billions of AOL CD’s now sit in landfills, Geocities is offline, and no one has used a floppy disc in years. But in the mid-90’s, when I came of age, the Internet was more a curiosity than a necessity. Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia didn’t exist, and the so-called information superhighway was mostly empty promise. It was the Internet’s Age of Innocence.

In 1994, all of ten years old, I signed up for America Online. It wasn’t a simple process. After calling AOL’s toll-free line—and paying for the service by phone—I dialed up, the modem hissed, and I was promptly disconnected. Another few tries and I was in, connected at 2400 baud—not that I had any idea what “baud” meant.

The modem’s ubiquitously loud hiss, amplified over the computer speakers, was the sound of the future. AOL even provided graphics: when we signed on, we were treated to spectacular vision of a lightning bolt crashing. Now this, this was the information superhighway. It was the Wild West out there.

AOL denied me my avatar of choice, just as it did for millions of other Americans. In its infinite wisdom, AOL invariably suggested a four or five-digit number following any screenname. The implication was that we were part of a mass movement—that yes, there really were eighteen hundred and thirty-two Jacob Savages who had already signed up for AOL, and that I was privileged enough to be the 1833rd.

Once connected—and during peak hours, it was virtually impossible to get through on the first try—there wasn’t all that much to do. Back in 1994, AOL wasn’t even hooked into the World Wide Web—you couldn’t browse web pages—so we did the only thing we could do: we went into chat rooms and pretended to be people we weren’t.

There were all sorts of chat rooms: Teen chats, Jewish Teen Chats, General Chats, Space Enthusiast chats. It didn’t take long to discover that on the World Wide Web, you could be anyone (it never occurred to us that the people we were chatting with might be impersonating other people themselves).

Dozens of pre-teens from across the nation flooded these chat rooms. Every 30 seconds or so, someone would demand an A/S/L (Age/Sex/Location) check. The responses flooded in: 13/m/NY, 12/f/Minnesota, 11/m/Los Angeles, etc. Having ascertained these fundamentals, we’d ask one another if we were hot, or popular, or what life was like in Minneapolis or New York or Los Angeles. Anticipating the future of social networking, AOL even allowed us to create “profiles” (favorite movie: “Austin Powers”), though of course there were no photos involved.

Through good fortune and no small amount charm (I was, after all, a 12/M/NYC), I scored a couple of internet girlfriends. LuvsGuys1 was my first love: a hot blonde on the J.V. cheerleading squad from Arizona. We took each other’s mutual good-lookingness on faith. Once a week for about a year or so, we’d message each other. We had cybersex once, but it was pretty awkward. I don’t think we got past second base.

Eventually AOL sped up its connections and opened itself up to the World Wide Web. No longer forced to malinger at 2400 baud, I upgraded my dial-up modem to 56K (though it never connected at 56K, always at 28.8 or 49.33). For the virile pre-teen, more bandwidth meant one very important thing: more pornography. It no longer took ten minutes to download a single JPEG, and I was in heaven.

I downloaded multiple password-protecting applications to protect my digital porn collection from my parents’ prying eyes. With six to eight JPEGS stored on my hard drive, I wasn’t taking any chances.

I didn’t only look at porn (though before Google’s life-changing algorithm, pretty much any search produced a mountain of pornography results). I also visited websites about the theoretics of time travel. Sometimes I’d head over to the People’s Republic of North Korea’s website (still in 1995 beta mode) and think about buying a t-shirt or maybe a nuclear bomb.

Ebay came online right around then. It was easy to game the system: you could write positive feedback about anyone, regardless of whether you’d actually sold them anything. My friends and I left each other dozens of positive feedback. To this day, my “power seller” rating is at least partly a result of those good old days.

In its way, downloading porn was a lot like a having unprotected sex: it gave your computer venereal diseases. For every couple of hours I spent downloading porn, my computer contracted a virus.

Hackers, of course, were the ones supplying us with this endless stream of venereal disease. In the mid 90’s, hackers ruled supreme. There were newspaper articles about hackers, movies about hackers, after-school specials about hackers. They were superhuman wizards who could bring down the U.S. government with just eight keystrokes. The paranoia was so rampant that Stephen Glass—the now-infamous New Republic plagiarist-reporter—was able to claim that hackers, like actors and athletes, had their own agents: “[The hackers’] agent, whose business card is emblazoned with the slogan ‘super-agent to super-nerds,’ claims to represent nearly 300 of them, ages nine to 68,” Glass wrote in 1998.

That Glass’ over-the-top article was published is both a testament to reckless fact-checking at The New Republic and to a broader national ignorance about the Internet. Of course, Google didn’t exist yet, so there was no way to google Glass and find out that everything he wrote was a demented lie. On the World Wide Web, aka the information superhighway, anything was possible, even though nothing SPECIFIC was particularly possible.

Hackers hated AOL. In 1995, thanks to AOL’s notoriously poor code and a legendary hacker group known only as “Warez”—and despite having no programming skills whatsoever—I joined the glorious underworld. “Warez” released a program called “AOHell,” which enabled the wannabe hacker to “email-bomb” people to overflow their inbox, to “IM-bomb” people to boot them offline, and to “phish” for AOL passwords. I tried downloading AOHell about nine times and probably contracted several viruses in the process. But then I successfully IM-bombed a girl I liked and kicked her off AOL for an hour or so. It was totally worth it.

AOHell was just the beginning of my semi-legal Internet activity. The first song I ever pirated was The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” The whole thing was rather low-fi. I played the song on from sort of proto-streaming website—the quality was awful. I then took my tape cassette and recorded the computer speakers playing the song. Let’s just say, the record companies should have seen the writing on the wall.

Before long, my Warez hacker friends had organized private chat rooms devoted to pirating music. Automated “bots” would email out a list of songs. I’d request song #234 or #538 (they only stocked pop hits, so it would inevitably be something along the lines of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”), and the bot would email me the MP3 or WAV file. My iPod is still stocked with a few of these late 90’s hacker hits (here’s looking at you, Meredith Brooks). In those pre-iPod days, my 256-slot CD cases were quickly overtaken by CD-R’s, sharpies, and “Mix CD’s.”

Web 1.0, like our adolescence, ended with a thud. We went off to college, freeing ourselves from both our parents’ rules and their slow Internet connections. We were pirates finally allowed on the high seas: Napster, Limewire, and then DC++, allowed us to download all the music and video we wanted. Before long, Google, Facebook, Youtube, and Wikipedia came and swept out the remnants of Web 1.0.

When we arrived as freshmen, we left our laptops home during class — the lecture halls didn’t have wireless, and we didn’t want to be the “weird kid” who brought his computer everywhere. By the time we graduated, though, our campuses were all wired, and we were tethered to our screens. But even as the Internet fulfilled previously unimaginable possibilities—videos, social networking, information on demand—the innocence of its original promise seemed a bit lost.

This isn’t an elegy to a lost age in which my friends and I played stickball in the street and/or sat around the arcade playing pong. But my generation sat at a liminal threshold, coming of age with the Internet, not before and not after. Back in the mid-to-late-90′s, the Internet, like pick-up basketball or Super Mario Brothers, was justanother thing that you did sometimes.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>