Rick Webb: So what I remember… It was probably about…1986 or 1987 when I first sort of— Actually it was junior high, so it’d’ve been like ’84 or ’85 when I got my first modem. I was in Fairbanks, Alaska. And you know, it was right around the sort of end of the Apple II era and the beginning of the Macintosh era. And I got an Apple IIc and I was so excited. And they came out with that modem that was sort of this sleek little white thing that you’d plug into the wall— It looked like an outlet dongle thing. And I just wanted it so bad and my mom bought it for me. And she didn’t really know what it was. And I was like great, I got a modem, I can call people.
But you know, I’m in Fairbanks, Alaska and we didn’t really have AOL or CompuServe or anything, and none of those went up there, there were no local dial-in numbers and they didn’t do any 800 numbers up to there. So I found this one local bulletin board system. It was called the Aurora Borealis BBS in Fairbanks. And it probably had like fifty members. And now in hindsight, you know, I was probably…well I guess 13, 12 or 13. It was a lot of adults, and it was a lotta gamers, and it was a lotta like…the message boards made no sense to me ’cause they talked a lot about the bars they went to and places to go in Fairbanks, which of course I couldn’t go to the bars.
And I remember there was like role-playing games in there. And I wasn’t ever really ever a D&D person or anything like that, but it was literally the only thing you could do in this bulletin board system. So I signed up, and I was like… I didn’t really understand any of it. This was like my first sort of experience with social ostracization on the Internet, because I didn’t really understand how to play role-playing games? So they’d get to my turn and I’d be like, “Well I don’t know, I’d look around for a door, and I would do this. And you guys! What if we get together and we do this.” And they’re just like, “Shut up. Next turn.”
But that’s a perfectly reasonable action when you’re an elf trapped in a room with a team of people. So they all just kicked me out, which was really pretty depressing because it was literally the entire thing I could connect to on the Internet.
But actually—so I know it was junior high because the next year I got to high school and I signed up for a computer class and I went to the computer lab. And it was sort of like the dawn of the PC age thing where everybody would take computer classes and been going to computer camps even in elementary school. And there’s like after-school activities and we were building a BBS there. And there was like one other nerd, and I remember his name. His name is Eric. He’s one of the few people that’s also left my hometown and is in the computer world. His company was acquired by Microsoft and and he’s there now.
So you know, we were talking the first day, me and him. And he was a year older than me, and it transpired that he was one of these guys on this bulletin board system that I had been dialing into, you know. Under his alias, of course. And I was like, “Oh, I’m so-and-so!” And he was like, “I’m so— I hate you!”
So it was like my first real-world manifestation of the first online community I was in was just as mean as my first interactions were. Like in hindsight it’s kind of amazing I stuck with it for so long, you know. But you know, we actually never really became super close friends, but we started building the second BBS in Fairbanks.
And then it got really rewarding because you know, a lot more people got modems, and there was probably like five or six hundred people on the BBS. And it was sort of like, people had useful stuff for the classes in the school, so people would actually login students and stuff. So it was sort this early glimpse into the utility of the Web?
And then, in 1989, end my junior, beginning of my senior year, they gave us access to the stuff at the university. And that was like when it really kicked in. They has a VAX there and it was connected to the Internet, and that was our first exposure to like Usenet, and I got really wrapped up in alt.scientology, and got all the sort of like… You know… You couldn’t do file-sharing, really. It wasn’t like they had some Ethernet through the whole campus yet. But just, being able to email people.
And I remember I had a friend, her name was Catherine Thomas, and her parents had— They were academics, and one of them had gotten a job in New South Wales, Australia from Fairbanks, Alaska. And I remember she’d just be like, “Okay let’s meet, but I gotta go to the university and send my dad an email in Australia.” I was like what.
So you know, 1989 I first started learning about BITNET and ARPANET and these— She was on BITNET. And I just thought it was so amazing she could write her mom, you know. And that was sort of like when it was really eye-opening.
Then I went to BU and so I got a proper email address and all my friends were at home. And you know, only a year later it was like a lifeline. The first month I racked up $400 or $500 in telephone bills. In the second month I was like fuck this, I can just email my friends. So that was really when I started to understand the power of it.
Yeah, so let’s see. From there…BU… So yeah, I got out of BU in ’93. And that was around the time of like where you had to learn PPP… And there’s this ISP—it’s actually still around in Boston. You know, I never did AOL, I never did CompuServe. There was this ISP there, you know, when I moved out of the dorms into the apartments. And this is when really it was the Web, right. So like, my friend told me about Mosaic, and he told me about how there was a button in it and you can go to Yahoo. And I spent all this time working with this company called Software Tool & Die up in Boston, trying to figure out how to get on the Internet from my apartment in Allston, Mass.
You know, PPP and SLIP and all that stuff was so bad on the Mac back then and I was really committed to sticking with my crappy Mac in the dark days. But eventually we got on there, and we had like all the early early…like the web sites. Like web publishing. And then I started a web site. Like, tried to hand-code, tried to use Dreamweaver and it was this like… It’s funny, it was this like…new— It was like basically a blog, you know what I mean? It was…more of like a…I would say more of a zine. There was all this academic stuff. And you could like… I’d write articles about you know, stodgy filmmakers like Peter Greenaway or musicians like Philip Glass, or…you know…like Conrad Schnitzler or like Tony Conrad—all these like obscure things and I’d just write these long rambling essays that were basically fan letters.
And people started finding it and they would email you from it, which that was like the most amazing thing like some— I can’t remember who it was, it was some band I liked and they were— They lived in New York and I had written this long thing and they just found it when they searched on Yahoo. An they were like, “Hey! You wrote this article about us,” and then— Yeah, they were called Bowery Electric, I remember. And they were like really good friends— We all toured together and like— That’s when I started to realize you could do things with your life on it, you know what I mean? And at that point it like, started becoming a job. Like I got a job at Ernst & Young doing web stuff.
I think the other big part was sort of when the blogging stuff happened, you know. Like I work here now at Tumblr, but like LiveJournal was our lives at that period, you know. And to me that’s super interesting, you know. You could do public, but you could do private, and it was almost like an online support group, and it’s where you started to understand that there are other people out there that would really help you. And it’s very different like, you know, my sister’s only four years younger but… She left Alaska four years later, so she could learn about that stuff already, you know. Like when you’re in the middle of nowhere, your favorite band or you’re slightly deviant in some way, or you have a hobby and there’s no one around, the Internet is like a lifeline to that, you know. And going home now is so— [recording cuts short]