Fifteen years on the web

This was written five years ago, on our tenth anniversary on the web:

Sam Smith, 2005 – This fall marks the Review’s tenth year on the web – and our 11th year of sending out email updates. In the last quarter of 1995 we got all of 388 page views, and in 1996, we got 27,000. This year we are approaching three million.

How early was 1995? Well, the number of Americans using the Internet was still less than the number who were watching TV in the mid 1950s. And the Washington Post hadn’t yet found a way to stay on line and be happy with the results.

Some other papers, however, had gotten into the act. Fredric A. Emmert writes that, “In 1992, the Chicago Sun-Times began offering articles via modem over the America On Line computer network, and in 1993, the San Jose Mercury News began distributing most of its complete daily text, minus photos and illustrations, to subscribers of America On Line. The first multi-media news service in the U.S., News in Motion, made its debut in the summer of 1993 with a weekly edition specializing in international coverage, with color photos, graphics and sound.

In 1994, the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service began distributing news to its newspaper customers via computer before their morning editions arrived, and The Washington Post has created a Digital Ink subsidiary, providing an electronic newspaper research service for clients, who can buy custom-made reports on subjects of their choice.” The Post dropped the fee-based Digital Ink in favor of its current site in 1996.

Your editor’s interest in the internet was not all that surprising, since he had long ago discovered that keeping up with advances in technology helped compensate for his own deterioration. The Review began as a hot type magazine, The Idler, in 1964 and over the years used such novel technology as Press Type, the IBM Selectric, Radio Shack’s TRS-80 (or Trash 80 as it was fondly known), the Model 100 – an amazing battery operated laptop with a six line screen, and Exxon’s Qyx, among many others.

Before all that, however, were other influences, starting with Alice Darnell, my high school math teacher who went to Harvard in the summer of 1954 to learn about this new thing, the computer. She returned reporting that she had almost been locked up in a computer overnight, as it needed an entire building to do the work of a present day Mac, and she introduced us to the basics of Boolean algebra.

It would be twenty years, however, before I actually touched a computer: an 8K Atari purchased for my sons. As I fleeted up to 16 and then 32 K it occurred to me that these things might have some journalistic use. In fact, if you wasted a whole Saturday you could already program them to do little things like write messages and keep addresses.

It was a time when an earnest father such as I sent his son to computer camp where he learned to write programs that in just a year or so he could buy at the local computer store. It was a time when a computer expert came to speak at that same son’s school and, at the end, the headmaster arose and said, “This is all very well and good, but I’m not running a goddamned secretarial school.” Within a year he had purchased an impressive array of computers.

It was also a time short on computer expertise. The Review was blessed with two high school students who came by to empty our floor’s office trash who were also seminal cyber whizzes. They shall remain nameless to preserve the security clearance of the one who now works for a major defense contractor, but he still provides occasional assistance such as suggesting that I repair a computer suffering from too much atmospheric moisture by putting it in an oven at 150 degrees for an hour. That was a year ago. It worked and the computer still helps produce the Progressive Review.

Some years back I went to a Shaker village in Maine. While on the tour of this vanishing sect I noted a TV antenna atop the dorm. I mentioned this jarring departure from my image of Shakers to our guide, who explained that the Shakers saw no conflict between technology and their faith. After all, she said, their furniture was technologically advanced for the time.

It was not unlike the Quakers who do not shun change but merely apply their faith to it. About a year and a half after launching our website I tried to give a sense of this approach in a book I was writing, The Great American Political Repair Manual:

“The first rule of media survival is use it; don’t let it use you. We must ignore the role the media has prescribed for us — audience, consumer, addict — and treat it much as the trout treats a stream, a medium in which to swim and not to drown. The trick is to stop the media from happening to you and to treat it literally as a medium — an environment, a carrier. Then you can cease being a consumer or a victim and become a hunter and a gatherer, foraging for signs that are good and messages that are important and data you can use. Then the zapper and the mouse become tools and weapons and not addictions. Then you turn the TV off not because it is evil but because you have gotten whatever it has to offer and now must look somewhere else.”

Sam Smith, 2007 –
The Wall Street Journal’s claim that this is the tenth anniversary of the blog – as well as some of the critical reaction to the story – led us to our archives to find what we could about our role in this tale. We’ve tried to avoid the word blog – preferring to call ourselves an online journal – but the phrase has a ubiquity one can’t duck. The Wall Street Journal claimed, “We are approaching a decade since the first blogger — regarded by many to be Jorn Barger — began his business of hunting and gathering links to items that tickled his fancy, to which he appended some of his own commentary.

“On Dec. 23, 1997, on his site, Robot Wisdom, Mr. Barger wrote: ‘I decided to start my own webpage logging the best stuff I find as I surf, on a daily basis,’ and the Oxford English Dictionary regards this as the primordial root of the word ‘weblog.’

“The dating of the 10th anniversary of blogs, and the ascription of primacy to the first blogger, are imperfect exercises. Others, such as David Winer, who blogged with Scripting News, and Cameron Barrett, who started CamWorld, were alongside the polemical Mr. Barger in the advance guard. And before them there were “proto-blogs,” embryonic indications of the online profusion that was to follow. But by widespread consensus, 1997 is a reasonable point at which to mark the emergence of the blog as a distinct life-form.”

While we refer to Barger as the sainted Jorn Barger – he has been repeatedly kind to this journal over the years – the WSJ has got things somewhat mixed up. It is certainly true that Barger blessed or cursed us with the word blog, but whatever you called it, something was already underway, including at the Progressive Review. As evidence, we would quote from the very issue cited by the WSJ: Barger’s December 23, 1997 Robot Wisdom WebLog in which he writes: “There’s a new issue of the Progressive Review, one of the few leftwing sources that’s vigorously anti-Clinton. . . The lead story this week is Judge Lamberth’s condemnation of White House lies about the healthcare taskforce in 1993. Its editor Sam Smith also offers a nice fantasy of what a real newspaper should be, USA Tomorrow . . .”

Barger’s contribution was not just one of nomenclature, but of gracing the Web with an eclectic spirit and curiosity, tapping its holistic wonders and happily mixing technology, politics, literature, philosophy and rants. In musical terms, Barger showed us how to swing.

At least as early as 1993, the Progressive Review was sending a faxed blog-like substance to our media list as a supplement to the print edition. The earliest mention of an online edition that we could find comes from the August 1994 edition: “If you have an Internet address, send it to us on a postcard or to and we will add you to our Peacenet hotline mailing list. You can also find us at alt.activism and alt.politics.clinton. Sorry, offer not good for networks that carry e-mail charges”

There then followed a series of blog-like entries. None of that really counts, however, because it wasn’t on the Worldwide Web. But by June 1995, the Progressive Review was on the web, where only about 20,000 other websites existed worldwide.

Still not bloggish, as we initially only posted longer articles. But within a few months – we were promising that “The Progressive Review On-Line Report is found on the Web” and our quasi-blogging had begun. While we weren’t the earliest we were certainly in same ‘hood and we may hold some sort of record for consistency. We are still brought to you by Turnpike and we are still using Adobe Page Mill to post our non-blog pages. A year or two ago we ran into an Adobe sales rep at Best Buy and mentioned our loyalty, saying that “we still love it.” She looked quite annoyed and said, “That’s what a lot of people say.”

The Web would come to value style over substance in design and conventional loyalty over free thinking in politics. But, inspired by a few like Jorn Barger, we have tried to keep our layout simple and our thoughts complex. In the game of Internet high-low poker, we went low and it doesn’t seem to have a hurt a bit. Thanks for sticking around.

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