Digital Life
4:41 pm
Tue April 17, 2012

In Noisy Digital Era, 'Elegant' Internet Still Thrives

Originally published on Tue April 17, 2012 5:15 pm

Before Facebook and MySpace transformed how we interact virtually, there was another kind of Internet — a 1980s network, where users connected via phone lines and communicated through simple lines of text.

And while that may sound outdated, that version of the Internet is still very much alive.

'A Lot More Elegant'

Pat McNameeking, a college student in Concord, N.H., is one champion of this throwback social network known as SDF, or Super Dimensional Fortress.

McNameeking, who goes by the handle Bulywif, connects to the Internet via an Ethernet cable threaded into his parents' basement. Telephone and cable wires are tangled around his setup.

Perched over a small laptop, McNameeking, 23, logs on. SDF is reminiscent of Facebook, Gmail and an online gaming site all rolled into one. But unlike any of those networks, there are no videos, pictures or even ads on the screen.

"This is a lot more elegant, I think," says McNameeking. "This is just text. There is no mouse; it's just all in a command line. Using a mouse and having windows and dragging stuff around is distracting," he says.

The Backbone Of The Early Internet

SDF, known as a public access UNIX system, is the Internet for people who actually understand how the Internet works.

Instead of websites, users are accessing a shared operating system. They can chat, email and post within the system, but only by typing in commands.

SDF has been around since 1987 and currently has about 30,000 members. But at one time, this type of computing was the Internet.

Rod Fleischman, a computer scientist and Internet expert, says that these types of systems were once extremely popular. "They were the alternative to AOL and CompuServe back in the early days," Fleischman says. "But nowadays, they are ... very obscure."

They were also frequently used to share porn and pirated materials, he says. "These little areas of the Internet that are not particularly popular are great places for nefarious characters."

Most of that business has since migrated onto the mainstream Web — along with more mainstream — and legal — social networking activities.

When Virtual Friends Were Real Friends

Today, SDF is primarily just a hangout for — and community of — computer hobbyists from around the globe.

That's another difference from the 1980s, when SDF users still connected via land-line phones. They would usually only communicate with users with local phone numbers, to avoid paying long distance charges.

Because users were typically in the same area code, it was common for them to get together in person. Online friends actually became real friends.

Today, the global SDF network makes that more difficult, but users still occasionally meet up in person. McNameeking, for one, likes the idea.

"I think that would be really cool," he says. "I haven't come across anyone in Concord, N.H. If I did, I would love to meet up with them."

Fleischman says this type of computing will never completely fade away. There will always be users, he says, who are willing to trade the bells and whistles of websites for the simple elegance of code.

But because navigating SDF requires some serious computer know-how, it is likely to stay relegated to the Internet's basement.

Copyright 2013 New Hampshire Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.nhpr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Facebook and other social networks have transformed the way we interact online, but using computers to share information and meet friends predates the 21st century.

From New Hampshire Public Radio, Todd Bookman reports on one of the first social networks, a network that people still use.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Before Facebook, before MySpace, even before Al Gore, there was an Internet. The 1980s Internet, when users still connected through phone lines and communicated through simple lines of text.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

BOOKMAN: It may sound outdated, but today, that version of the Internet is still very much alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODEM CONNECTING)

BOOKMAN: How do you pronounce your name?

PAT MCNAMEEKING: Well, I always type it, so there's never really any need to pronounce it, but I guess, Bullywith(ph) is how you might say it.

BOOKMAN: Bullywith is this guy's handle, his screen name. Offline, he's Pat McNameeking, a 23-year-old college student in Concord, New Hampshire.

So we're in your parents' basement.

MCNAMEEKING: Yeah. I'm connected to the Internet through an ethernet cable I pulled down through the ceiling. There's a big piece of exposed communication stuff, a bunch of telephone cable wires. It's dark in here. Yeah. Just storage, a bunch of stuff.

BOOKMAN: Perched over a small laptop, Pat/Bullywith logs into an online community called SDF. It's sort of like Facebook, Gmail and a gaming site all rolled into one, but there aren't videos or pictures or even ads on the screen.

MCNAMEEKING: This is a lot more elegant, I think. This is just text. There's no mouse. It's just all in a command line. Using a mouse and having Windows and dragging stuff around is - it's distracting.

BOOKMAN: This is the Internet for people that actually understand how the Internet works. Instead of websites, users are accessing a shared operating system. They can chat, email and post within the system, but only by typing in commands. SDF has been around since 1987 and currently has about 30,000 members, but at one time, this type of computing was the Internet.

ROD FLEISCHMAN: They were extremely popular. They were like the alternative to AOL and CompuServe back in the early days. But, nowadays, they're, you know, very, very obscure.

BOOKMAN: Rob Fleischman is a computer scientist and Internet expert. He says that, at one time, porn and pirated materials were commonly shared on these systems.

FLEISCHMAN: These little areas of the Internet that are not particular popular are great places for nefarious characters.

BOOKMAN: Most of that business has migrated onto the mainstream web, along with all the legal activities, too. SDF is now really just a hangout for computer hobbyists.

Back in the '80s, when users still had to use landline telephones to connect, they would usually only communicate with other computers that had a local number. Nobody wanted to pay long distance charges. And, because other users were in your area code, it was common for them to get together in person. Online friends actually became real friends.

Today, users from around the globe are on SDF, but they still do occasionally meet up in person.

MCNAMEEKING: I think that would be really cool. I haven't come across anyone in Concord, New Hampshire. If I did, I'd love to meet up with them.

BOOKMAN: For now, Pat McNameeking is satisfied just surfing around on SDF. Rob Fleishman told me that this type of computing will never totally fade away. There will always be users that are willing to trade the bells and whistles of a website for the hard elegance of code, but because SDF requires some serious computer know-how, it will likely stay limited to the Internet's basement.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.