A short prehistory of everything


The diagram above is the first map of the internet. Through three universities/research centres in California to a fourth in Utah. It was scrawled in 1969. The social nature of the network (initially thought of as a way to distribute computational jobs remotely) became evident with the unexpected popularity of email. The first test message was sent in 1971 and by 1973 email made up the majority of network traffic.

In 1975 the uses and social function of email was extended by the introduction of Usenet. Essentially a way of grouping email into subscribed lists around themed discussions distributed to servers around the world. Usenet traffic flows below in 1993, the year before the widespread popularisation of the web browser.


Usenet was eventually brought under the control of Google in 2001. And Google has brought the archive of posts going back to 1981 online. Usenet was the first online “community” to be brought to its knees by spam (by the early nineties) and was widely abused for filesharing and porn. It brought us many of the words we use for dysfunctional online behavior including, flaming, trolling and cyberstalking.


While the web was invented in Switzerland in the late 80s its popularity didn’t really take off until the first easy to use web browser Mosaic was released in the early 90s. Most of the basic functionality of modern browsers is clearly there in Mosaic, notice the Add button on the right hand side for annotating and creating pages. Conceptually this didn’t make a comeback till web 2.0.

Online web design has always had tensions between graphic sophistication and clear navigation and usability (as exemplified by Jakob Neilsen and proponents of the Grid). Similarly there could be seen to be a historical tension between minimalism and trying to do everything in one page as well as between the corporate and the independent, the highly technical and the technically accessible and collaborative.

Many of the technical and social properties of the internet can be seen to exist from early in its development in a continual boom bust cycle of utopian enthusiasm and reinvention, perhaps this can be linked to the particularly Californian flavour of much of online history and development.


  1. Halpin – The Immaterial Aristocracy of the Internet
  2. boyd/ellison – Social Network Sites – Definition & Conception – 2007
  3. a game of sorts to play.
  4. a song of sorts to sing.
  5. a page of sorts to read.

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Netcultures blog is by Dan Mackinlay and Chris Caines and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia License. Content from external sites remains property of its original creator.

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