My name is Wendy M. Grossman and I say the “M” because there is another Wendy Grossman who has worked as a journalist. I'm 61. I am a graduate of Cornell University and I'm based in London.
What I say is that I cover the border wars between cyberspace and real life. That means I have not generally written very much about games because I don't really want to spend a lot of time playing games, which I think you kind of have to, but I'm aware that it's a huge industry and that it's a big gap in the things I think about. Certainly in the areas where games intersect with social networks and things like that, they're always on the fringe of my consciousness even if I don't spend a lot of time writing specifically about them.
When I emailed you last week, I asked if you still think about the sort of stuff I wanted to ask you about. You said not so much, but you “were recently again because of various adjacent events.” What happened?
What are you defining as this stuff?
Well, we were emailing last week about my project and I wanted to ask you a bit about Net Wars, whether and how you feel internet culture has changed in the last few decades, and sort of broadly whether people are actually much angrier and toxic on the internet than they used to be. That was just for starters, plus to see where else the conversation might take us, on how people treat each other online has changed.
Oh, really things recently like Jon Ronson's book on global public shaming [So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed]. I assume you've read it if you're writing about this.
Also Danielle Citron's book, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. She's a professor at the University of Maryland and she's a law professor. She said she was trying to suggest a legal framework in which we could think about how to deal with hate crimes in cyberspace. Also, last year, the last couple years I was doing some editing work for a woman named Linda McCarthy who writes books intended to help teens and their parents navigate the online world.
Have you heard of Gamergate?
I’ve found that you can’t assume that. Portions of the internet assume the entire world has heard of it, but the reality suggests otherwise.
The first thing is it isn't just videogames.
Right. That’s what I’m also looking at with this, to erode that insular notion that everything that happens in videogames is wholly unique to videogames.
It's all over the place. I did a talk for a very small conference about this and asked them not to tweet it a couple of years ago. What was interesting was you were seeing accusations of sexual harassment going on at skeptics conferences, at science and technology conferences, at Comic-Con, at Def Con, at other hacker events, at HOPE. Every group seemed to think that it was just their sub sector. The atheists would say, "Well, this is happens among atheists because it's really hard to get them to agree on anything or this happens in the hacker community because it's so male dominated." They're all male-dominated sectors, but you'd get hackers are particularly poorly socialized or you'd get it at Comic-Con because women show up and they want to do cosplay.
Actually it's just pervasive. It's all over the place. The best theory I could come up with as to why had something to do with just the phase we're in in terms of numbers and stuff. In the '70s, everybody was trying to establish themselves and be taken seriously and now to a large extent women at work are taken seriously, but younger women seem to feel that they ought to have the right to, well, to engage in cosplay and have the males around them understand the difference between their personalities and their characters. This is quite a reasonable thing.
One would think.
I was a big fan of the TV series Mad Men and one of the things that I thought Mad Men did really, really well was show the changing nature of sexism over time. At the beginning, you had men acting very paternal, basically ignoring them except when they wanted to have sex and then when the generation of the character Peggy Olson came along, it was much more overtly hostile because women were beginning to make some inroads.
Do you feel like something similar is happening on the internet today for women?
I want you to have a look at the Net Wars column. I just posted the link in your Skype window. It's just from a couple of months ago, but it compares a current book with a book from 1996, both of them talk about women and technology. You'll get the gist if you look at it. It's only 850 words. You can do it fairly quickly if you want.
I was actually thinking that if you looked at that column now that would be helpful.
[Pause.] Sure thing. [Pause.] Well, I’m just reacting as I’m reading here and I haven’t read all of it yet but this gets at a lot of the things I wanted to ask you about. Because I sometimes wonder what parents think, whether it’s ethical to encourage their daughters to work in the game industry.
Yeah, if they’re gonna be treated like shit.
I think you disclose what the downside might be and let the adult woman make up her own mind.
There’s a lot in here about some of the notions I wanted to ask you about, things that really should have died away a long time and never existed at all.
There were two things I wanted you to see. One was the discussion from Wired Women where the price of admission, harassment, and free speech and why is flaming acceptable and also just Karen Coyle's thing about girlish GUIs, which I just think is hilarious. I just think it shows how far we have come and how little far we have come.
Nobody now is talking about GUIs not being masculine enough for real men to use. Nobody even calls it a GUI anymore.
Right. I think even when you told people what it meant they’d still be slightly confused, even. I wanted to similarly rewind you to ask you a bit about people on Usenet, which some people romantically refer to as among the first settlers on the internet or our ancestors, in a way. In Net Wars you wrote about the days when you could read all of Usenet in one long sitting.
Yeah, I don't think I was ever on Usenet when that was the case, but I know that it was the case. I had friends that were on Usenet in the late '80s.
Who were those people on the internet in those days? What was their temperament like? Is it like today?
Well, there are things about online communications and the way that humans react to them that have not changed very much. There's a professor named Sara Kiesler who wrote a book about computer-mediated communication. I think it came out in 1991. It was based on research she did in the late 1980’s and she was looking at mailing lists within companies and how people behaved. Even in her research she talks about flame wars and she talks about the different ways that people talk to each other than they would if they were face-to-face. The awareness that -- the interesting thing with computer-mediated communication as they were calling it then is that you're alone while you're reading and writing and yet you're communicating with other people. That's actually a very strange situation if you think about it historically. Especially something like Usenet or mailing lists which are asynchronous, it's not like online chat is real time. Twitter is asynchronous, but because people tend to sit on Twitter it can go really fast.
There's something about being on the other side of the screen and not really seeing the person that seems to disinhibit people from behaving in ways that they would not normally behave unless they were really, really drunk in a bar. That seems to be a thing. No matter who it is, people get caught up in things and they don't stop to think. When I was a kid, I remember reading some etiquette book that said that if you write a letter when you're angry you should put it inside for three days and then reread it before you send it and see if you still want to. Can you imagine somebody setting aside a tweet for three days?
I can't imagine somebody setting aside a tweet for three minutes.
Yeah. That's the thing. And there's also -- I think the really big difference now is the number of vectors. Well, there's several really big differences. One is that one of the really big characteristics if the early days is that you didn't know anybody in real life who was online or if you did, you only knew one or two. You went online to meet strangers.
It was this very exploratory thing of: “Here is this new medium, here is this new thing. What's it like? What can we do with it?” Because nobody knew each other, all of the discussions online were organized around topics. You had alt.showbiz.gossip. You had rec.sport.tennis. You have comp.software.year2000. People would go to read those areas because they were interested in the topic. Eventually, after a while, you would get to know the people in the newsgroup. I still read rec.sport.tennis, not every day but I do still read it.
There was somebody I met on that newsgroup it must be 15 years ago and we email almost every day and we have never met. As it turns out, we have a couple of interests in common because we're both interested in folk music. He actually already knew something about me when we met on the newsgroup. I didn't know that for the first couple of years. One day on that newsgroup that guy posted a message that said, "So who are you all when you're not watching tennis? What do you do in the rest of your life? I'm a book publisher." I said, "Well, some of us are hungry freelancers who would like to write books." He is the guy who published Net Wars, the book.
Surprising things like that happened. I met the first MP I knew, member of parliament, I met on a newsgroup. He actually said this thing, that he was the most wired MP in Britain or something, and I was a little dubious: “Was he really an MP?” I could do this because I was a journalist. I called up the ISP that he was with because I knew the people and I said, "Listen, is this guy really an MP?" They said, "Well, we can't really tell you that." That made it plain that he probably was.
In other words, yes.
Yeah, more or less. This is happening so much now, if you're a member of parliament and you're online, you're just inundated with email and you just -- there's just so many more people.
Well, did you ever watch How I Met Your Mother?
I didn't watch it, but I'm aware of it.
Well, there was an episode in which one of the lead characters, Ted, goes out on a date and they agree not to look each other up online and to have this old-fashioned date where they don't know anything about each other. Through the entire date, his friends back at the bar are looking this woman up and they're finding stuff out about her and they're texting him. It really is like that in a lot of ways. People do look each other up. In some ways maybe that's a good thing. I don't know. I've never been one to go on blind dates, but I suppose if you were somebody who went on blind dates you'd like to be able to look the person up and make sure he wasn't a serial killer. I don't really know what to say about that other than, yeah, people do it. Sometimes it's useful and sometimes it isn't.
What parts of the internet today remind you of or resemble the old internet culture?
Well, it's different because on things like Facebook or even blogging platforms, you go for the person rather than the topic. For example, there's two blogs I read almost every day which are written by veteran screen comedy writers. One is written by Ken Levine who worked on Frasier and Cheers.
MASH and all sorts of other shows and the other is written by Earl Pomerantz who worked on a bunch of things also, shows I'm less familiar with, but people go to read them because they're interested in what Ken Levine and Earl Pomerantz have to say or because they find their postings funny or because they find Levine spends a lot of time advising people how to break into the industry and stuff. There are people who go because they want that kind of advice. That's a really different scenario than going to alt.showbiz.gossip to see what people are talking about or rec.sport.tennis to swap complaints about somebody's favorite player who isn't playing as well anymore or whatever. Actually, I think rec.sport.tennis was originally started with the idea that the people who used it would be the people who liked to play amateur tennis and who wanted to swap tips on how to play better or compare rackets or something. That's just a very different scenario.
Now, if somebody is just discovering tennis now, they might join the Tennis Warehouse forum which is quite active or they might just go comment on the boards on Roger Federer's website if they're fans of Roger Federer. I do think that it is different. Whether you're joining something because the topic interests you or whether you're hanging around because the person who runs it interests you, it's just a very different dynamic now.
Yeah. I don’t know, there seems to be this notion that people used to be nicer to each other online.
Did you just snort?
Yes. I think the consequences were different. If somebody was mean to you online, if somebody was mean to you on Usenet, you could not read Usenet for a day or you could go home to your family and say, "My God, these people are such creeps," and then your family would say, "Well, what are you reading that crap for?" Today, someone decides that you have published something on Twitter that is unacceptable and they start attacking you on Twitter and they doubtless have friends. Some of those friends are maybe going to join in. Somebody has your email address or somebody knows your mobile phone number or somebody knows somebody who knows your mobile phone number or maybe you're enough of a public person that your phone number is actually on your website. Who knows?
It's not going to be confined to Twitter. These things escalate and they go through various media and all of a sudden whatever thing that you did that people are objecting to, it's the subject of a Twitter war. There are warring blog postings. Your email inbox is filled with people yelling at you and your mobile phone keeps buzzing because people have started sending you messages. That's a really different thing. It's really hard to get away from that and that seems to be the experience that some people have.
If you read Ronson's book, the story of the woman who posted a racist joke gets on a plane. Some hours later, she gets of the plane and her phone explodes with messages from people saying, "Oh my God," or saying, "I'm really glad you're going to get fired, bitch." This is not something that was even possible 20 years ago.
What was harassment like on the internet in the '90s?
I was fortunate. I was never really subject to it.
I started out online on CompuServe and on a London system called CIX. In both cases, well, particularly on CIX, I was known or anybody who cared to find out, would have found out that I was a writer for magazines like Personal Computer World and at the time, most people on CIX were into computers. If you were into computers, you read PCW. There was this class of people who might have been inclined to harass a female ID on CIX, but here at PCW and I wrote for it. I don't know if that was why or it might be that I've got a fairly up front personality and I just would have laughed at them.
I was always conscious from day one and this is something that has only really occurred to a lot of people since Facebook, but it was obvious to me from day one that anything that I said online could be read, could prospectively be read by somebody I wanted to work for. That has always tempered my behavior online. I don't get into fights. I don't post long screeds that are rants because partly I'm not inclined to spend the time and partly because I always knew somebody might read it that I wanted to work for. Now you see people getting in trouble because five years ago some friend of theirs posted a picture of them drunk at a party.
I think that actually, and this is kind of irrelevant to your project but this is actually I think a real problem with the way we talk about privacy to people, is we talk about it as a choice you make about yourself and in your own self-interest that you should not get caught. Therefore, you should not post a picture of yourself drunk at a party. Actually what's going on with social media is people no longer have what network technicians call a perimeter. You are actually dependent on your friends and on other people not to post those things about you. I think we would do better if we gave people the image of privacy as a social collaboration. Anyway, that's kind of irrelevant to your actual subject.
Well, what about cliques online? In Net Wars, you also wrote about rec.pets.cats being invaded by --
That's actually a big Wired article. You should go and read the Wired article. I didn't write it. Somebody else did. What's interesting is you look at that, but here are some people sitting around talking about their pet cats. Okay, they're embarrassing and it's kind of icky and sentimental, but they're not actually harming anybody and this other newsgroup called alt.tasteless decides they have to be disrupted. At the time, it was presented as this slightly hilarious thing, but when you think about it, it's actually quite obnoxious.
Right. And that Wired article you’re talking about talks about it in this way that reminds me of today’s internet where I just sort of wonder: Is this just high-school level antics or pranks? Why do cliques interact online at all?
Actually, one of the people you should really talk to is Gayle Williams who for many years was the conference manager on The WELL. One of the things that Gayle said to me some time in the 1990’s was that she felt a lot of online behavior was working out high-school angst. You do see it. I was invited one time to join a private conference on The WELL and like, "Oh, I've been asked to sit at the cool kids' table." It's really weird. We all react like that. "Oh, this secret group that I didn't know existed wants me to be a member." You don't ask at first: Is this a group that I should want to be a member of?
What do you make of this notion that the internet used to be a sacred place where people were pretty much always kind to each other or at least much kinder than today?
Where are you actually finding this comment?
It’s anecdotal through the course of these interviews. It’s not my assertion.
What sort of person has said that?
I think it’s mainly been developers, people who make software or games. Offhand I don’t know there’s really any bigger commonality beyond that.
Okay, well I would say that, first of all, if you have a certain kind of personality, and I'm not saying they do because I don't know them, but if you have a certain kind of a personality, let's call it a robust style of argument may not bother you. Also, the population of the internet was more homogeneous. You had researchers in military and corporate research labs and academic research labs. You had students, lots of students coming in every September. On CompuServe, you had people who could afford the price of admission and CompuServe was not cheap. On CIX, you had people who could afford the price of admission. I don't think people were necessarily nicer, but I think they had more similar goals.
If your group of developers were working together to solve a problem and their goal was to solve the problem and they weren't using it as general socializing, it may be that a lot of the behavior that takes place elsewhere just wasn't such a big factor.
You wrote in Net Wars that "the internet is not a sacred place where minds could meet and merge in the non-corporate real hall." Where did that notion, then, come from in the '90s?
Did I write that? Which chapter is that in?
It's earlier in the book, when you were writing about the introduction of advertising online.
Oh. Well, the fact that people could hold more than one thought in their heads at the same time and people could think one thing and say one thing and behave quite differently. I think people like John Perry Barlow did talk sometimes as though the internet was this thing where minds met and, I don't know, but there were still flame wars and I think if you asked anybody who was around then they will tell you there were flame wars.
You’ve also written a lot about executives in the computer world.
Are basing all of this on Net Wars, which was written in 1997 and ‘98?
It’s just another aspect of all this to obviously ask you about, because I’m curious to hear your perspective contrasted against parallels in the game industry. What impact and responsibility do executives have on the culture around their products? Like, do you feel they have a responsibility to the people who actually gather around the things they are ostensibly the face for to --
I'm not sure I fully understand the question because if you think of an executive running IBM, the company is so huge. A billion people use Facebook. Most of them are not going to be images of Mark Zuckerberg. I'm not really sure what you're getting at.
I’m asking about Gamergate and how the industry is likely afraid of its own audience, how lots of executives said and did nothing while the audience they built cannibalized each other.
They can change their products. Like I say, I don't play games very much. The last game I actually completed was Commander Keen. No, no. No, it wasn't. It was the easiest level of Dune, the one where you get up to the room and there's four Commander Keens and you have to knock their heads off, something like that.
I thought that was hilarious and that's the last game I completed. I don't think it would be any different if the games had, I don't know. No, it wouldn't make any difference if the games had female characters who were beating up on everybody because I still don't want to spend a lot of time playing games. If you're a freelance writer, it's a real time sink. I would have thought they could change their products if they want to or they could bring out different products or they could expand their range. I'm not really fully sure what the complaint was. As I understand it, Gamergate started out as a complaint about one woman reviewing a game?
Well, it’s an intentionally slippery and complicated thing to explain, but that’s sort of it.
There was confusion over various conflicts of interest based on her former relationship with somebody?
Correct. Yeah. It set into motion the notion that the “wrong” people were making the “wrong” types of games. From there, it tumbled into a series of rape threats, death threats, bomb threats typically being made against non-white males. Although that happened as well. There was a bomb threat against a Sony executive when he was on a plane.
Based on Gamergate?
Jesus. See, that's what I'm saying. That's what I'm saying. That sort of thing really didn't happen 20 years ago. It didn't have the same opportunities to spill all over the place.
As far as targets or methods? Or how do you mean?
Would something 20 years ago blown up on the internet so that somebody got bomb threats? Well actually, 1994, alt.religion.scientology, there were real police raids, but it was an unusual case.
That was happened with this as well, where people have been calling SWAT teams to people's houses, which is the new version of, “I'm going to send 50 pizzas to your house.”
God. Yeah, or the thing people used to do where they make a loop of black paper and send it to your fax machine.
Right. Are we just noticing these things more because we can hear about them more or do you get the sense that this stuff is actually happening more?
Well, I don't have any way of compiling statistics like that so I have no idea.
Yeah. Nor do I. It’s is a difficult thing to get a sense of because the internet is so big, but you have a sense of --
I have a sense that things escalate much quicker. I was reading alt.religion.scientology for a year knowing that something was going to happen at some point. Well, yeah about a year off and on. Today, things just seem to blow up really fast.
It's really hard to say whether there's just more reporting now and whether we just see it more now or whether it's actually happening more now, but the phenomenon, I think Jon Ronson makes a good point when he argues that the punishment being meted out to people are disproportionate to whatever sin they're supposed to have committed. Somebody is stupid enough to take a picture of themselves behaving badly in front of a soldier's tombstone or something, do they really deserve to be globally publicly shamed? Do they deserve to be fired for it? I don't know, but all of our notions of due process would say that at least there should have been a hearing or something.
Right, at the very least. Some of this stuff I see and I don't even know how concepts of justice or whatever are supposed to work on the internet if you believe there are only two sides to everything. Neither side really thinks they're wrong.
Well, that's very like our politics at the moment.
What's something do you think in the earlier days of the internet people should have been more concerned about with how things like anonymity or privacy might have been abused today?
Well, actually in the early days of the internet there were various experiments in protecting those things. There was a guy who ran a thing called the Anonymous Mail Server. If you wanted to send an email message anonymously, you could send a message to it and it would take the message, strip off the headers, replace them with an address from the server there and send it on to you. You could have a persistent ID, but you were protected. Of course, then there was one of the Scientology cases that got the server raided and they realized that they couldn't really protect people in the case of a police raid. He shut it down.
There were lots of other attempts. If you look up Mixmaster, that was an attempt at anonymous email. At the time, the easiest way to send anonymous email was simply to take one of those throwaway disks, a throwaway email address because AOL kept sending out starter disks by the thousands. You just grabbed one. Well, I didn't do this, but people did. You would make up sufficient credit card information or whatever they needed to get the thing working and 24 hours later they would pull it because the credit card wasn't a real credit card, but in the meantime you had enough time to send whatever email message you wanted. You can do that still now with something like Gmail. You can make up a throwaway address, use it once and forget about it.
It was a little harder then because when everybody didn't have broadband and everybody was using dial-up, you would be dynamically allocated an IP address when you dialed in. Whereas with broadband, you have a persistent IP address and people can look up who it is that has that address. At that time, it was a bit easier, but none of the debates we have now about privacy or copyright or anonymity or anything, none of those have changed really very much. They're the same debates we've had that whole time. Friends who were on the internet in the 1980’s said they used to discuss them too.
Oh, in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways I think of Twitter as the democratization of tabloid journalism. Yeah.
That would be a bad thing or a good thing?
Depends on how you feel about tabloid journalism.
How do you feel about it?
I read The New Yorker.
You had mentioned on the earlier internet, if someone was bothering you on Usenet you could just get off of it for a day or whatever. What other --
Well, you could ignore. You could write a kill file.
Yeah, I was going to ask about what solutions people employed --
Well, that sort of thing that still exists now, one of the things about The WELL was you could write software that ran on it and somebody wrote a routine that will block somebody's postings so you don't have to see them. News Net, you'd have kill files. I never really used any of those things because, I don't know, I just didn't find it that hard to skip over people. One really ingenious thing came up in alt.religion.scientology case which was that the Church of Scientology started flooding the newsgroup with what they thought of as good communications and the newsgroup thought of as spam. You can do this with Scientologists because they had this prohibition on ever letting anybody who has not passed all the levels reading or seeing or hearing the name of this billion year old demon or something name Xenu.
The people on alt.religion.scientology realized that if they put “Xenu:” in front of the subjects of all the real postings, you could easily filter them out and you could read the real stuff. That's what they did. They knew that the Scientologists would not copy this strategy and drown them out because under the rules of Scientology said they couldn't do it and they never did.
Right. Which you also wrote about, right?
Yeah. It was really quite ingenious.
I have to ask: You spent a year lurking in a Scientology internet message board. Or did you actually wind up posting?
I was mostly lurking. Yeah. I don't think I posted at all particularly. It was one of those situations where somebody had asked me to pitch for a column and they were interested in doing something like Harper's “Readings,” only using stuff from the internet. I was trying to come up with things that I could suggest as topics and stuff. I went around looking, this was '94 or sometime, I went around looking for things and when I saw that there were a newsgroup called alt.religion.scientology from the skeptics, I knew enough about Scientology to know that there was probably going to be a really interesting clash there because if there was one thing I knew about Scientology it was that science fiction people tend to be especially skeptical of it. I knew the internet was full of science-fiction people. I went along there and discovered, sure enough, there was this big clash between the freedom of speech people, the Scientologists and a bunch of people who had left the church but didn't want to leave the belief system.
What did you wind up learning in that year of lurking there that maybe you hadn’t expected to?
Actually, not much. It was the kind of clash I expected. I guess if anything surprised me it was that it turned into police raids and this whole copyright war. What's much more surprising is now when you tell people and they don't realize that today's notice and takedown rules directly derive from Scientology trying to protect its secret documents in the '90s. That's where the notice and takedown came from. I think that's surprising.
You mentioned flame wars before, but what did harassment campaigns on the older internet actually look like? What did they consist of? I remember them happening, but not the tone or what tended to provoke them.
Well, you know you can go and read those things if you use Google groups.
Yeah. And I have, a little. But I’m curious to hear your memory of them.
Again, I wouldn't have participated in any of those things and I wasn't really -- there was one incident where I was sort of the target of something like that which was Content Software, the year 2000. I wrote a piece for Scientific American I think in either late '98 or '99, about Y2K. I predicted that society would survive because most people wanted to. I was thinking of, for example, the 1970’s Irish banking strike when for months and months nobody could get paid. They gave each other IOUs, they traded IOUs, life went on more or less normal. Then at the end when the banks reopened, everybody settled up.
I figured okay, Ireland is a small country and it's a small society, but they did manage this thing. People manage. They come up with methods. Actuaries have been thinking about 30-year mortgages. This is not news to them. I predicted that society would survive and the thing about it was the Concept Software that year 2000 was a survivalist group. They were all planning bunkers and the cities were going to start burning in April of 1999 and it was going to be this enormous disaster. You had to buy food and you had to buy water and you had to hoard fire power, got to have guns to protect yourself from the marauding people who are going to want to steal your food.
When this piece came out in Scientific American, a bunch of them on the newsgroup started emailing the editor demanding that he fire "this dizzy broad," which is about the last thing I ever thought I was going to be called in my lifetime. Nothing came of it. I worked the magazine as recently as this year. The amusing thing is that 10 years later, it suddenly occurred to me, "It's 10 years, I wonder whatever happened to those guys? Are they still living in their bunkers? Have they come out yet?" Then I wandered into the newsgroup and found that a number of them had had the same idea and said, "So, how is everybody?" and a couple of them were nice enough to apologize and admit that I was right. Honestly, I just thought it was funny.
Another time much more recently, when they brought in those enhanced path hounds, I was on FlyerTalk. I was going through an airport that day and I thought, "Well, whatever happens in this enhanced path hounds, I'll just post a report." I posted a report. As it happened, the report was pretty much, "Well, she did a professional job. I didn't have to wait. It was fine." This was not what the assembled ranks wanted to hear. They wanted to hear, they were very unhappy about these path hounds.
One of them finally, after various discussion of maybe I paid by the TSA to write this posting, somebody said, "You're just too old and ugly." I just thought that was funny. A lot of it is the attitude you bring to you. Could I have gotten upset and tearful? Sure, but I just thought it was hilarious. The moderator came in and shut down the thread at that point. I emailed him and said, "Listen, I've been on online for 20 years. I can take this."
This has been talked about a lot, but I'm curious to hear your perspective on tech and the internet and how those have been conflated as inherently masculine or being manly things. How did those two come to be thought of as somehow linked?
I don't know because it's really interesting if you go back in the history of programming, the earliest programmers were women. You know why? They could type. I think at one stage, if you look at either Janet Abbate's book on the history of women in computing [Recoding Gender], you will find some reference to the notion that women had this detail-oriented nature that was especially suitable to be programmers. I don't really understand how the shift came, but I think you should look at Abbate's book because it really is a good history of women in computing.
It beats me, but as programmers have been -- when I was a student at Cornell, computer science was not a subject you could study on its own. It was part of the math department. If you wanted to major in computer science, what you really did was you majored in math. Math has always been fairly heavily male oriented. I don't know. At some point, the attitude became, particularly when things like the Apple Mac, the first Mac came out and the computers before it, there was this attitude that they were boy's toys. Maybe this is a change that came about with personal computers. I don't know. On the other hand, IBM I don't think ever had a lot of -- I think that was a pretty male place too even beforehand. I don't know.
You also wrote about the unspoken hierarchy of internet users back in the day, how AOL users were the underclass of the internet.
Yeah. You were supposed to be ashamed of yourself if you an AOL address.
I had totally forgot about that. But it was true.
It's actually still true. I know a couple of people who have AOL addresses and people get really sniffy when you tell them that. They're like, "Does that even still exist?"
Who do you think is the underclass of the internet today?
Probably still AOL. The thing is the whole thing has changed quite a lot because at the beginning if you had everybody identified by their email address, you had people from academic institutions. Cornell.edu, that was a class address. Harvard.edu, that was a class address. AOL was looked down on. CompuServe was looked down on a little bit too. The Well was very high class because that's where the pioneers came from. Then you had people getting addresses from their ISP, as more and more consumers came on you'd have them getting addresses from their ISPs and you'd have Verizon.net and you'd have Virgin and so forth. Now, everybody's either on Gmail or Hotmail. If you have a small server like mine, you periodically have systems that treat you with great suspicion, but people I don't think really care anymore. I think that was an old net curmudgeon thing.
I think there's just more recent things. At one point, your status of slash dot was if your membership number was below 1,000 or something. I feel I outrank people who have longer names. I have Wendy G. You can't get an ID as short as that anymore. You can tell the old timers on Twitter because they have short IDs.
It's really that kind of thing. It's just that kind of snobbery and the only people who care about it are the people who got there first anyway.
You also wrote a bit about the freedom of the old internet and how you’d like to see it survive. You wrote, “"I would like to see the freedom of the old net culture survive in the face of the many competing commercial and regulatory interests that might prefer to limit its reach and openness."
Well, we're still fighting that. We're still fighting for that. I think the Snowden revelations in particular galvanized some people to think about how to take back some of those things about the net. That one of the big dangers has been that so much of it has become centralized. I did write this somewhere, in probably the last five years. Oh yeah, I know when I wrote it. I wrote in 2013: That it really doesn't matter if, it was something to do with that open source isn't entirely the solution, that it doesn't solve your problem if you have a Linux machine if you do all your shopping at Amazon, you do all your emailing and search at Google and I forget what the third thing would have been. The idea being that if everything you use is centralized, then it doesn't matter enough that you have some freedom of software.
Here: "The closure of computers and other devices that Jonathan Zittrain warned about in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It and Cory Doctorow has called the war on general purpose computing is only part of the problem that confronts us now. It will not matter, or at least it will not matter enough if your computer is general purpose if everything you do on it is intermediated by a third party whose goals have nothing to do with yours. If you buy all your eBooks from Amazon, stream all your TV and movie watching from NETFLIX, do all your music listening through iTunes and manage all your communications through Gmail and Facebook, how much difference does it make that you're running Linux?"