It all began on October 29, 1969, when a host computer at UCLA sent a few packets of data to another host computer at Stanford. The plan was for Leonard Kleinrock, who oversaw the ARPANet lab at UCLA, to send a message containing the word “log” to his colleagues at Stanford, who would then respond with the word “in.”
Unfortunately the system crashed right after Kleinrock had sent “lo,” but the deed had been done, and the Internet concept proved.
From that garbled first word, the Internet grew into the world’s connective tissue. That’s been a great thing for the most part—but even on the occasion of its 44th birthday, the Internet is still young, still having growing pains, and still capable of all manner of foibles and folly. Here are our favorite dummheits from the Internet’s history so far. (You probably have your own ideas about the Internet’s lamest moments, and we’d love to hear them, so please put them in the comments.)
The day of the dot-bomb
It’s not easy to pin it down to a specific day, but if there was a 24-hour period when the dot-com bubble turned into the dot-com bomb, it was March 11, 2000. The day before, the NASDAQ (where the vast majority of tech stocks live) had peaked at 5046.86 points, meaning that the stocks in the index were then worth about twice what they had been selling for just a year before. But on March 11, share prices began to fall, and they continued to fall so sharply that just 10 days later the NASDAQ had lost 10 percent of its total value.
This proved to be the beginning of a sustained decline, as the BS detectors of investors finally snapped back into operation, and the market realized that many of the dot-com companies had no discernible path toward making a profit, or even a product. On October 9, 2002, the NASDAQ finally bottomed out at 1114.11 points, having endured a 78 percent loss in value from the height of the boom days 30 months before.
Chief excitable officer
Let’s run down the hits: In September 2000, Steve Ballmer took the stage at Microsoft’s 25th anniversary event, before a friendly audience of employees, and proceeded to bug the eff out, running around at top speed to the strains of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet,” screaming his shiny head off. It’s glorious.
The “Developers” video, featuring Ballmer chanting “developers” to a crowd of...developers, is shorter but sweatier (much sweatier), and the two episodes have been remixed and given the YTMND treatment time and time again. Is this an embarrassing moment for the Internet as a whole? Or just an excuse for us to embed this video one more time?
The Streisand Effect
If something you think should be secret becomes public, it’s only natural to want to raise a stink about the injustice of it all. But if you’re a famous celebrity, think twice, or you might be the next victim of the Streisand Effect.
In May 2003, superstar Barbra Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman, who had included images of her palatial Malibu estate in his California Coastal Records Project, a site featuring aerial photographs of the coast and intended for the use of researchers studying scintillating topics like erosion—not as a sneaky way to spy on Barbra Streisand or to help the unwashed masses find her home.
According to the 45-page ruling (PDF) dismissing the case, the image of Streisand’s home had been downloaded from Adelman’s site just six times (six, as in four less than ten) before the lawsuit—and Streisand’s own lawyers accounted for two of those instances. Of course, with a lawsuit comes publicity; and over the next month, the photo received more than 420,000 views—all because she didn’t want people to look.
At the conclusion of the proceeding, the court ordered Babs to pay $177,107.54 to cover the defendants’ legal fees. (Ever the documentarian, Adelman posted a picture of the check he received.) And the term “Streisand Effect” was coined by Techdirt’s Mike Masnick to describe the flood of attention that results when you try to censor something on the Internet.
Ridiculous idiots acting abhorrently
Remember when the Recording Industry Association of America adopted the practice of sending scary-sounding “prelitigation letters” that accused people of illegal file sharing and demanded that they agree to a cash settlement if they didn’t want to be sued into oblivion? In pursuit of its intellectual property claims, the RIAA sued a 12-year-old girl and made her cry, and it went after hundreds of college students too.
Not everyone took the abuse lying down. One woman even turned around the sued the RIAA, accusing the trade group of racketeering for using such scare tactics to extort money. But one defendant the RIAA tried to scare—an 83-year-old great-grandmother from West Virginia named Gertrude Walton—didn’t react at all. And that’s because she was dead. The RIAA accused Walton of sharing 700 or so songs under the handle “smittenedkitten,” though it later turned out that she (a) had passed away a month earlier, and (b) didn’t own a computer or allow one in her house. The RIAA insisted afterward that it was all just a mixup, though Walton’s daughter had received the prelitigation settlement offer and had responded with a copy of her mother’s death certificate, and though the RIAA had filed suit anyway. In 2008, the RIAA announced it would stop filing such suits and would instead work with ISPs on a three-strikes system, targeting egregious offenders instead of little kids and deceased octogenarians. Yeah, good move.
The Times, they are a-chargin’
The New York Times website receives 29 million unique visitors per month. It’s the biggest newspaper site in the country, and all of its content used to be free. But as the Gray Lady’s print subscriptions have declined, the Times has joined other major newspapers in experimenting with a paywall system. The results have been...mixed.
In 2005, the company rolled out TimesSelect, a subscription-based service that hid Times columnists like Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman behind a paywall—which Friedman reacted badly to, saying flat-out, “I hate it” (skip to the 1:00 mark of this video).
The TimesSelect experiment ended in 2007, but in 2011 the Times launched its current paywall, which cuts off nonpaying readers after 20 free articles per month. (The company lowered the ceiling to 10 free articles per month in April 2012.) It’s famously easy to get evade the limit, since links you click from outside the website—from Google, Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere—don’t count. But it seems to be working. In January 2013, public editor Margaret Sullivan said that subscription revenue had passed advertising revenue for the first time ever.
Now the Times just needs digital subscription offers that actually make sense. At the moment you can’t subscribe to the website alone, for example; and if you want to read the news on your smartphone and your tablet, you have to pay twice. That’s just silly.
Yahoo Answers: a safe place for imbeciles
It seemed like a good idea when it launched in 2005—and maybe Yahoo Answers really has helped a lot of people do a lot of things. But if YouTube is the place to go to find the mean people on the Internet, Yahoo Answers seems to be the place to go to find the dumb. Behold...
You know that sinking feeling when you delete something you didn’t mean to get rid of, or when you accidentally click ‘Reply All’ when you meant to send your response to the one person that ‘Reply’ would have reached? So embarrassing. But at least you aren’t the Google employee who mistakenly deleted the company’s official blog from Blogger back in 2006, drawing a stern “Google needs to get its house in order” admonition from Rob Enderle of all people. Luckily for Google, a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas quickly snapped up the abandoned address on Blogger (a service Google owns) and notified Google so the company could take it back and sheepishly admit what had happened (d’oh!).
’A series of tubes’
Ted Stevens, a longtime (as in 40 years total) Republican senator from Alaska, set the anti–net neutrality cause back several decades with his hilariously primitive definition of the Internet in front of Congress on June 28, 2006. Here are Stevens’ own words:
“[T]hey want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s, it’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand those tubes can be filled; and if they’re filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line—it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.”
Stevens had been a strong supporter of the interests of big cable and phone company ISPs, which wanted (and still want) the right to charge Internet companies like Google and Netflix megabucks for the privilege of having their packets of data delivered on a fast, reserved lane of the Internet, uh, tube. Meanwhile, packets from smaller, emerging Internet companies—which, of course, Google and Netflix once were—would be pushed into the congested, “best-effort” lanes. You can hear the audio from Stevens’ comments here.
I got Rickrolled
For some of us, it came in an email purporting to be about a piece of bad (or juicy) news, along with an innocent-looking yet tantalizing link. Of course, we clicked through to see the full story, and the next thing we knew, our senses were being molested by a face and voice from the 1980s we had every right to expect we would never encounter again. It was Rick Astley lip-synching his way through the MTV-ready video of his 1987 hit single “Never Gonna Give You Up,” an instant reminder of everything that was egregious about the 1980s. We had been Rickrolled. “Rickrolling” started in early 2007 on the 4chan imageboard, and a year later it went viral like viral had never been seen before. In early April 2008, SurveyUSA estimated that at least 18 million Americans had been “Rickrolled.”
Is the Internet trustworthy?
By the mid-2000s, most consumers had grown accustomed to the practice of sending credit card information online. We sent our credit card data into the ether with the confidence born of childlike faith that banks, retailers, and other recipient companies would take good care of it. That faith was seriously challenged on January 20, 2009, when news outlets reported the biggest breach of online data in the history of the Internet.
Heartland Payment Systems, a credit card processing service, announced on that day that data from as many as 100 million credit cards stored on its servers had been compromised during 2008. The five hackers from Russia and Ukraine who pulled the heist turned out to be part of a worldwide network of hackers. In the Heartland case, they planted malicious code in company’s networks to secure access to data for the better part of a year. Heartland ended up paying more than $110 million in settlements with credit card companies, banks, and consumers.
Facebook: Everything is public
On December 2009, Facebook began rolling out a new set of changes to its “notoriously complex” (EFF’s words) privacy settings, a move that struck a powerful blow against any remaining expectation of privacy that Web consumers still clung to. In typical fashion, Facebook spun the changes as a wonderful gift for users (“they give you more control of your information,” said Facebook), but the actual point opf the changes was to make far more user data available to “everyone” (read: advertisers) by default. The data involved included the users’ list of friends, name, profile picture, current city, gender, networks, and pages they had “liked.”
The EFF had a different assessment. “These new ‘privacy’ changes are clearly intended to push Facebook users to publicly share even more information than before,” said EFF attorney Kevin Bankston in a blog post. “Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data.”
Silly Netflix, Qwikster’s for...nobody
Netflix is on top of the world right now, with more subscribers than HBO and its original programming drawing critical acclaim and Emmy nominations galore. But a couple years ago, the company’s ill-fated plan to spin off the DVD-mailing portion of its business as Qwikster (with a separate website, separate queue, and two sets of ratings and recommendations) went over with the public like a lead balloon. It didn’t help that CEO Reed Hastings’s blog post announcing Qwikster began, “I messed up”—not the best way to announce a change you’re supposedly excited about.
To make matters worse, Netflix hadn’t locked down the Qwikster brand on social media in advance, and the Qwikster account on Twitter was helmed by a spelling-challenged teenager with a profile photo of Elmo smoking a doobie. He got all excited at the prospect of “making bank” by selling his gold mine of a Twitter handle—but then Netflix reversed its decision, keeping DVDs and streaming unified under the Netflix banner, and Qwikster became nothing more than a weird footnote in Netflix history.