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The Ever-Changing Animal of the Internet

October 29th, 2009 · No Comments

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As an archivist and student of history, I am curious about the past and how things have evolved. When looking through some journals, I was reminded of when I first was learning about the Internet and e-mail in the early 1990s. Being new to the archival profession, I recall being in a session at a Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) meeting. Although I don’t remember the topic, I do remember sitting next to a more experienced archivist who seemed to want to share his techie knowledge with a neophyte such as myself. You could send a note to someone on your computer? You could look for information and post material on your computer? How did that work? It was very befuddling. So this friendly, helpful archivist proceeded to jot down a bunch of letters and punctuation, and supposedly, when you put this into some program in your computer, you would be able to send and retrieve information. I thanked my more experienced colleague for trying to explain this gibberish. I know shortly after when I started a regular, full-time job, I got a computer and e-mail and learned what it was all about.

I recollected this long-ago episode when I was looking through an IEEE journal Annals of the History of Computing from 2004. There was an article about Gopher. Ahhh, it was all coming back to me — that little animal that actually had to do with some early type of searching on a computer. Apparently the software was introduced in 1991, and instead of being an acronym for something, the Gopher got its name because it retrieved material (like a go-fer), it dug deep (like an animal), and it was the mascot for the university where it was created (University of Minnesota Golden Gophers). It was developed in part to assist colleges with CWIS, campus wide information systems. It also was an early attempt to instruct regular people, not computer techs or information professionals, on the capabilities of the Internet. Since it was relatively easy to install the software, more people used it, and that meant more information would be available on the servers, so even more people would want to use it.

While Gopher may not have been an acronym, there were other computer-related terms that stretched plausibility to try to be both clever and memorable. “Archie” was introduced as part of Gopher software to search anonymous FTP files for information. By some accounts, it was a shortened form of “archiver.” To go along with “him,” “Veronica” was created, Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Netwide Index to Computerized Archives. It was built into Gopher to allow searching on files, directories, and other resources. As if that were not enough, “Jughead” was introduced, Jonzy’s [creator Rhett Jones] Universal Gopher Hierarchy Excavation And Display. It was a software program to help find directories on Gopher.

By 1992, Gopher was one of the most popular things on the Internet allowing users to find answers to many questions. However, it was around this same time that Tim Burners-Lee and his team were developing the HTTP protocol, a web server and browser, and HTML. By 1994, the World Wide Web had surpassed all other Internet protocols. The rise and fall of Gopher is interesting, but too long to detail in this posting. But one of the main theories of why the web won is because it displayed and linked together information on the Internet, but Gopher primarily had an inflexible hierarchical, file-like structure of data display, i.e., the web showed graphics (“pretty pictures”) much more readily. This, too, allowed for more graphic advertising and therefore more revenue.

Although now mainly defunct, one lasting legacy of the Gopher craze was from the team leader for the project, Mark McCahill. Apparently he was a windsurfing enthusiast and he first used the phrase “surfing the Internet” in a 1992 Usenet post.

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Category: History of Media and Access