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Unraveling the web's story

The man who drove from coast to coast

The web launched from a research lab in Europe, but it found its first major boom in the still-emerging Northern California region known as Silicon Valley. The first commercial browser, the web’s largest publication, and the newly christened “e-commerce” trend were, by 1995, erupting in and around the Bay Area.

The web arrived on the East Coast a little late. There were plenty of people, of course, in the area poised and ready by the mid-90’s for the arrival of the web, but it had not yet caught on. When it finally did in the middle half of the 1990’s, the web gained new players: namely the media industry and Wall Street.

Finance and mass media have endured a rich and lasting tradition and were not particularly impressed with the tech-centric ethos of Silicon Valley that promised that “software would eat the world.” That tradition saw in the web not its technological promise, but its commercial potential. These industries believed that bringing entertaining content with strong editorial direction to the web would help it reach mainstream audiences and bring more consumers online.

Beginning in the mid-90’s, investment from Wall Street began to flood into Silicon Alley (as the New York tech scene would soon be called), to create content based media sites with broad appeal. Enthusaistic pioneers of the web able to get in on the ground floor began creating online zines and digital-first video programming. They were transforming the web from a haphazard pool of random web creators to a buttoned-up bundle of “channels,” delivering the kind of content you might expect from TV or magazines.

In order for the media play to work, Silicon Alley had some convincing to do. The niche of the web was still small, and consumer-driven content required consumers. Some of the more ardent supporters of the web in New York began to try to pitch and push their vision of the web on the rest of the country. There was even this one time when somebody got on a motorcycle and drove across the country with a camcorder strapped to his helmet to tell everyday folks about the power and potential and promise of the web.

The person in question is Greg Elin, a web consultant and advocate with a background in improv comedy and theater. While attending a motorcycle rally (he was a hobbyist himself) he got an idea for a trip, one that would give him chance to share his passion for an online world. A road trip, across the country from coast to coast, to go out there and tell people about the web.

Elin took his idea to TotalNY, an edgy New York digital startup that had recently corralled a large investment round and was a fixture in Silicon Alley. Their website was one-part magazine and one-part city guide, part of the content-driven craze on the web delivering personalized news and information to New Yorkers, all through the lens of tech and tech culture. They were not above lavish ideas, and they loved the idea.

A screenshot of the homepage
An early iteration of TotalNY magazine

They hooked Elin up with a computer, a portable modem, a video camera and a few other incidentals he would need – about $7,000 worth of equipment in all. He strapped everything he could to the back of his motorcycle and, in October of 1995, set off from New York with the slogan: “Travel the American Internet from Silicon Alley to Silicon Valley.”

Along the way, Elin planned to meet with tech luminaries and important figures in the web and the Internet’s development. In Boston, he met with MIT Media Lab fouder Nicholas Negroponte and the founder of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He passed through Illinois to meet NCSA director Larry Smarr and check out the birthplace of the Mosaic browser. He spoke with Grateful dead lyricist and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Perry Barlow. These were the web’s heavy hitters, the pioneers of a new tomorrow.

And yet Elin didn’t want to just meet with members of the tech pantheon. Whenever he could, he stopped to talk with regular people, and share his vision of cyberspace. He would stop people on the street and talk to them about the web, hoping to bring a bit of enthusiasm for the digital frontier all over the United States.

TotalNY had managed to secure a sponsorship with Sweet ‘N’ Low (of all places) early on. So if you happened to be in Elin’s path, he might just pull his motorcycle over, give you a few free Sweet ‘N’ Low packets, and tell you all about the web.

Elin recorded interviews (via the camera attached to his helmet) and took candid photos with the people he met — from planned stops or random encounters — and uploaded them to TotalNY to keep its readers up to date with his trip. His goal, of course, was outreach. To bring the perspective emerging from Silicon Alley to the rest of the United States.

Greg Elin in 1995, complete with his makeshift video camera helmet

But by posting his interviews and chance encounters to the TotalNY site, he began to create an opposite effect. The perspectives of the United States made their way back to Silicon Alley. Through the reactions of his interviewees, Elin was able to shine a new light on the web, and the ever-increasing pace of internet development. For a tech scene largely living in an ideological bubble, it was a refreshing change of pace.

The project would see a few more iterations and spinoffs in the second half of the 1990’s. But Elin and his imitators wouldn’t be able to capture its spirit again.

Elin was using pretty cutting edge technology at the time. His portable camera and rudimentary wireless networks were advanced, but not nearly up to the task of keeping Elin completely mobile. On most occasions, he was forced to do his intense web work from a hotel room with a more robust Internet connection.

In an interview for the trip, Elin foresaw a world where that was no longer an issue:

As I’m sitting there with my computer and my power adapter and my cords to my cell phone, it’s becoming very apparent to all of us that these things need to be easier, they need to be lighter, they need to be smaller… It’ll be really great when someone can make this trip in two years or five years without any of the technical problems

I’m not sure even Elin, one of the more enthusiastic supporters of the early web, would have predicted how fast that world would come.


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