In Noisy Digital Era, 'Elegant' Internet Still Thrives Before Facebook and MySpace transformed how we interact online, there was another kind of Internet: the SDF network, made up of users connecting via phone lines and code. Around the world, 30,000 computing enthusiasts still use that network today.

In Noisy Digital Era, 'Elegant' Internet Still Thrives

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Facebook and other social networks have transformed the way we interact online, but using computers to share information and meet friends predates the 21st century.

From New Hampshire Public Radio, Todd Bookman reports on one of the first social networks, a network that people still use.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: Before Facebook, before MySpace, even before Al Gore, there was an Internet. The 1980s Internet, when users still connected through phone lines and communicated through simple lines of text.


BOOKMAN: It may sound outdated, but today, that version of the Internet is still very much alive.


BOOKMAN: How do you pronounce your name?

PAT MCNAMEEKING: Well, I always type it, so there's never really any need to pronounce it, but I guess, Bullywith(ph) is how you might say it.

BOOKMAN: Bullywith is this guy's handle, his screen name. Offline, he's Pat McNameeking, a 23-year-old college student in Concord, New Hampshire.

So we're in your parents' basement.

MCNAMEEKING: Yeah. I'm connected to the Internet through an ethernet cable I pulled down through the ceiling. There's a big piece of exposed communication stuff, a bunch of telephone cable wires. It's dark in here. Yeah. Just storage, a bunch of stuff.

BOOKMAN: Perched over a small laptop, Pat/Bullywith logs into an online community called SDF. It's sort of like Facebook, Gmail and a gaming site all rolled into one, but there aren't videos or pictures or even ads on the screen.

MCNAMEEKING: This is a lot more elegant, I think. This is just text. There's no mouse. It's just all in a command line. Using a mouse and having Windows and dragging stuff around is - it's distracting.

BOOKMAN: This is the Internet for people that actually understand how the Internet works. Instead of websites, users are accessing a shared operating system. They can chat, email and post within the system, but only by typing in commands. SDF has been around since 1987 and currently has about 30,000 members, but at one time, this type of computing was the Internet.

ROD FLEISCHMAN: They were extremely popular. They were like the alternative to AOL and CompuServe back in the early days. But, nowadays, they're, you know, very, very obscure.

BOOKMAN: Rob Fleischman is a computer scientist and Internet expert. He says that, at one time, porn and pirated materials were commonly shared on these systems.

FLEISCHMAN: These little areas of the Internet that are not particular popular are great places for nefarious characters.

BOOKMAN: Most of that business has migrated onto the mainstream web, along with all the legal activities, too. SDF is now really just a hangout for computer hobbyists.

Back in the '80s, when users still had to use landline telephones to connect, they would usually only communicate with other computers that had a local number. Nobody wanted to pay long distance charges. And, because other users were in your area code, it was common for them to get together in person. Online friends actually became real friends.

Today, users from around the globe are on SDF, but they still do occasionally meet up in person.

MCNAMEEKING: I think that would be really cool. I haven't come across anyone in Concord, New Hampshire. If I did, I'd love to meet up with them.

BOOKMAN: For now, Pat McNameeking is satisfied just surfing around on SDF. Rob Fleishman told me that this type of computing will never totally fade away. There will always be users that are willing to trade the bells and whistles of a website for the hard elegance of code, but because SDF requires some serious computer know-how, it will likely stay limited to the Internet's basement.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman in Concord, New Hampshire.

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