Talking Headers

by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon

[This excerpt of Wizards, a history of email titled "Talking Headers," appeared in The Washington Post Magazine on August 4, 1996. It was edited by Bob Thompson and John Cotter.]

One September evening in 1973, Len Kleinrock, a computer scientist at UCLA, was unpacking his bags when he discovered that he'd forgotten his razor. He'd just returned home to Los Angeles from Brighton, England, where he'd left the razor in a Sussex University dormitory bathroom. An ordinary electric razor, it was no big loss. "But it was mine," he recalled, "and I wanted it back."

Kleinrock had just come from a conference on computing and communications. The conference had brought together scientists from several countries, some of whom had begun developing digital networks under the auspices of their own governments. But the U.S. government's ARPANET -- a growing multimillion-dollar network launched in 1969 by the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) with the aim of electronically linking dozens of major computer science labs throughout the country -- was by far the largest and most sophisticated network experiment in the world, and the international community welcomed the chance to see the project demonstrated. The organizers of the conference had also decided to use the occasion to test the transmission of data packets via satellite. For the conference, a temporary link from the United States had been patched into Brighton. Packets traveled over a satellite link from Virginia to an earth station in Cornwall, at Goonhilly Downs near Land's End, and from there a dedicated phone line was installed to connect with the University of London. From London there was a final link to Brighton, where people had a chance to use the ARPANET just as if they were sitting in an office in Cambridge, Mass., or Menlo Park, Calif.

Kleinrock had returned to the States a day early, so when he realized he had forgotten his razor, he thought he might find someone still at the conference to retrieve it. There was a handy bit of software on the network called the resource-sharing executive, or RSEXEC. If you typed in "where so-and-so," RSEXEC looked for so-and-so by searching the "who" list -- a roster of everyone logged on -- at each site. You could locate a person on the network this way if he happened to be logged on at that moment. "I asked myself, What maniac would be logged in at 3 a.m.?" Kleinrock remembered. He went to his terminal and typed "where roberts."

A few minutes later, Kleinrock's terminal displayed the answer. Larry Roberts, the head of ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office, was indeed still in Brighton, awake, and at the moment connected via the satellite to a host computer at Bolt Beranek & Newman ( BBN), the small Cambridge consulting firm that had won the ARPA contract to build and run the network. A Teletype number for Roberts also appeared on Kleinrock's screen, enough information for him to tap his colleague on the shoulder electronically from L.A.

"All I had to do was make a Teletype connection to BBN," said Kleinrock. He linked to Roberts using TALK, a program that allowed them to converse by typing onto one half of a split screen while reading from the other. The two friends traded greetings. "I asked if he could retrieve the razor. He said, `Sure, no problem.' " The next day the razor was returned by Danny Cohen, a mutual friend who had been at the conference and had come back to L.A.

There weren't any formal rules restricting use of the ARPANET by those with authorized access. Kleinrock's razor retrieval caper wasn't the first time anyone had pushed past official parameters in using the network. People were sending more and more personal messages. Rumor had it that even a dope deal or two had been made over some of the packet-switching network links in Northern California. Still, tapping into the ARPANET to fetch a shaver across international lines was a bit like being a stowaway on an aircraft carrier. The ARPANET was an official federal research facility, after all, and not something to be toyed with. Kleinrock had the feeling that the stunt he'd pulled was slightly out of bounds. "It was a thrill. I felt I was stretching the Net."

A quarter-century before Internet e-mail would become a fixture on Capitol Hill, years before the personal computer revolution, a cadre of techies working around the clock invented the most important two-way communications medium since the telephone. The ARPANET was the computer network that revolutionized communications and gave rise to the global Internet. The product of a golden era in American science and technology, the ARPANET reaped the benefit of a number of resources: the genius of the nation's research universities, the faith of Washington's R&D budget managers, and possibly the fastest million dollars ever obtained by an ARPA division director -- a young Texan named Bob Taylor who walked into his boss's third-floor Pentagon office one day in 1966 with a new idea and 20 minutes later emerged with approval to build the experimental network.

Contrary to popular myth, rampant today, the ARPANET was never intended to serve as a means of communication built to survive nuclear war. The whole idea was simply to link the large (and expensive) computers that ARPA purchased for individual researchers in distant laboratories throughout the country so they could economize and share resources.

That his boss would bet a million dollars on Taylor's idea, based on a brief conversation, was the epitome of the old freewheeling " ARPA style" that featured fast responses, big risks and blue-sky research. The agency, created by the Eisenhower administration in response to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, was staffed by top-flight scientists and engineers, and was built to take risks that other R&D centers would not. By the early 1960s, ARPA had become the main sponsor of the nation's most advanced computer science research, which was flourishing at MIT, UCLA and a few other places.

The rudimentary ideas for a network in which machines traded data with other machines had been pondered by several computing pioneers: J.C.R. Licklider of MIT, Paul Baran of the Rand Corp., Donald Davies of Britain's National Physical Laboratory. Each had thought about the concept independently, unknown to one another. But it was Taylor, a whip-smart research manager, who grasped the government's role in high-risk, high-potential R&D and who put in motion the network project that industry giants like AT&T and IBM had proclaimed would never work.

By 1969, in Cambridge and Los Angeles, the inventions of a tight community of a few dozen computer scientists and engineers -- young, brilliant, opinionated, driven -- were being wired up to form the ARPANET. The first traffic on the network, though relatively sparse, was moving smoothly by the end of 1970. And, as ARPA continued pouring on the funding, in the 1970s network growth exploded with the advent of e-mail.

The ARPANET was not intended as a message system. In the minds of its inventors, the network was intended for resource-sharing, period. That very little of its capacity was actually ever used for resource-sharing was a fact soon submersed in the tide of electronic mail.

Between 1972 and the early 1980s, e-mail, or network mail as it was referred to, was discovered by thousands of early users. Those years gave rise to many of the enduring features of modern digital culture: flames, emoticons, the @ sign, debates on free speech and privacy, and a sleepless search for technical improvements and agreements about the technical underpinnings of it all. At first, e-mail was difficult to use, but by the end of the 1970s the big problems had been licked. The big rise in message traffic was to become the largest early force in the network's growth and development. E-mail was to the ARPANET what the Louisiana Purchase was to the young United States. Things only got better as the network grew and technology converged with the torrential human tendency to talk.

Electronic mail would become the long-playing record of cyberspace. Just as the LP was invented for connoisseurs and audiophiles but spawned an entire industry, electronic mail grew first among the elite community of computer scientists on the ARPANET, then later bloomed like plankton across the Internet. It was about the time Kleinrock was reaching for his razor that taboos were tumbling and the tone of message traffic on the Net started loosening up.

As cultural artifact, electronic mail belongs in a category somewhere between found art and lucky accidents. The ARPANET's creators didn't have a grand vision for the invention of an earth-circling message-handling system. But once the first couple of dozen sites, or "nodes," on the network were operational, early users turned the system of linked computers into a tool of personal as well as professional communications. Using the ARPANET as a sophisticated mail system was simply a good hack. In those days hacking had nothing to do with malicious or destructive behavior; a good hack was a creative or inspired bit of programming. The best hackers were professionals. Meddlesome and malicious network users, of which there were virtually none at the outset, were first referred to as "network randoms" or "net randoms" or just plain "randoms." It would be the '80s before hacking was given a bad name.

BREAK In the decade before the ARPANET, computer scientists had devised ways of exchanging electronic messages within a time-sharing system. Researchers on the same time-sharing system each had a designated file, like an in-box, in the central machine. Colleagues could address short electronic messages to someone else's box, where only the recipient could read them. Messages could be dropped and picked up at any time. It was convenient, given the odd hours people kept. People within a single lab sent parades of one-liners back and forth, as well as longer memoranda and drafts of papers.

The first of these programs, called MAILBOX, was installed in the early 1960s on the Compatible Time-Sharing System at MIT. Similar mailboxes became a standard feature of almost every time-sharing system built thereafter. In places where people were spread out, programmers working hundreds of yards apart could exchange messages without having to get up from their desks. But often, exchanging messages in a single machine, or domain, became a superfluous exercise -- like two people using walkie-talkies to converse in a one-room cabin. Said one user, "I'll never forget a colleague who, while working in the next office, would constantly send me e-mail and it never failed to surprise him when I got up and walked next door to respond to him."

By virtue of its geographic reach, the ARPA network turned electronic mail from an interesting toy into a useful tool. The tendencies of the ARPANET community ran strongly democratic, with something of an anarchic streak. The ARPANET's earliest users were constantly generating a steady stream of new ideas, tinkering with old ones, pushing, pulling or prodding their network to do this or that, spawning an atmosphere of creative chaos. The art of computer programming gave them room for endless riffs, and variations on any theme. One of the main themes became electronic mail.

The first electronic-mail delivery engaging two machines was done one day in 1972 by a quiet engineer, Ray Tomlinson at BBN. Sometime earlier, Tomlinson had written a mail program for Tenex, the BBN-grown operating system that, by now, was running on most of the ARPANET's PDP-10 machines. The mail program was written in two parts: To send messages, you'd use a program called SNDMSG; to receive mail, you'd use the other part called READMAIL. He hadn't actually intended for the program to be used on the ARPANET. Like other mailbox programs of the day it was created for time-sharing systems and designed only to handle mail locally, within individual PDP-10s, not across them.

But Tomlinson, an inveterate experimenter, decided to take advantage of having two PDP-10 computers set up in the Cambridge office; in fact, they were the same machines BBN was using to connect to the ARPANET. Weeks earlier, Tomlinson had written an experimental file-transfer protocol called CPYNET. Now he modified the program so that it could carry a mail message from one machine and drop it into a file on another. When he tried it, and sent mail from one PDP-10 to the other, the little hack worked, and even though his mail hadn't actually gone out onto the open network, it had crossed an important historical divide. Tomlinson's CPYNET hack was a breakthrough; now there was nothing holding e-mail back from crossing the wider Net. Although in technical terms Tomlinson's program was trivial, culturally it was revolutionary. " SNDMSG opened the door," said Dave Crocker, an e-mail pioneer who was a member of the technical support staff in UCLA's computer science department. "It created the first interconnectivity, then everyone took it from there."

But how to get this invention running out on the network? The answer lay in the file-transfer protocol -- spelling out the programming rules by which data files would be sent back and forth between machines.

In July 1972, one evening at MIT's Tech Square, as a programmer named Abhay Bhushan was writing the final specifications for the ARPANET file-transfer protocol, someone suggested piggybacking Tomlinson's e-mail programs onto the end product. Why not? If electronic messages could ride on CPYNET, they might just as well ride on the file-transfer protocol. Bhushan and others worked out some modifications. Next, they sought approval from their peers.

It was an unwritten rule that network programmers regularly shared new work with the rest of their community in the interest of improving it. That practice had been started in 1969 by Dave Crocker's brother Steve, then a UCLA graduate student. To avoid sounding too declarative, he had sent a technical note regarding host-computer software to his colleagues under the heading "Request for Comments" -- it became known as RFC 1 -- and in the decades since, thousands of RFC s, written by anyone with a technical contribution to make to the network, have accumulated. Jon Postel, another UCLA graduate student, became the keeper of the RFC s (a role he has retained to this day). When, in August 1972, Postel received an RFC from Bhushan and his team spelling out the manner in which e-mail could ride piggyback on the file-transfer protocol, Postel thought to himself, "Now there's a nice hack." The ARPANET's first electronic mail-handling twins, named MAIL and MLFL, came to life.

Tomlinson became well-known for SNDMSG and CPYNET. But he became better known for a brilliant (he called it obvious) decision he made while writing those programs. He needed a way to separate, in the e-mail address, the name of the user from the machine the user was on. How should that be denoted? He wanted a character that would not, under any conceivable circumstances, be found in the user's name. He looked down at the keyboard he was using, a Model 33 Teletype, which almost everyone else on the Net used, too. In addition to the letters and numerals there were about a dozen punctuation marks. "I got there first, so I got to choose any punctuation I wanted," Tomlinson said. "I chose the @ sign." The character also had the advantage of meaning "at" the designated institution. He had no idea he was creating an icon for the wired world.

Stephen Lukasik, a physicist who directed ARPA from 1971 to 1975, was among the first users and great advocates of network mail. Lukasik had begun his career in the 1950s working for BBN and MIT while he was a graduate student. He joined ARPA in 1966 to work on nuclear test detection, and he had watched the creation of the ARPANET. During his rise to the directorship, he had fought especially hard to protect the computer science community's funding. ARPA was under pressure to do defense-related work with direct applications. Lukasik saw computing as a more fundamental but important technology and defended it as such before Congress. His favorite part of ARPA was Larry Roberts's Information Processing Techniques Office.

But sometimes things went a bit too far. As director, he walked around a lot, dropping in on people in their offices. One day he was in Information Processing Techniques when he noticed a folder lying on top of a file cabinet. Its orange cover ("not my favorite color") caught his eye. The folder was labeled "Computer-Assisted Choreography." It contained progress reports on a project that used dancers' movements to map human motions by computer. "I went ballistic," he said. He could picture the headline: PENTAGON FUNDS DANCE RESEARCH.

Lukasik told his staff to tell the scientists, if "you're going to do something that looks like it's 40,000 miles away from defense, please leave our name off of it." He understood the research and didn't care if they did it, but he didn't want them bragging about it. Steve Crocker, by now a program manager working under Roberts, was glad he wasn't the one overseeing the dance automation project. But he did have a small problem of his own with researchers he was funding at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "On random unannounced visits, they would show me proudly the lab's quadraphonic simulation of a buzzing fly -- which ate up 25 percent of the computing resources there," Crocker said.

One of the first things Lukasik had done upon being named head of the agency was get Roberts to give him an e-mail address and access to the ARPANET. It was unusual for someone who wasn't a computer scientist to be interested in using network mail, and more unusual for anyone to grow as reliant on it as Lukasik did.

A frequent traveler, Lukasik seldom went anywhere without lugging along his 30-pound "portable" Texas Instruments terminal with an acoustic coupler, so he could dial in and check his messages from the road. "I really used it to manage ARPA," Lukasik recalled. "I would be at a meeting, and every hour I would dial up my mail. I encouraged everybody in sight to use it." He pushed it on all his office directors and they pushed it on others. ARPA managers noticed that e-mail was the easiest way to communicate with the boss, and the fastest way to get his quick approval on things.

Lukasik and Roberts had an excellent relationship, partly because they were both analytical thinkers, and partly because Roberts was always quick to answer any questions Lukasik had about his projects. "If we had a meeting on Tuesday afternoon and I sent Larry away with some questions to answer," Lukasik said, "he'd come back the next day for another meeting with more than just answers. He'd have trends and projections and comparisons."

Then Lukasik discovered what was happening, and the utility of e-mail became clearer than ever. Typically, Roberts would leave Lukasik's office, return to his own office and fire off messages to the experts on the topic at hand, who in turn bounced the questions off their graduate students. Twenty-four hours and a flurry of e-mail later, the problem had usually been solved several times over. "The way Larry worked was the quintessential argument in favor of a computer network," Lukasik said. During Lukasik's tenure, Roberts's annual budget climbed from $27 million to $44 million.

In 1973, Lukasik commissioned an ARPA study that found that three-quarters of all traffic on the ARPANET was e-mail. By then, sending e-mail was a simple and nearly trouble-free process. However, reading or responding to it was far from easy. Text just poured onto the screen or out of the printer, and nothing separated the messages. To get to the last one, you had to run through them all again. For many users, the only way to read mail was to turn on the Teletype and print out streams of text. Composing messages was truly an annoyance, because tools for text editing were primitive. And there was no "reply" function for e-mail; to respond, you had to start a new message from scratch.

Lukasik, who hated throwing anything away, was beginning to get frustrated by the volume of e-mail piling up in his in-box. He went to Roberts. "I said, `Larry, this e-mail is great, but it's a mess!' " Lukasik recalled. "In typical Larry fashion, he came in the next day, and said, `Steve, I wrote some code for you that may help.' And he showed me how to get a menu of messages, or file them, or delete them." Roberts had just written the first mail manager software.

Roberts called his program RD, for "read." Everyone on the ARPANET loved it, and almost everyone came up with variations to RD -- a tweak here and a pinch there. A cascade of new mail-handling programs based on the Tenex operating system flowed into the network: NRD, WRD, BANANARD ("banana" was programmer slang for "cool" or "hip"), HG, MAILSYS, XMAIL . . . and they kept coming. Pretty soon, the network's main operators were beginning to sweat. They were like jugglers who had thrown too much up in the air. They needed more uniformity in these programs. Wasn't anyone paying attention to the standards?

BREAK Something about a mail system, digital or otherwise, is inviting to those with a certain nonconformist temperament. Perhaps because there must be rules, some people will always try bending them. There was the clever fellow, for instance, who got away with using the U.S. Postal Service to mail bricks, one by one, to Alaska, until he had enough there to build himself a house; it was the cheapest way to ship them from the lower 48 states. Or there's Auntie Em, who embellishes her packages to her far-flung nieces and nephews with fanciful illustrations, to the probable amusement rather than consternation of the postal clerks. Somewhere in a thick book of fine print are the official postal regulations regarding U.S. mail -- what can be sent, what can't, and how. But within limits, all manner of packages get delivered, because human mail clerks can adjust to a fairly wide latitude of nonconformity.

But imagine a local post office somewhere that decided to go it alone, making up its own rules for addressing, packaging, stamping and sorting mail. Imagine if that rogue post office decided to invent its own set of Zip codes. Imagine any number of post offices taking it upon themselves to invent new rules. Imagine widespread confusion. Mail handling begs for a certain amount of conformity, and because computers are less fault-tolerant than human beings, e-mail begs loudly.

The early wrangling on the ARPANET over attempts to impose standard message headers was typical of other debates over computer industry standards that came later. But because the struggle over e-mail standards was one of the first sources of real tension in the community, it stood out.

In 1973 an ad hoc committee led by MIT's Bhushan tried bringing some order to the implementation of new e-mail programs. Everyone knew that in the long run a separate mail-transmission protocol -- independent of the file-transfer protocol -- was needed. Network mail was taking on a life of its own. It had its own technical problems. And it couldn't stay glued to the file-transfer protocol forever. But for now, just standardizing mail headers was enough of a headache.

Data packets on the ARPANET already had something called headers, but they were entirely different from e-mail headers. The headers on data packets were coded bits read strictly by the packet-switching computers, telling them how to handle each packet as it came along. In the context of electronic mail, however, the header refers to a larger raft of information at the top of every e-mail message. The idea was that certain information should always appear at the top of messages in a specified format, really just an elaborate time and date locater, including information such as the time a message was sent and delivered, the route it traveled, other recipients to whom it was sent, and more. Bhushan's committee also suggested a syntax that would make it easier to read headers without the aid of a lot of special message processing.

Headers weren't always something seen only by the user. Some header fields were processed by receiving systems programmed to deal with reserved meanings and very tightly defined syntax. If the recipient program somehow misinterpreted the sender's header, the results could be exceedingly frustrating. The reader program might stop dead in its tracks or spit out an error message. Dates, for example, were specified in a particular way, and deviations might be unintelligible. Or if you put a comma in the wrong place, your mail program's ability to process messages might go awry. When one mail handler couldn't parse headers sent by others, it was as if a postal carrier in Kenosha, Wis., were being asked to deliver letters addressed in Sanskrit and Arabic.

Machines on the ARPANET encountered computer-language barriers of this kind regularly, and the problems multiplied with the growth in both the number of mail programs and the number of nodes on the Net. Depending on the kind of mail system one might use to send a message, an incompatible program or operating system at the receiving end could "barf up" the headers, as one observer put it. If the message got through, the person who received it still might have to deal with a garbled translation or screwed-up formatting. Recipients would complain about the sender. A sender might agree to fix the problem with a hack or kludge ("a kludge is a crock that works," went one definition), if he had the time. Or, if he liked his own mail program well enough, he might simply complain about the recipient's.

Setting up an e-mail exchange was like asking someone out on a date. "E-mail was seen as something between consenting adults," said Brian Reid, a computer scientist who was working on his PhD at Carnegie-Mellon University. A certain mature understanding was required. "I have an e-mail program, I want to send you mail, and you want to receive it," he continued, "and as long as we agree on the standard, it's fine." Many users of early fax machines went through the same kind of rigmarole making sure the sender's machine could communicate with the recipient's fax machine.

The problem occurred on a massive scale between machines that were based on the Tenex operating system and other, non-Tenex machines. Programmers at a few non-Tenex sites, like those using machines based on Multics (another common operating system of the era), continued introducing e-mail programs and features in the syntax of their own operating systems, and continued sending their messages out over the Net. Tenex machines, however, couldn't handle the syntax of other formats used at some sites.

The diversity of nonstandard systems on the Net caused problems even with something as apparently trivial as Tomlinson's @ sign. The @ sign dispute was long-running, and there were many sides to it. There was disagreement over what should go on the left hand side of the sign and what should go on the right. But before that, there was the debate over whether it should even be used at all as the delimiter between the user and host names in the address.

The Multics folks objected vehemently when it was first used, understandably so. Tomlinson, a Tenex hacker, had chosen the @ sign apparently without realizing that in the Multics system it was the character used to send a "line kill" command. Any Multics user who tried to send mail to "Tomlinson@bbn-tenex" would quickly get into trouble. Multics would start reading the address, encounter the @ sign, and throw away everything that had been typed previously on the line.

Ted Myer and Austin Henderson, from the BBN Tenex group, decided to try their hand at solving one of these compatibility issues, the header problem. In April 1975 they issued a new list of "standard" headers. The document, which they gave the title "Message Transmission Protocol," appeared as Request for Comment 680.

RFC 680 immediately created a ruckus among those who thought the effort too Tenex-oriented. Jon Postel, whose quiet word was often final, wielded the gavel. RFC 680, he said, was as standard as mail ever got. "It is nice that many mail-reading programs will accept mail that does not conform to the standard," he said, "but that does not justify mail-sending programs' violation of the standard." If the standard is inadequate, he added, any proposals to change it are welcome.

The tiff made clear that Tenex sites, led by BBN, formed a dominant culture on the network, while the "minority" sites, with their diverse operating systems, posed a potentially rebellious countermovement. Thus were planted the roots of a protracted conflict that continued into the 1980s and became known in the community as the header wars. Many of those battles were fought in the arena of a new group of computer conversationalists -- the "MsgGroup."

BREAK On June 7, 1975, Steve Walker, a program manager at ARPA's Information Processing Techniques Office, drafted a message to announce the formation of an electronic discussion group. The network community, he wrote, needs "to develop a sense of what is mandatory, what is nice and what is not desirable in message services. We have had a lot of experience with lots of services and should be able to collect our thoughts on the matter." He welcomed opinions from anyone willing to toss them in and even provided a bit of ARPA funding to launch it. "This whole thing is a new attempt," he continued. "I hope from all this to develop a long-term strategy for where message services should go on the ARPANET and indeed in the DOD. Let's have at it."

In the truncated verbal style permeating the culture of computing, the Message Services Group was dubbed the MsgGroup.

Dave Farber, on the computer science faculty of the University of California at Irvine, volunteered to be the MsgGroup file clerk; and Farber volunteered the help of a colleague, a consultant named Einar Stefferud. Before long, the bulk of the daily housekeeping chores fell to Stefferud, who began in the job by keeping the list of MsgGroup participants, signing up newcomers, cajoling them into posting introductory biographies of themselves, and sorting out bounced mail. Stefferud would become the MsgGroup's moderator and man behind the curtain. Serving as the go-between, he received messages for posting and manually remailed them to everyone on the list. It was an arduous process that became automated later on.

Not everyone conducted his business in the open-air market of the MsgGroup; there was just as much or more private e-mail traffic among programmers. But everyone in the world involved in implementing mail systems eventually participated, or at least knew what transpired, in the group. The discussion was to last 10 years. In time, thousands of messages, and hundreds of thousands of words, were exchanged by the hundred or so MsgGroup participants.

The MsgGroup was among the first network mailing lists. There were other mailing lists, most of them unsanctioned, around the educational sites. The first widely popular unofficial list, called SF-Lovers, was devoted to science-fiction fans.

BREAK The header wars brought out the stubborn and strong-willed traits of the programmers. Operating conflicts between machines were only the half of it. Header troubles were also rooted in human disagreement over how much and what kind of information should be presented at the tops of the messages. People differed widely over how much header information they cared to deal with when looking at their mail.

Some programmers and mail programs included a lot more in their header fields than others did. They iced the cake with character counts, key words and various esoterica. Critics meanwhile argued strenuously for economy, opposing an information overload. Short messages with cumbersome headers always appeared top-heavy, out of balance, emphasizing the header rather than the message. Brian Reid at Carnegie-Mellon, who often sounded the voice of reason in the MsgGroup, was in the short-header camp. One day he received a sarcastic message from a colleague and posted it to the MsgGroup:

Date: 7Apr 1977 1712 EST From: Bob Chansler at CMU-10A Reply-To: Cheese Coop at CMU-10A Subject: Re: Close, but no cigar To: BRIAN.REID at CMU-10A CC: Chansler@ CMU-10A Sender: BOB.CHANSLER at CMU-10A Message ID: [ CMU-10A] 7 Apr 1977 17:12:49 Bob Chansler In-Reply- To: Your message of April 6, 1977 My-Seq-#: 39492094 Yr-Seq-#: 4992488 Class: A Subclass: MCMXLVII Author: RC12 Typist: Fred Terminal: TTY 88 FE-L#: 44 Reason: Did Godzilla need a reason? Valid: Not before 12 Apr 1977 1321Z Suspend: After 19 Apr 1977 0000Z Spelling-errors-this-message: 0 Spelling-errors-to-date: 23 Weather: Light rain, fog Forecast: Clearing by morning Psych-evaluation-of-sender: Slightly unstable

Security-level: Public Security-sublevel: 0 Authority-to-send: General Authority-to-rcv: General #-people-in-terminal-room: 12

XGP: UP-cutter not working

Ht/Wt-sender: 76/205

Machines: M&M s available but almond machine is empty M&M s-Last Nickel: 17

----------------------------------------- Brian, I do not understand your concern about the size of message headers. Bob.

Why can't we configure headers to print only the pieces of the header we choose to read? Reid asked. "Go ahead and put in 34 different header fields," he said. "All I ever really want to look at is `from' and `date.' "

Others agreed. The ideal program would allow users to design their own headers. At least one elaborate mail system offered an "invisible information" feature that allowed selective viewing of a great deal of header data.

On May 12, 1977, Ken Pogran at MIT, John Vittal at USC's Information Sciences Institute, Dave Crocker, now at the Rand Corp., and BBN's Austin Henderson launched a computer mail putsch. They announced "at last" the completion of a new mail standard, RFC 724, "A Proposed Official Standard for the Format of ARPA Network Messages." The standard they were proposing contained more than 20 pages of specifications -- syntactical, semantic and lexical formalities. The RFC explained that the receiver of a message could exercise an extraordinary amount of control over the message's appearance, depending on the capabilities of one's mail-reading system.

In the days after the publication of RFC 724, the computing community's response was at best cool to the new protocol. Jon Postel, who had been a defender of the old RFC 680, was the least impressed by the new proposal. He came down hard on the assertion that this was to be an official ARPA standard. "To my knowledge, no ARPANET protocol at any level has been stamped as official by ARPA," he said. "Who are the officials anyway? Why should this collection of computer research organizations take orders from anybody?" There was too much emphasis on officialism and not enough on cooperation and perfection of the system. "I prefer to view the situation as a kind of step-by-step evolution," he said, "where documents such as RFC s 561, 680 and 724 record the steps. To make a big point of officialness about one step may make it very hard to take the next step."

The RFC 724 team absorbed the criticism. Six months later, under Dave Crocker's and John Vittal's leadership, a final revised edition of RFC 724 was published as RFC 733. This specification was intended "strictly as a definition" of what was to be passed between ARPANET hosts. They didn't intend to dictate the look and feel of message programs or the features they could support. Less was required than allowed by the standard, they said, so here it was. And there it sat.

A number of software developers wrote or revised mail programs to conform with the new guidelines, but within a year of RFC 733's publication the persistent conflict picked up again. Of particular concern, RFC 733 headers were incompatible with a mail program called MSG (in spite of the fact that its author, John Vittal, had helped write RFC 733). MSG was far and away the most popular mail program on the ARPANET.

A hacker's hacker, Vittal had written the MSG program in 1975 out of sheer love for the work. MSG was never formally funded or supported, "other than by me in my spare time," he explained. But soon, MSG had a user community of more than a thousand people, which in those days meant a huge portion of the wired world. Vittal had used Larry Roberts's RD mail program, which was great for handling two or three messages at a time, or even a short message stack, but Vittal was getting 20 messages a day now and wanted a program to manage them with greater ease. "What MSG did was close the loop," he said, "so that you could parcel messages out to various other files, called folders, and ultimately answer and forward."

Vittal, in fact, became widely known for putting the word "answer" into the lexicon of e-mail. He invented the ANSWER command, which made replying to messages a cinch. Recalled Vittal, "I was thinking, `Hey, with an answer command I don't have to retype -- or mistype! -- a return address or addresses.' "

An inspiring model, MSG spawned a whole new generation of mail systems, including MH, MM, MS and a heavily funded, Pentagon-sponsored project at BBN called HERMES. MSG was the original "killer app" -- a software application that took the world by storm. Although there was never anything official about it, MSG clearly had the broadest grass-roots support. It was all over the network; even ARPA's top folks in the Pentagon used it. If anything was the most widely accepted standard, it was MSG, which reigned for a long while. (A few people at BBN were still using MSG in the 1990s.)

Vittal's MSG and his ANSWER command made him a legendary figure in e-mail circles. "It was because of Vittal that we all assimilated network mail into our spinal cords," recalled Brian Reid. "When I met him years later, I remember being disappointed -- as one often is when one meets a living legend -- to see that he had two arms and two legs and no rocket pack on his back."

More than just a great hack, MSG was the best proof to date that on the ARPANET rules might get made, but they certainly didn't prevail. Proclamations of officialness didn't further the Net nearly as well as did throwing technology out onto the Net to see what worked. And when something worked, it was adopted.

BREAK The more that people used the ARPANET for e-mail, the more relaxed they became about what they said. There were anti-war messages, and, during the height of the Watergate crisis, a student on the ARPANET advocated President Nixon's impeachment.

Not only was the network expanding, it was opening wider to new uses and creating new connections among people. One of the most stunning examples of this began with the lead programmer of BBN's crack engineering team -- Will Crowther.

A small circle of friends at BBN had gotten hooked on Dungeons and Dragons, an elaborate fantasy role-playing game in which one player invents a setting and populates it with monsters and puzzles, and the other players then make their way through that setting. The entire game exists only on paper and in the minds of the players.

Dave Walden, who had been a programming ace working under Crowther at BBN, got his introduction to the game one night in 1975, when Eric Roberts, a student from a class he was teaching at Harvard, took him to a D&D session. Walden immediately rounded up a group of friends for continued sessions. Roberts created the Mirkwood Tales, an elaborate version of Dungeons and Dragons set in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. The game stretched on for the better part of a year and was played mostly on Walden's living room floor. One of the regulars was Will Crowther. Where the dozen other players chose names like Zandar, Klarf or Groan for their characters, Crowther was simply Willie, a stealthy thief.

Crowther was also an ardent cave explorer. And his wife had achieved renown among cavers for having been part of a small group that discovered the first known link between the Mammoth and Flint Ridge caves in Kentucky. The combined 144-mile system was the longest known cave in the world. Crowther was the cartographer for the Cave Research Foundation. He used his off-hours to plot intricate subterranean maps on a BBN computer.

In early 1976 he and his wife divorced. Looking for something he could do with his two children, he hit upon an idea that united Will the programmer with Willie the imaginary thief: a simplified, computer version of Dungeons and Dragons called Adventure. Although the game did not use actual maps of the Kentucky caves, Crowther based the geometry of Adventure on stark images of those underground chambers. The iron grate through which players passed at the start of the game was modeled on those installed by the National Park Service at entrances to the Flint Ridge system. He even included a caving in-joke or two; the "Y2" inscribed on a rock at one point in the game is caver shorthand for a secondary entrance.

Crowther finished the program over the course of three or four weekends. His kids -- ages 7 and 5 -- loved it, and Crowther began showing it to friends. But the breakup of his marriage had sapped Crowther's spirit, and he never got around to refining the game.

Bob Taylor, the ARPA pioneer who had set the whole network project in motion in the 1960s, was now director of the computer science lab at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center ( PARC). Taylor persuaded Will Crowther to join him, and when Crowther moved to California in 1976 he left the Adventure program behind in a file on a BBN computer. Unpolished though the game was, word of it had filtered through the network community.

A Stanford graduate student named Don Woods heard about Adventure from a friend who had run across a copy on the Stanford Medical School computer, and he downloaded the game from there. But Woods had difficulty getting Adventure to run at first, and when he did he found it riddled with bugs. Still, he was hooked. "Adventure made users feel like they were interacting more with the computer," said Woods. "It seemed to be responding more to what you typed, rather than just making its own moves like a silent opponent. I think this attracted a lot of players who might otherwise have been turned off by the idea of playing `against' a computer. This was playing `with' a computer."

The game listed Will Crowther as the author, and Woods decided to track down Crowther to get the source code so he could start making repairs to the rudimentary little program. He sent e-mail to every host on the network looking for Crowther, and finally he found him at PARC. Crowther happily handed over the code. It took several months to rework, during which the simple program doubled in size. Woods created new obstacles, added a pirate, twisted the mazes further, and added several treasures that required some problem-solving before they were found.

When Adventure was done, Woods created a guest account on the computer at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to let people play, and swarms of guests logged in. Adventure spread like Hula-Hoops, as people sent the program to one another over the network. Because Crowther had written it in FORTRAN, a commonly used programming language, it could be adapted to many different computers with relative ease. Both Crowther and Woods encouraged programmers to pirate the game and included their e-mail addresses for anyone looking for help installing, playing or copying the game.

People grew bleary-eyed searching for treasure into the small hours of the morning. "I've long ago lost count of the programmers who've told me that the experience that got them started using computers was playing Adventure," Woods said. The game inspired hundreds of knockoffs, which eventually spawned an entire industry.

Adventure demonstrated the appeal of an open networking culture. And the emphasis on openness grew with time. There were few closed doors on the network, and a free spirit prevailed in people's attitudes about who could come and go through them, and for what purposes. Anyone trying to restrict the graduate student population from freely using the network would have grossly misunderstood the mind-set of the computer science community. The ARPANET was official federal government property, but network mail was being used for all manner of daily conversation.

Then, in the spring of 1977, Quasar rolled in the door. Its arrival marked the beginning of the first debate over free speech in cyberspace. The controversy centered on an unusual device made by Quasar Industries and blew up into an argument over using the taxpayer-funded ARPANET to speak, in openly critical terms, about a private company.

The device stood 5 feet 4 inches and weighed 240 pounds. It was called the Domestic Android robot, a programmable helper that Quasar said could perform a dozen basic household tasks such as mopping the floor, mowing the lawn, washing dishes and serving cocktails. It came equipped with a personality and speech, so that it could "interact in any human situation." It could "teach the kids French" and "continue teaching them, while they sleep." At the advertised price of $4,000, the thing seemed a steal.

Phil Karlton, a network citizen from Carnegie-Mellon, was the first to alert the MsgGroup, on May 26, 1977. His site on the ARPANET was heavily involved in exploring artificial intelligence, speech recognition and related research problems, so he knew a thing or two about robots. The android and its inventor had attracted a fair amount of national press attention, most of it favorable. Quasar's sales pitch had also caught the attention of Consumer Reports, which ran a skeptical item on it in the June issue, just out.

At first Quasar seemed nothing but an amusing diversion from the MsgGroup's main business. Everyone in the group knew the thing was a hoax, and for a while that seemed enough. But then a sense of civic duty arose. Dave Farber told of being in Boca Raton, Fla., and hearing on the radio that the Dade County police department was considering purchasing a Quasar guard robot for the county jail, for $7,000. In March 1978 the Boston Globe ran a story quoting MIT's Marvin Minsky and other skeptical AI experts. But the article took the overall attitude, said a MsgGroup member, that it "just goes to show you, those academicians can't do anything practical, and all you need is some guy working in the back of a garage to put them to shame." The saga left a trail of incredulity in the artificial intelligence research community.

Brian Reid and a colleague, Mark Fox, from the Carnegie-Mellon Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, posted an offbeat report to everyone in the MsgGroup, giving them a personal account of their inspection of the domestic robot, "Sam Strugglegear," at a large department store in downtown Pittsburgh. People in the research community, knowing of CMU 's pioneering AI work, had been calling the lab to ask how it was possible for Quasar's robot to be so much better at speech recognition than anything CMU had produced. Rising to the challenge, a four-member team from CMU had done the fieldwork.

"They found a frightening sight," reported Reid and Fox. In the men's department, among the three-piece suits, was a 5-foot-4 "aerosol can on wheels, talking animatedly" to a crowd. Electric motors and a system of gears moved the device's arms. The robot seemed conversant on any subject, recognized the physical features of customers, and moved freely in any direction. The crowd was charmed.

But the scientists were skeptical. They looked around for some evidence of a remote controller. "Lo and behold, about 10 feet from the robot, standing in the crowd, we found a man in a blue suit with his hand held contemplatively to his mouth like Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer in the famous Rembrandt painting." Reid and the others watched for a while and noticed that whenever the robot was talking, so was the man in the blue suit -- muttering into his hand. The man had a wire dangling suspiciously from his waist.

The discussion about the Quasar robot continued on and off until, in early 1979, Einar Stefferud, the MsgGroup's moderator, and Dave Farber, who had been lurking on the sidelines of the commentary, sent a note of caution to the MsgGroup. "We are asking for potential problems," they warned, "when we criticize the Quasar robot." Using U.S. government facilities to cast aspersions on a corporation, they said, could backfire on the ARPA research community. They urged their peers to impose careful self-censorship, to report only facts of technical interest to the community. Not everyone agreed, and with that the MsgGroup got embroiled in a soul-searching exchange.

John McCarthy, who worked at Stanford's AI lab, was among those most offended by Quasar's claims. He told the group that he would not be deterred by speculation that Quasar might sue. "I think someone seems to be frightened of his shadow," McCarthy said. "It has never been the custom of carnival snake-oil salesmen to sue their critics." Minsky and Reid also made it clear that they would tell any reporter who asked that they believed the robot was a joke, and they'd already expressed that opinion to more than a dozen journalists.

"I have no fear of being sued," replied Farber. "However, we are using a public vehicle called the ARPANET. We thereby expose ARPA, DOD and our future access and use of the network to certain dangers when we use that vehicle for potentially libelous material." Farber again urged restraint.

Reid took a different tack, saying that the "MsgGroup is the closest that we have to a nationwide computer science community forum." Reid had begun to notice that the MsgGroup was like a social club. Members had argued with one another so much that they had become friends. To restrict discussion would be unnatural. Besides, Reid took a more liberal view of free speech, reasoning that the experiment in communications would suffer if topics were restricted. "Until such time as people start suggesting the overthrow of our government," he said, "I don't think any sensible topic should be off limits."

Someone suggested attaching a disclaimer to personal communications on the ARPANET so that personal opinions wouldn't be mistaken for official business. Admitted someone else, "Who hasn't used Net mail for personal communication? Who hasn't spent time playing some new game over the Net? Be honest." The passion in defense of free speech was matched by an equally strong instinct for self-protection; the way to protect the network itself was to not attract unwanted supervision by the government. After a few days the argument wore itself out without resolution and the MsgGroup carried on with business as usual.

What emerged from the debate was strong evidence that the networking community felt a deep stake in the creation of the Net, ARPA funding or no ARPA funding, and was trying jealously to guard its right to determine its future. In a realm where, in a sense, personal identity is defined entirely by the words people choose, free speech seemed second only to concern for the survival of the realm itself.

BREAK For the first quarter of 1976, traffic reports showed that the volume of ARPANET mail, compared with the volume of regular U.S. mail, was a mere ant trail in the tracks of an elephant herd. MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, for example, passed some 9,925 messages during the period. MIT was a typical site, and by extrapolation, if one machine processed about a hundred pieces of e-mail a day, multiplied by a factor of 98 or so (the number of hosts then on the Net), electronic mail didn't yet appear to pose a threat to the U.S. postal system. The post office handled more than 50 billion pieces of first-class mail a year. But e-mail's steep growth curve wasn't going unnoticed.

In the private sector, companies were poised for the concept of electronic-mail service to take off. The Computer Corporation of America soon began selling one of the first commercially available e-mail software packages, a $40,000 product called COMET, designed for the PDP-11 minicomputer. Another program called MESSENGER, developed for IBM 360 and 370 computers, was soon available from a company called On-Line Software International, for $18,000. Costs were heading down, and some analysts projected a "devastating" impact on the Postal Service's first-class business.

"We are being bypassed technologically," reported an assistant U.S. postmaster general at the beginning of 1976. The new technology's growth trend and obvious potential were indeed quite dramatic. A few versions of the more sophisticated ARPANET mail programs were coming into the hands of nonresearchers. Several large organizations, including the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of Commerce, National Security Agency and Gulf Oil, had all started using e-mail over local area networks.

The government was looking closely at the future of e-mail service. A report for the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy by the consulting firm Arthur D. Little estimated that 30 percent of all first-class mail was likely to be sent electronically within a few years. The Postal Service reacted to that prediction by awarding RCA a $2.2 million contract to evaluate the technical and economic feasibility of providing e-mail service. In its report, RCA argued for adding e-mail to the post office's services. A Postal Service advisory panel also took a close look. It recommended making a "firm and continuing commitment" to electronic mail, on a par with NASA's manned space program.

Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign used e-mail several times a day in the autumn of 1976. The system it was using was a basic mailbox program, a technology already more than a decade old. But for a political campaign this was a revolutionary stroke in communications. On that basis, Carter was labeled the "computer-driven candidate."

By 1979, President Carter was supporting a Postal Service proposal to offer a limited kind of electronic message service to the nation. The hybrid scheme envisioned something more like a telegram service than a state-of-the-art electronic communications system. Messages would be transmitted electronically between post offices overnight, then delivered to recipients' doorsteps the next day. The proposal was remarkable mainly for how cautious it seemed in view of the technological possibilities.

Stefferud and others in the MsgGroup -- the community with the most experience with e-mail -- immediately saw the flaws in the Postal Service's plan, which involved converting messages from digital electronic media to paper and then delivering them by hand as you would ordinary mail. Not only would this approach cost more than e-mail, but it would never be fast enough to compete with e-mail as long as it depended on the Postal Service's traditional foot power for those final steps to the mailbox. Desktop computers "will make the perfect mailbox," Stefferud predicted, and would bypass the post office entirely.

The Postal Service never really broke free of the mind-set guarding its traditional business. Eventually the Justice Department, the Federal Communications Commission and even the Postal Rate Commission opposed any significant government role in e-mail services, preferring to leave them to the free market.

BREAK In the late 1970s, the Information Processing Techniques Office's final report to ARPA management on the completion of the ARPANET research program concluded this way: "The largest single surprise of the ARPANET program has been the incredible popularity and success of network mail. There is little doubt that the techniques of network mail developed in connection with the ARPANET program are going to sweep the country and drastically change the techniques used for intercommunication in the public and private sectors."

One of the MsgGroup's eminent statesmen, Dave Crocker, sometimes probed the Net with a sociologist's curiosity. One day, for example, he sent a note to approximately 130 people around the country at about 5 o'clock in the evening, just to see how fast people would get the message and reply. The response statistics, he reported, were "a little scary." Seven people responded within 90 minutes. Within 24 hours he had received 28 replies. Response times and numbers on that order may seem hardly noteworthy in a culture that has since squared and cubed its expectations about the speed, ease and reach of information technology. But in the 1970s "it was an absolutely astonishing experience," Crocker said, to have gotten so many replies, so quickly, so easily, as that.

But Crocker couldn't foresee what would happen. At the end of the decade there were about 400,000 electronic mailboxes on the network, according to Electronic Mail & Messaging Systems, a reporting service. By 1990, the figure had risen to more than 12 million. Today it exceeds 40 million worldwide. The population of the Internet has been growing about 10 percent a month.

As the automobile, telephone and television all did when they burst into the culture, e-mail and its digitalized cousins -- video, audio, photography -- are fast becoming ingrained in the daily lives of users. In the future, perhaps, society will realize the larger dreams of visionaries like J.C.R. Licklider; he hoped for a more participatory democracy made possible electronically by such a network reaching every citizen. If so, then the past three decades may truly be looked back upon as a revolutionary period -- and the creators of the medium, the MsgGroup members and others, as distant kin to the Framers.

It's a bit difficult to pinpoint when or why -- perhaps it was exhaustion, perhaps there were now too many new players in the MsgGroup -- but by the early 1980s, note by note, the orchestra that had been performing magnificently and that had collectively created e-mail over a decade, began abandoning the score, almost imperceptibly at first. One key player here and another there showed signs of flagging interest in the group; most of the real pioneers soon drifted off and left the discussion behind. After a while, as the group gained more breadth and the discussion more openness, it lost much of its original intensity and focus. Like the sound of traffic on a highway, white noise seemed to gradually overtake the MsgGroup.

In some sense it didn't matter. The dialogue itself in the MsgGroup had always been more important than the results. Creating the mechanisms of e-mail mattered, of course, but the MsgGroup also created something else entirely -- a community of equals, many of whom had never met, yet who carried on as if they had known one another all their lives. It was the first place they had found something they'd been looking for since the ARPANET came into existence. The MsgGroup was perhaps the first virtual community.

The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used. By 1980 the Net was far more than a collection of computers and leased lines. It was a place to share work and build friendships and a more open method of communication. America's romance with the highway system, by analogy, was created not so much by the first person who figured out how to grade a road or make blacktop or paint a stripe down the middle but by the first person who discovered you could drive a convertible down Route 66 like James Dean and play your radio loud and have a great time. Katie Hafner is a contributing editor specializing in technology at Newsweek. Matthew Lyon, a former associate editor of the Texas Observer, is an assistant to the president of the University of Texas at Austin. This article was adapted from Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, to be published this month by Simon & Schuster.

'We Normally Wear Asbestos Underwear'

Members of the MsgGroup, a thriving electronic discussion group begun in 1975 by the pioneers of e-mail, could argue about anything. There were times when you'd swear you had just dropped in on a heated group of lawyers, or grammarians, or rabbis. Strangers fell casually into the dialogue, or, as someone called it, the "polylogue." As the regulars became familiar to one another, fast friendships were cemented, sometimes years before people actually met. In many ways the ARPANET community's basic values were traditional -- free speech, equal access, personal privacy. However, e-mail also was liberating, creating reference points entirely its own, a virtual society, with manners, values and acceptable behaviors -- the practice of "flaming," for example -- strange to the rest of the world.

Familiarity in the MsgGroup occasionally bred the language of contempt. The first real "flaming" (a fiery, often abusive form of dialogue) on the ARPANET had flared up in the mid-1970s. The medium engendered rash rejoinders and verbal tussles. Yet heavy flaming was kept relatively in check in the MsgGroup, which considered itself civilized. Einar Stefferud, a California-based computer consultant who helped start the MsgGroup and in the process invented the role of on-line moderator, almost single-handedly and coolheadedly kept the group together when things got particularly raucous and contentious. He slaved to keep the MsgGroup functioning, parsing difficult headers when necessary or smoothing out misunderstandings, making sure the group's mood and its traffic never got too snarly. About the worst he ever said, when beset by technical problems, was that some headers had "bad breath."

By comparison, there was a discussion group next door (metaphorically speaking), called Header People, that was reputed to be an inferno. "We normally wear asbestos underwear," said one participant. Based at MIT, Header People had been started in 1976 by Ken Harrenstien, an energetic young programmer who was especially active on-line and whose on-line presence was all the more inspiring to those who happened to know that he was deaf. The group was unofficial, but more important, it was unmoderated (meaning it had no Stefferud-like human filter). Harrenstien had set out to recruit at least one representative from every kind of system on the ARPANET, and in no time the conflicts in Header People raised the ongoing debate over the amount of information appropriate for e-mail headers to the level of a holy war. "A bunch of spirited sluggers," said Harrenstien, "pounding an equine cadaver to smithereens." The two mail-oriented groups overlapped considerably; even in civilized MsgGroup company, tempers frayed periodically. The acidic attacks and level of haranguing unique to on-line communication, unacceptably asocial in any other context, were oddly normative on the ARPANET. Flames could start up at any time over anything, and they could last for one message or one hundred.

The FINGER controversy, a debate over privacy on the Net, occurred in early 1979 and involved some of the worst flaming in the MsgGroup's experience. The fight was over the introduction, at Carnegie-Mellon University, of an electronic widget that allowed users to peek into the on-line habits of other users on the Net. The FINGER command had been created in the early 1970s by a computer scientist named Les Earnest at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "People generally worked long hours there, often with unpredictable schedules," Earnest said. "When you wanted to meet with some group, it was important to know who was there and when the others would likely reappear. It also was important to be able to locate potential volleyball players when you wanted to play, Chinese food freaks when you wanted to eat, and antisocial computer users when it appeared that something strange was happening on the system." FINGER didn't allow you to read someone else's messages, but you could tell the date and time of the person's last log-on and when he or she had last read mail. Some people had a problem with that.

In an effort to respect privacy, Carnegie-Mellon's Ivor Durham changed the FINGER default setting; he added a couple of bits that could be turned on or off, so the information could be concealed unless a user chose to reveal it. Durham was flamed without mercy. He was called everything from spineless to socially irresponsible to a petty politician, and worse -- but not for protecting privacy. He was criticized for monkeying with the openness of the network.

The debate began as an internal dialogue at Carnegie-Mellon but was leaked out onto the ARPANET by Dave Farber of the University of California at Irvine, who wanted to see what would happen if he revealed it to the outer world. The ensuing flame-fest consumed more than 400 messages.

At the height of the FINGER debate, one person quit the MsgGroup in disgust over the flaming. The controversy ended inconclusively. But it taught users a lesson about the medium they were using. The speed of electronic mail promoted flaming, some said; anyone hot could shoot off a retort on the spot, and without the moderating factor of having to look the target in the eye.

Smile When You Call Me That

On April 12, 1979, a rank newcomer to the MsgGroup named Kevin MacKenzie anguished on-line about the "loss of meaning" in this electronic, textually bound medium. Unquestionably, e-mail allowed a spontaneous verbal exchange, but he was troubled by its inability to convey human gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice -- all of which come naturally in conversation and express a whole vocabulary of nuances in speech and thought, including irony and sarcasm. Perhaps, he said, we could extend the set of punctuation in e-mail messages. In order to indicate that a particular sentence is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, he proposed inserting a hyphen and parenthesis at the end of the sentence, thus: -)

MacKenzie confessed that the idea wasn't entirely his; it had been sparked by something he had read on a different subject in an old copy of Reader's Digest. About an hour later, he was flamed, or rather, singed. He was told his suggestion was "naive but not stupid." He was given a short lecture on Shakespeare's mastery of the language without auxiliary notation. "Those who will not learn to use this instrument well cannot be saved by an expanded alphabet," the flamer wrote. "They will only afflict us with expanded gibberish."

Hah, what did Shakespeare know? Emoticons and smileys, a whole family of odd little sideways mimes, popularized by hoi polloi no doubt, arose in the medium of e-mail and went forth into the iconography of our times. :-)

Copyright 1996 by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon. From the book Where Wizards Stay Up Late, by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, to be published by Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed by permission.

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