MY FIRST Internet exposure was in two novels I read as a teenager: “Snowcrash” (1992) and “Neuromancer” (1984). They are set in dystopian visions of the future, where the power of technology has been co-opted to primarily control the population. But both feature independent, compelling protagonists who use their hacking, digital-native skills to save themselves, and a select group of those they care about.
It wasn’t hard to see myself as one of those cypherpunks, someone who cared about the privacy of everyone who wanted to use the internet. Someone who feared that corporations, if left unchecked, would turn us into digital serfs, as authors Neal Stephenson and William Gibson had described.
That was the philosophy of the internet when I started going online in the mid 90s, with a 28.8k dial-up modem and a terminal window. (For context, you can get a modem over 20,000 times faster for less than $100 today.) I quickly found people who shared my values, who had formed organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation , the Free Software Foundation, the Creative Commons. I was young, but like all of them, I thought this new way of harvesting was too valuable to be left to commercial exploitation. We had to do what we could to preserve open standards and keep the internet as public as possible.
Of course, we mostly spent our time doing what we loved: science fiction, art, design. At the time I started sharing my thoughts, it was mostly happening on LiveJournal and the proto-social platform Myspace. But from my perspective, as a 20-something with a strict sense of propriety, LiveJournal was for people who wrote fanfiction and Myspace was for high schoolers. It’s embarrassing to think that now, but I thought I was better than that. Maybe I wasn’t sure I wasn’t. Either way, if I were to find a community I fit into, I would have to build it myself.
The thing is, I didn’t really know how to do that. Creating a website at that time was complicated and time-consuming. Everything had to be built using still relatively new programming languages. And even if you managed to tinker with something, you kind of had to hope it didn’t look terrible, because no one really existed to help you with the design. I’m still in awe of the cheap turnkey packages available today to turn any idea into a complete website in just a few hours. My first website (wilwheaton.net) took months to build and frankly it looked terrible. Updating was often more difficult – I lost more work than I care to admit due to network timeouts or Netscape crashing.
The first solution I tried that made things easier for me was Blogger, a content management system that allowed me to post my thoughts immediately on my site’s homepage. I liked the tool’s ease of use, but was frustrated by its closed-source attitude. If I was going to be a writer, I wanted to own my words. I was lucky enough to discover Greymatter, which I considered simply an open source version of Blogger. Both worked the same, but I could install Greymatter on my own server and still be in control of whatever I wrote. I quickly switched.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I could finally stop being a stumbling software engineer and become a writer. I started to see success and the heavy traffic to my site started to reveal weak spots in the code. Without knowing how to solve the problem, I contacted Noah Grey, who designed Greymatter. Almost immediately he asked me for more information. I gave him my server logs and before I knew it he had fixed the problem. He improved his software, but he also improved it for me because I asked for his help.
Can you imagine sending emails
every time you had a problem with
? Now imagine him fixing it immediately.
Noah, I learned, identified as much with a cypherpunk as I did. He could have made a lot of money selling Greymatter to a company like Google, like Blogger did in 2003. But Noah thought contributing to the public goods code was more important than a salary. He made his Greymatter free and encouraged people to modify it as they saw fit.
And the boy did. When I spoke to some software developers I know about writing this essay, almost all of them told me how they took some of Noah’s software and used it to create their own CMS, to power backends for all kinds of websites or to develop something of their own entirely. In fact, Noah’s attitude was relatively common at that time. People were celebrating that kind of collaboration, the ability to build on the work of others. We could have thought we were cypherpunks, but nothing we did was particularly radical.
“Can you imagine emailing Mark Zuckerberg every time you have a problem with Facebook? Now imagine him fixing it immediately.”
Noah stopped maintaining Greymatter in 2002. As the internet changed, we phased it out in favor of database-based software like WordPress. But Noah’s work lives on through a whole generation of writers and developers who have made a career out of using the tools he gave us for free to find our voices and share our ideas. We all owe him a long overdue debt of gratitude.
About this debt. Noah is autistic and lives with a disability. At the end of April, Noah posted on his
realized that his home, where he lives with his sister (who is his carer), was days away from being seized. As a last resort, he set up a GoFundMe to raise just under $40,000, so they could stay home.
After my friend Cory Doctorow texted me about the situation, I went straight to the millions of people who now follow my social media accounts and blog and told them about Noah. Other OG bloggers and internet greybeards also got together and amplified the signal. By the end of the day, we had collected enough money to keep him and his sister in their house. By the end of the week, it was over $100,000.
So the story has a happy ending. But it’s also, I think, a call to action. The Internet envisioned by people like Noah Gray is still possible, if we’re willing to stand up to corporations trying to impose outrageous copyright restrictions on bloggers, governments policing our activity, and trolls using our insecurities to try to intimidate us from the public sphere. After all, without normal people, the internet is just servers shouting at each other. Who would want to rule over it?
—Wil Wheaton is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles. His new book “Still Just a Geek: An Annotated Memoir” (William Morrow) was published in April.
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