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Unintentional Pioneer

Unintentional Pioneer

by Lene Bech Sillesen

The Internet was invented all the way back in the 1960’s as a communications tool for scientists. But it was only twenty years ago that the network, as we know it today, became accessible to the general public. And even then, the earliest users were mostly people with technical skills, working in research institutions. The non-techies – people who just stumbled across the Internet and decided to embrace it – were real pioneers, paving the way for today’s bloggers, e-chatters, and social media mavens, 20 years later.

 

Host Intro:

The Internet was invented all the way back in the 1960’s as a communications tool for scientists. But it was only twenty years ago that the network, as we know it today, became accessible to the general public. And even then, the earliest users were mostly people with technical skills, working in research institutions. The non-techies – people who just stumbled across the Internet and decided to embrace it – were real pioneers, paving the way for today’s bloggers, e-chatters, and social media mavens, 20 years later.

Lene Sillesen introduces us to one of the pioneers, who has one of the few 20-year old websites still standing today.

——–

[Sound of an old dial-up modem]

Depending on your age, you may be having a nostalgic moment now. Or maybe the sound means nothing to you at all. It’s the sound of the early days of the Internet, when getting connected to the rest of the world happened over a phone line and with a dial-up modem.

[Sound of an old dial-up modem]

That’s how early experiences online, back in the early 1990’s, always began.

Silverman: Yes, I remember that very very distinctly. Anyone who was on the internet years ago would remember exactly what that is.

Steve Silverman is a 56-year old high school science and physics teacher, who lives just outside Albany, New York. He’s a regular guy, clean-shaven, in jeans and a sweater, and has a regular job. But twenty years ago he became something of an unintentional pioneer, as he dabbled in an early website.

Just how unusual Silverman was may be a little hard to grasp today, when hundreds of millions of us are on the Internet every day, publishing ourselves, emailing, and are in instant touch with friends, family and total strangers.

But in 1994, this was a completely new idea.

Those who understood the Internet, and what it might become, were mostly people within the tech industry. Then there was Steve Silverman. He had no idea what it would become, yet he now has one of the few websites that’s been in use for 20 years.

Silverman: The world just changed. I mean, it’s changed my life forever.

Silverman first heard about this new-fangled thing called the Internet at a teacher’s conference in 1990. Schools were among the very first institutions to connect to the web.

Silverman: So I went back to my school and I said, apparently we have Internet and email and everybody looked at me like, what? We don’t know what that is.

His colleagues may have been indifferent – or just puzzled – but Silverman was deeply intrigued. He wanted to learn how to MAKE these things called webpages, even though he had no idea what he would do with one. Or what he might say on it.

Silverman: I took some emails that I’d been sending to my friend Jamie who’s a teacher down in a neighboring district. She was new to email, she was like, send me email, I’m so excited by this, cause who did she know at this point, who had email.

As Jamie pushed for him to send her something, Silverman started writing down little stories and anecdotes he had come across. Silverman’s an avid reader of just about anything. How was the Post-It invented? Where did the M come from in M&M’s? That’s the kind of stuff that catches his eye, and he began to copy stories like these onto his new webpage.

Silverman: And for lack of anything better for a title, I put Useless information at the top.

And so, in 1994, with just a few thousand pioneers out there on the Internet, Uselessinformation.org was created.

Silverman thought he might play around with his little electronic experiment for a while, until he got bored with it or it died out.

Silverman: The website was just done for me to learn how to do web programming.I didn’t think the Internet was ever gonna be anything, I just loved computers, I was a geek, I am still a geek.

Yet Uselessinformation.org is one of the few 20-year old websites today.

[Sound of papers being shuffled, a computer being turned on. Silverman: This is my stack of.. each page is just a different story…]

Twenty years later, in the old Albany house that Silverman and his wife are renovating, one room at a time, Silverman shuffles through his story pile.

[Silverman: It looks like it’s unorganized but there is a little bit of organization to them.]

The walls of his office are lined with wooden bookshelves. Sitting by his computer, flanked by rows of books and neat paper piles, he overlooks the hillside in winter. In the summer, a wall of green leaves.

[Sound of pages turning. Silverman: I just sit there and go through them, if there are ones I think can go any further, I just write Possible Story on them and I put a question mark.]

After he created the website in 1994, Silverman was happy if a couple of people said they had seen it, or if he received an email now and again. There were no search engines at the time, so the website was mostly advertised through word of mouth. But then, a couple of years in, that all changed.

Silverman: I went home to see my parents for July 4th, for Independence Day, come back and my e-mail is just filled up, I mean, in those days to have 90-100 messages was crazy. It was all about my website and I got a note from the company hosting my website saying we’re shutting you down, they said I had more traffic in one day than they allowed in a month.

It turned out Yahoo, which had just been created, had chosen his webpage as Site of the Week. From then on, things happened fast.

Silverman: The Internet just exploded. It went from nobody being on the Internet to, within a year, everybody was talking about it, everybody had to have it.

The website still largely looks the same. It’s a very simple, white page with little graphic icons and small blurbs of text. When it started out, you could only put text on a website but now it has a podcast, of simple storytelling, no sound effects.

Silverman from podcast: Welcome to the Useless Information Podcast. My collection of fascinating true stories from the flip side of history.

It’s not exactly widely famous but the Uselessinformation podcast has around 15,000 downloads, and a core group of followers from all over the country, and the world.

As the feedback and group of listeners grew, Silverman became more ambitious and the stories went from trivia to fully researched, historical pieces.

There’s the one about the guy in the 1920’s who held a big funeral procession for his dead pet canary. Or the one about the rich New Yorker, who was handing out stacks of money in the street on Christmas and was deemed so weird that he was put in an insane asylum.

The most downloaded story ever is about Henry Ford trying to bring back square dancing…

Silverman from podcast: The modern dances, swing dances, the jazz of the 1920’s were bad for American youth

This is the Uselessinformation podcast about Henry Ford, from September 2008.

Silverman from podcast: But the old, traditional dances were better, they somehow not only taught you to dance but they gave better social grace, they gave you better manners. Ford felt so strongly about the effect of dance, its ability to make people better people, to have greater morals that he insisted that all of his executives learn to dance also. As you can imagine, the press had a field day with this but somehow, Ford with all his power and money was able to get the movement spreading.

When it’s time to write the script for Uselessinformation’s monthly podcast, Silverman and his wife, Mary Jane, have a ritual.

[Sound of driving in car.]

They get in their car, drive for about ten minutes, and pull into their local Starbucks.

[Car doors open and slam. Entering Starbucks]

[Sounds from Starbucks in background.]

Starbucks has replaced Silverman’s home office. He now puts a lot of time and research into his stories. To get the writing process going, all he needs is to get out of the house to clear his head, his laptop, and free Wi-Fi. He doesn’t even drink coffee.

[Sound of Silverman ordering hot chocolate]

But his wife does, as she sits down across from him to go over some papers from work, while Silverman becomes absorbed in his research.

Silverman: For something that I really just do as a hobby, it’s pretty involved.

So involved that his useless stories, as he calls them, have been compiled into two books, even though Silverman says he never considered himself a writer and always hated English class in school. Yet his books, Einstein’s Refrigerator and Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart, did well and have been translated into a number of languages, including Chinese and Korean.

[Sounds from Starbucks in the background]

At Starbucks, Silverman has decided on a story for this month’s podcast.

Silverman: The story’s about a guy, who in 1947, he just got fed up with his job, he’s driving a bus, I think for 16-17 years and he just one day decided to go for a ride. He drove the bus from NYC all the way to Florida.

Silverman says, he likes stories like these, of underdogs, who rebel and do something different.

Silverman: Andy Warhol once said, in the future everybody will have their 15 minutes of fame, or however he said it. And I like to think, these are people that had their 15 minutes of fame in the past and I’m kind of giving them their 16th minute.

A lot of things have developed in unexpected ways with the Internet. You could say, SteveSilverman’s website is one of them. It was supposed to be a short-term side-project but it’s become a decades-long commitment

It was pioneering 20 years ago; today, it’s low-tech, simple, almost out of date. Yet Silverman keeps telling his stories to that group of people out there, whom he stumbled upon two decades ago.

I’m Lene Sillesen