1994 'Today' show 'What is Internet?' clip offers a reminder: We were all newbies once
At some point, we've all had to have the Internet defined for us, just like television or books or the sky. But the vast majority of us didn't have that happen on live TV.
Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric, however, were in that situation in January 1994. The then-hosts of NBC's "Today" show were discussing how the network's news department had invited viewers to send in feedback via e-mail, and they expressed some confusion about the @ symbol and the Internet in general.
Somebody happened to record that show, and in December a YouTube user by the name of "DrHexagon011" uploaded it to the site. It got no more attention than this individual's other snippets of TV ephemera until Friday, when Vanity Fair contributing writer Mike Ryan shared a link to it on Twitter -- after which the rest of the Internet quickly discovered it.
As you can see in the embedded clip above, it starts with Gumbel sounding puzzled about "that little mark, with the a and then the ring around it." After Couric admits that she thought it was short for "around," he asks, "What is Internet, anyway?" She offers that "Internet is that massive computer network, the one that's becoming really big now"; he follows up with another question: "What, do you write to it, like mail?"
Fortunately, some offstage individual bails them out, explaining that the Internet is a network of networks that started at universities and is now quickly growing beyond them. Things wrap up with the two hosts and their guest discussing how some victims of the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles used the Internet to communicate, during which Couric unintentionally predicts the future of telecom with her question: "You don't need a phone line to operate Internet?"
The way everyone says "Internet" without the customary "the" article before it -- along with Gumbel's pronunciation of an e-mail address with a pause instead of "dot" -- adds to the datedness of the proceedings. So do the hairstyles on display.
It's fun viewing, although maybe less so if you're Couric or Gumbel. (Couric just linked to the video from her Twitter account, joking that "In honor of 1994, my web show will now be called 'around Katie Couric.' ")
But before we all join in pointing and laughing, Internet users of a certain age may have to admit that they've been in this situation themselves. Users like me.
Look, I may as well get this out here, because this memo will surface sooner or later.
In the summer of 1993, I was working a (paid!) internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Foreign Policy magazine. (Yes, the one The Post now owns; in retrospect, I've had an amazingly circular career so far.) Much of my correspondence with out-of-town authors took place via fax, and after some annoying rounds of busy signals trying to send edited copy to a writer at Carnegie's Moscow office, I wrote a memo suggesting that the District-based think tank invest in ... a second fax line.
I got a non-snarky, helpful response from somebody in administration pointing out that I could use e-mail instead. Which I then ignored in favor of continued jousting with the fax machine.
The light bulb didn't go on over my head until several weeks later, when Carnegie's librarian explained how quickly she could look up research online via Gopher servers (think of the Web without pictures or hyperlinks). But I didn't get my own access to Internet until the spring of 1994, after shelling out $300 or so to add a modem to my laptop and opening an account with America Online.
So that's how I got here. What was your introduction to the Internet?
(12:06 p.m. DrHexagon011 just replied to my query via YouTube. The good doctor, an NBC employee in New York who asked not to be further identified, stumbled across the clip in the network's archives and thought it worth recording with a phone for a few friends to see. The YouTube user noted that few viewers would have seen Couric and Gumbel bantering about the @ symbol and the Internet in 1994; as a "co-op segment" at the end of "Today's" Jan. 24 broadcast, it only aired in markets where local stations didn't have their own news segment to fill that time slot.)
2/4, 6:02 p.m. Yes, the clip is no longer up on YouTube, although copies of it are widely available. And as you may have seen me note on Twitter, the poster of this clip e-mailed to say that he lost his job. No, this is not the kind of update to the post that I wanted to write.
2/5, 9:20 a.m. In case you were wondering, I had asked NBC's public-relations department for a comment but didn't get a reply. AllThingsD's Peter Kafka, however, did, and received a statement describing the poster as a repeat offender. I would provide the poster's response, but I haven't heard from the fellow since Thursday, and he didn't want to talk then. He may just want this whole story to go away. Either way, I hope he's well.
| January 31, 2011; 11:49 AM ET
Categories: Digital culture
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