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Posted at 11:49 AM ET, 01/31/2011

1994 'Today' show 'What is Internet?' clip offers a reminder: We were all newbies once

By Rob Pegoraro

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.

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 31, 2011; 11:49 AM ET
Categories:  Digital culture  
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Check out our 1993 discussion of the Internet and some weird new thingie called "The World Wide Web," in this way-back machine edition of Science Friday:

Hard to believe!

Posted by: Iflatow | January 31, 2011 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Oh, it was sometime in the mid-nineties. My thirteen year old son convinced my sister to buy a 2400 modem, then convinced my husband to install it. We lived in Frederick and there was no local internet numbers back then. So I was introduced to the internet by a $250.00 phone bill and subsequent heart failure.

Posted by: beckyfrasure | January 31, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

My first experience with the internet was on Milnet in 1986.

In college in 90 I got a e-mail address, which I put on resumes when I graduated in 93. Used the Vax e-mail program (called, IIRC, 'mail') to send/receive e-mail. Still have my copy of the First Edition of "The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog" from O'Reilly.

Posted by: wiredog | January 31, 2011 1:05 PM | Report abuse

And I will be damned:

Posted by: wiredog | January 31, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

I'm still amazed that I graduated from a junior college with a technical degree (in Laser Electro-Optic Technology) and some Computer Science classes, in 1992, but had virtual no awareness of the Internet. I had a vague idea that some universities were networked, and I had heard of BBSs, but it didn't sound interesting.

My first significant Internet intro came when I used the restricted access computer at my college's library for a research project in December 1995. At the time, this computer in the librarian's office was one of the few on campus that had an Internet connection. I learned just enough to make a few queries for my paper. The next semester, the college opened its first computer lab with Internet access and offered free training sessions.

One of my regrets of my junior college education is that when I went on to the 4-year college, I found that several of the other students had been hosting their own websites for a few years. What was old hat to them was new, mysterious and difficult to understand for me.

Posted by: Pooua | January 31, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Going through football withdrawal, I was reduced to watching 1986's "The Delta Force" yesterday. There's a scene where Lee Marvin is briefing his troops using touch-screen wars stuff, for its day.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | January 31, 2011 1:40 PM | Report abuse


Oh yeah, and immediately my pre-teen son quickly adapted to using 'modem-in' bulletin boards (early user forum sites) and even began his own.

Posted by: flacan | January 31, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

I remember telling somebody in 1995 that the general public would NEVER understand having to type "http://" in front of a web address.

Posted by: mikem1 | January 31, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Wow, thanks also to Ira for posting that...your callers were amazingly precient!

OK, for me--got email during grad studies in 1987. The thing I recall was how useless it was at first: I had to find recipients who had email addresses to receive my messages. Additional problems were finding locations connected to the Internet: outside the US, it wasn't that common. In 1989, I needed to send thesis drafts back to my advisor while working in Budapest. I approached three schools--and it wasn't until after Communism fell apart that one let me use their bandwidth.

Posted by: ViennaBelle | January 31, 2011 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I confess to staring blankly at whatever the popular search engine was back in 1995. I had no idea what to do or how to start even though my computer geek roomate used to talk about the internet all the time. A year later I remember wondering what I ever did without email and the internet

Posted by: Solnoir | January 31, 2011 5:16 PM | Report abuse

First computer was late 1995/early 1996 running...Win95 of course. I set it up but didn't figure out the email thing for a week or so. When I called my provider for set up support I discovered I had hundreds of emails in there. I told the tech support guy to delete them all...I just couldn't deal with hundreds. He could not believe me.

Posted by: tbva | January 31, 2011 7:51 PM | Report abuse

I saw this clip on the Today show this morning. I didn't see the whole segment
I'm guessing someone finally told them about it.

Posted by: jjflash531 | January 31, 2011 8:02 PM | Report abuse

This was back in the days when "surfing the web" was a viable activity. People set up web pages and the web pages had links to other web pages. How quaint! Now people just surf Youtube.

I was in college at the time and we were well aware of the Internet, but I have to say that we really didn't "get" it. We had many laughs when companies started advertising their web pages in TV commercials.

In comparison to social networking, the Internet grew at glacial speeds. What took months in social networking literally took years for the Internet.

Posted by: slar | January 31, 2011 9:43 PM | Report abuse

I started using the Internet in 1991 when I started college at the University of Missouri-Rolla (Now Missouri University of Science and Technology). At the time, the Internet was limited to telnet, ftp, and gopher. We would send email, chat or download the latest shareware apps from the WUArchives. I built my own webpage on the university's website and even helped build a website for one of the labs. I got my first job via email in 1996. One of my friends was treated like a celebrity when he was the first person to buy his car from a dealer via the Internet.

Posted by: mikebecvar | February 1, 2011 8:37 AM | Report abuse

I had email before that, but in 1995 I was working from home three days a week due to illness. So I got dialup service from my local phone company and was able to write software from home. Now with my fast cable connection I am amazed by how much I was able to do with just dialup.

Posted by: mikemcginn | February 1, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Wiredog: The VAX mail program was called VMSmail, but you just typed "mail" at the $ prompt.

Posted by: afan2 | February 1, 2011 11:01 AM | Report abuse

In the mid-1980's, I was using CompuServ to check weather, make airline reservations (Sabre), and send electronic messages to other CompuServ users. I turned my nose up at upstarts like Prodigy and America OnLine (yes, AOL), and stuck with the character-based CompuServ. Our local library started adding computers, with a Lynx browser, Gopher and Archie sites and other age-old services.

I always wonder how much more information we could put on the monster networks if we used character-based web sites and got rid of the movies, pictures, graphics and music.

Posted by: bryan7 | February 1, 2011 11:07 AM | Report abuse

I first learned about the internet when it was still called apranet and in 1981 worked for a defense contractor that had a single terminal connected to it. In 1982 I got an Atari 800 for my children, who were in elementary school, to use and soon thereafter got my first e-mail account through capaccess using a 300 baud modem that required using the telephone handset inserted into rubber cups. I remember using Gopher early on; I also used Lynx, a totally character based web browser; and was truly amazed when Netscape 1.0 became available.

Although I don't remember seeing the Couric and Gumble item before, I do remember having to explain to numerous people what the internet and the world wide web were. It's hard to believe that it's now been more than 30 years since my first contact with the internet and the progress that has been made in that time.

Posted by: zippoz | February 2, 2011 11:01 PM | Report abuse

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