How I learned the internet

by Gero Preen

Jumping into work life felt like the right thing to do after high school, a few university classes, two internships, some sad love stories and making an incredibly stiff black and white short movie.

It was more of a sneak peak at life. Stuff you do when you're twenty.

As I enjoyed 50 to 70 weekly hours of good, mostly honest work a week - and made great coffee at internships - a career in media business was the logical choice.

I got employed as a content editor and assistant director for German TV producers like Euro Arts Entertainment, Tresor Entertainment and Constantin Entertainment. (and yes, there was a lot of entertainment involved...)

With the awakening of the glorious WWW, around 1995 my personal interests besides all things musical shifted to this newly evolving and incredibly exciting medium. 

It was very mysterious and it had chat rooms with dudes from all over the place. And yes, at that point it was indeed mostly dudes.

Which was totally ok for us back then. Almost no one felt a need to discuss his, her, or sher, or - please look up your own personal noun - gender role, at least not with total strangers.

Facebook didn't have 71 genders to pick from for the undecided. Mark Zuckerberg was actually about 11 and may or may not have contemplated his later gender role in life. Or sold scratchbook sheets with girl pictures to his neighbourhood buddies. We might never know.

A long time ago. In a galaxy far away.

Once upon a time...

In the first chatroom I went to, everyone was very shy. Typical conversation topics being So, where's everyone from? and Let's do a hair color check.

And there was an abundance of information already, hidden in plain sight in the now publicly almost forgotten discussion forums on the old usenet.

This particular area of the early internet was also a lot less shy. Around that time terms like "spam" or "flame" got invented. There was a commonly known rule, that message threads are closed, if someone mentions Hitler.

Sitting in a friends apartment, listening to Air and Massive Attack and staring into a tiny Power Macintosh with custom Simpsons icons, I there and then gave up on being a bookworm and turned into a full-blown internet geek.

Music business had a second golden age with Prince, Madonna, Freddy Mercury, David Bowie and Sting. In the early nineties there was a weird semantic shift. "Take That" became a happy, fun-loving boyband, Stevie Wonder cover versions called "Gangsters Paradise" and "Wild Wild West" got released. Around the same time assault rifles and dogtags became a fashion item in music videos and my favorite superheroes either died or gave up their ideals and got themselves a couple MGs as well.

So, I got myself a modem.

Top notch, I think it was a 14.4k baud.

In those wild years, the internet as a whole was what we today describe wrongly as the "dark net". Liberal, playful and actually a rather smart place.

Picture Mos Eisley, just with rainbow-colored unicorns with huge brains.

In fake 3D, flat design wasn't around yet.

Early adopters already talked about encryption, file sharing and virtual currencies a lot, probably the most far reaching ideas of early internet.

And as a historical, always quote-worthy fun fact: all of it was build from a system designed to survive a total nuclear war.

As a little thematically fitting prelude: From my point of view the possible negative outcomes of a fully networked society always have been a real threat - and in the case of privacy issues, of course, we were and are absolutely right to worry.

Indeed around that time the world seemed more and more confused and confusing to me, inventing weird dystopy themed TV shows and doing some other political stuff, you may or may not want to read thoroughly

Meanwhile, I merrily started putting lots of unneeded, and extraordinarily personal information on the internet. I remembered my summer camp's worth of coding experience and made a horrible GeoCities page, I sincerely hope no one ever will remember the URI of.

It was wild.

The internet was obviously out of control already, even in its basic state. They say, art represents the time it is born in. It is true in many ways about the web.

My first taste of the forbidden fruits was our - what I believed to be "hacking" - camera guy downloading The Phantom Menace about 3 months before the official German movie start. 

It was "sad smiley" quality, if not worse. I rejoiced anyways:

First, you probably noticed by now I'm a huge Star Wars fan.

And second, the possibilities for knowledge transfer and media exchange seemed limitless and absolute. 

The scope of an information network that could do that - it hit me like a brick. 

I wrote a couple of concepts, including a one-pager basically describing the later YouTube. I actually think it was pretty much a no-brainer and about a few thousand other internet geeks at that time had the same idea. 

Discussing this a bit overly enthusiatic maybe with friends and family the typical comment was that no one will ever be interested in people putting their boring home vids online. That made sense. Sigh. No personal island and a couple yachts for me. Maybe a good life lesson in "trust in your own ideas".

From my office desk, writing cue sheets for next Saturdays Candid Camera show, I watched other people starting to use email with the curiosity man probably once had when discovering fire.

And: how curiosity can be a bad thing, like opening "I love you" emails...which - true story - made me jump to a colleagues PC once and rip out her network cable. I might have saved the company, who knows.

Yes, dear young readers, there once upon a time was a world without email. (and that wasn't, because they all used Twitter or WhatsApp anyways...)

While teaching myself programming in what now is known as PHP5, I fixed a lot of office printers, and learned VI as a pet interest. Mostly.

The internet finds you.

One unsuspecting day my boss asked me to relaunch our webpage. I still have no clue, how he figured out that I dabbled in programming.

That man, I have to give him a special mention. He has made a big and lasting impression on me, first and foremost as a very kind and always friendly person. (Plus, he was one of two people in 20 years that ever paid me a bonus for extra work- in a simple envelope on my desk one morning, with a handwritten card.)

He's been ahead of his time in so many ways it still blows my mind, like a) already having a website - when TV stations didn't even use email.

Or b) starting a sister company to build the worlds first smartphone - when cellphones looked like suitcases and existed solely to be driven around in a Porsche by very phony drivers.

He also c) as a pet project developed a graphical MMPORG way before that acronym even existed and d) invented TV music talent shows in Germany. 

After a few years, television felt like a cage, 60 hours a week at production times started to burn me out, and my next work assignment - researching quiz show questions for about a year - would have probably petrified my brain. 

In the end, I decided to fall for the spell of the internet (and Ultima Online maybe) and started to freelance, both for TV and fledgling internet projects.

After programming doorway pages for a while ("Are you using Netscape Navigator Gold or Internet Explorer?"), a friend of mine offered me a job opportunity out of the blue.

My first and kinda last IT job interview...

...lasted about 15 minutes. I recall it vividly, my future boss had a marketing background and was very, very enthusiastic as a human being. 

It basically consisted of:

him: I heard MANY good things from Simon! So you program web pages?
me:  Ayup.
him: Awesome! Can you start monday?
me:  Uh. Sure.
him: Great, awesome! What you wanna earn?
me:  Ummm.

      *pause, mind draws blank*

me:  Actually haven't thought about it.
him  All good! It's a non-issue! How about...?
      *enter triple the $$$ of previous media job here*

me:  Yeah, uh... 
him: There's benefits as well!
me:  ...really...
him: It's a 35 hour week - tops! - and you get a company car. Just not sure which one yet, ehehehe.
*pause, brain tries to keep up*

me:  It's well...acceptable. I think.

      *14 1/2 minutes of smalltalk about business suits and BlackBerries*

And that was that. 

Time spent in IT meetings and sometimes even coding...

I learned a good deal about programming there, sort of my IT apprenticeship. It was a very typical consulting firm, doing SAP projects mostly, and online development seemed the next big market to jump into.

We provided project support to clients like Compaq, Accenture and a bank or two.

As basic HTML 2.0 and Javascript skills back then equaled "guru status", a couple months into the job I acted as the department head for our web and online services.

It was glorious. And complicated. CSS was a mess, browser compatibility was more or less a theoretical concept, clients and graphic designers already liked stuff that makes "whooosh" and "klonk", Dojo was something from Karate KitDOM sounded kinda kinky, and Gecko was an animal you had photographed on your last Spain trip.

With a camera, not with your phone, if you had a phone on vacation, it was in your hotel room.

Microsoft was evil, because your design didn't work in IE (some things never change, huh?). Netscape was evil as well, because Mosaic had sounded way cooler (damn you Andreesen!) and they invented the BLINK tag.

It made - you might have guessed - stuff blink, and probably Bill G. wasn't fond of it personally, so it was never added to any standard ever. A silent, if visually disturbing symbol, for what became known as the Browser Wars.

You may notice, that most important developments on the web have been described as a "War" or a "Bubble" at some point or another.

It was hated with all the fiery "Let's tear and feather 'em" passion nowadays expressed in YouTube and Facebook comments on just about any topic. 

Ah, the geek nostalgia.

One day, at a project a colleague from another team committed suicide. There was a minute of silence. And it was never again mentioned to my knowledge.

Friend and foe.

With the mental vacuum, cold war propaganda had left in most brains, there was a need for clear sides. Good and Evil. Coincidentally, politicians and web designers both started discussed Axes a lot (which in this case, is the plural of Axis). 

For geeks that was a serious thing: Frames were messengers of the devil, as it's ugly demon sisters, the hideous iFrames. True knights of the sainthood used PHP, our revered masters speaking in mysterious tongues (equals people that actually had a web design class in their IT studies) used Java.

Everyone used invisible GIF images and more tables than any sane person would nest ever.

Responsive design meant: "It has to look ok on 800x600 as well."

Luckily enough, I was working together with some very talented colleagues in back then "bleeding edge" CSS, XHTML and C# projects. I did a good amount of project management and learned about the pitfalls and benefits of sizeable software teams. On one occasion, with a very friendly, yet extraordinarily stubborn vietnamese programmer not sharing a common language with.

Some projects have been more mundane than others. Like that online shop we developed for a chocolate industrialist - picture a very Bavarian Willi Wonker, with a bunch of Marshall guitars in his office and a whole factory building just to store his oldtimers. Very nice man, you can't say no to project meetings you get at least three industry sized boxes of chocolate at.

While I was presenting some new release version with even glossier chocolate photography, two airplanes hit the World Trade Center

Getting my first pair of wings

It seemed a good time to rethink my life for a lot of reasons really. Also, I was not getting the hang of business suits at work either. (weirdly enough, I liked them on dates...)

Being a freelancer and entrepeneur at heart probably, I took my first leap of faith.

With a cunning marketing plan to hang out in office kitchens a lot and bring cake, I quit my job and started offering design, IT development and media consulting services to former employers.

And, all those clients you got during lunch break or in shady Jazz bars back then, by just mentioning casually you're a web designer.

Around 2003 I founded Voidmedia - or more accurately, its predecessor Orange Media - as a light-weight, full service web agency, focused on the TV production and post-production market.

Having my own business was fun, as was working with people I 100% liked and actually enjoyed pulling all-nighters with. 

Explaining to clients more often than I dare to remember, why doorway pages are now not needed anymore and Flash Logos are a very, very bad idea...

I also learned early that content is what drives the internet. So I tried to highlight that in webdesign and communication, often organizing data, copywriting and proofreading, and by providing well visualized presentations, which became a lucrative side business in itself.

I started using "lol" in general conversation by accident.

It's all about the bass.

Around 2010 I put the company on a longer hiatus allowing me to refocus on my musical interests.

With the help of two awesome teachers and a - miraculously - free apartment, I found myself taking more piano lessons than doing project hours. And ended up in tour busses and on concert stages  again. (in all honesty, I ended up there by sheer coincidence, but that's another story.)

So after some decision-mongering I took a second (and in many ways even wilder) leap of faith, went back to university studying Jazz vocals and music production, currently writing my bachelor thesis.

From my perspective, music and programming have a lot in common. While I'm first and foremost an acoustic musician and singer, there's practical overlap of course. Current music production and using all those electronic styles I struggle to tell apart make both your trusted macbook and all the online resources invaluable tools.

There's plenty intellectual overlap as well, which has fascinated artists over centuries.

Let's say ratios and the really beautiful mathematics that work for melodic scales as well as for typography. On a (huge and much simplifying) sidenote: There are those cutting edge quantum physicists that basically claim, the very fabric of space and time resembles a gigantic sequencer grid (just with way, way more subdivisions) - or is it the other way around?

Meanwhile, musicians are still often depicted as fun loving and mostly lazy Rock'n'Roll divas. I'd never argue fun-loving - which becomes apparent when you hang out with otherwise very serious classical musicians a lot.

Especially in Europe, talent or what is considered "genius" is mostly seen as some mysterious gift, handed down by an occult hand. While this makes music critics and music science researchers feel more connected to the Divine probably, it's not a helpful concept to any young artist, writer or musician.

At best, you know what you can do (not a lot) and you know what you want to learn (it's an ocean, a big one at that).

And it takes time to learn difficult or subtle aspects of any craft.

Comparing it to programming and more technical problem solving again: Besides all things emotional and intuitive there's a lot of brainy messes to solve on your way to become a professional music maker, even in your first university year and it doesn't get less confusing.

Whatever you think of today's music lyrically, pop musicians that survive their first two years on the market are in all likelihood immensely talented, probably harder working than you (and me) - and highly trained and educated musicians.

I'd share two pieces of wisdom I learned from my decision, if you happen to wager your life options:

  • Doing what you love and changing your life to do so, is indeed worth all the obstacles you encounter 
  • An academic music education is worth it, every minute, even if you're very lucky with private teachers or happened to grow up with Stevie Wonder as a Grand-Uncle. Don't let insecure singer-songwriters let you tell otherwise

Meanwhile, my internet passion grew, if anything, while I dived deeper into the user perspective of social media, internet learning and online collaboration.

To no surprise, while I was traveling life, the internet went on living a life of its own. *rewinds a couple years back again*

Sharks, sheep and sorta dumb sheep

WWW and email as another quickly adopted internet service struck like lightning and basically transformed our cultural world in years.

There was a lot of cheering, chaos and paranoia around. Some more, some less amusing.

Concerning sexual predators - which usually were 14 year old teenagers pretending to be voluptious females, later to be playing all the backflipping World Of Warcraft elves, while real females played gnomes exclusively.

Concerning criminal gangs - now, they most certainly exist as well, but I never encountered any criminal on the internet personally. Except a lot of scamming, and in all honesty I have a hard time feeling compassion with those who fall for:

I'm a...
a) Female, possibly attractive, Cayman Islands bank manager
b) Duely accredited representative of the London law firm Parker, Posh and Associates Ltd.
c) Military hero stranded on a Russian submarine

Send me 1000 USD for...
a) Taxes
b) The obliged legal fees dictated by UK law directive 1999-01.1
c) Bribing those commies

But it needs to be now, NOW, or the offer will expire, because...
a) Cayman Islands is threatened by volcanoes
b) Under UK federal law the prospective recipient of the final and binding payment agreement needs to formally apply and further deposit all necessary fees with the the Council of Lost Inheritances, currently residing in Oxford, Bakers Street 1b, within the time period enforced under EU Banking Law regulations as documented in the European Union Lost Inheritance Act of 2015.
c) They will find me soon

I'll then - within 2 days - put a lost inheritance of,12 USD on your personal account.

If you fell for it, my apologies for basically calling you stupid. (And I might have an offer as well for you, just send me a PM with your bank account, social security number and maybe your Apple password...)

I'd consider it a cheap life lesson anyways for 1000 USD, much more valuable than many workshops or personal trainers around that price range.

And I sometimes wonder, if scammers get bored at work and just invent more and more crazy stories as sort of a Dadaistic art piece.


Discussing with some of my early clients their online security, things improved quite a bit I feel, after ideas got across like never tell anyone your password or No, I don't think the groundskeeper needs administrator access.

Let's not forget "is that your password on that post-it?".

And "no, no, no, don't tell *me* your password either, but as we're on it, don't use your first name".

Please don't mistake this for nostalgia, literally speaking, concerning privacy and data security it was quite innocent times, even at larger companies.

The growing commercial interest in the end was much less so. There was AOL and Compuserve, soon to be followed by Amazon and a - back then - strangely ad-free stream of new information and social sites.

Including the most modest web project I ever saw, with only one page, a kinda ugly logo, a box and a button

The ones unwise enough to offer their services for a fee, soon learned that competing with a better, free offer is something even a really large marketing team can't fix.

So the "free-for-now" payment model, as I'd call it, got invented out of necessity.

While I'll be eternally thankful for all those blessings, websites like Google or Wikipedia gave me, it took me a few years to shake my confusion about the underlying business models.

I'll take the liberty to summarize it for you in (way too) simple terms. Better ask an expert. (However, maybe don't ask your bank.)

  • As long as your company gets traded on the stock market at some point, mundane business goals like making money are utterly neglectible. 
  • Don't let tiny obstacles like global copyright infringement hinder you. This can be safely ignored for about a decade. Unless you mess with Texas or German cars
  • Enjoy a couple Strawberry Daiquiries on your yacht, after you sold it all to the devil a respectable media business man

The basic procedure of this still works. It also still fails. While we see Facebook as an untouchable market leader now, we once upon a time thought the same about MySpace.

Notably, business models like that have been invented by the same genius-level financial experts that later sold us more fantastic investment opportunities.

Other really weird things started happening. Like avoiding vowels in your company name for no apparent reason. (see Flickr, Tumblr, Grindr, Scribd and Twtter, yes Twtter, before they could afford their current domain name.)

The idea behind this was basically: "Appl" would be edgier and easier to find on search engines than "Apple".

...and the wild, wild west.

Unfortunately, it became a trend among many roughly-19-year-old dot-com founders (and I met a few...) and most of their mentoring venture capitalists (and I met a lot less of those, but still...) to see internet users as unsuspecting prey, lured with false promises and vague payment plans.

Lying to search engines became a profession.

Other new and innovative business models surfaced and became viable and even respected, like:

Paying trade taxes became a slightly outdated concept

Trading illusionary Linden Dollars for real currency became a popular profession. Which may or may not tell us a lot about what we consider hard currency.

Google became the leading search engine, basically as soon as it launched its alpha, since it's incredibly hard to manipulate.

The internet more and more took its current shape, which I'd lovingly describe as a pool of attention-hungry data piranhas.

Interlude: A personal theory on leetspeak

Admittedly, leetspeak (or 1337) was a tiny bit cool in the 80s when they still had acoustic couplers and because it was actually meant to defeat censorship by "watch your language" type of bulletin board owners.

With the arrival of blogging, slam poetry and YouTube out of a sudden people started basically reading their diaries in front of as many people as possible. I'm not sure anyone knows why yet, I'm torn between "humanity expressing themselves as artists" and "displaying severe symptoms of formerly unthinkable narcism"

At the very least, it seems a bit futile to me, in the midst of a gazillion pages of information. It's like shouting at the ocean asking Neptune to appear.

From that point on it was monkey see, monkey do, by the next generation of hobbyist programmers and college students, probably being deeply influenced by thoughtful movie pieces like Wargames. Or later on and much worse: Hackers. (Out of curiosity: if you're as old as me and read the article now, are you as surprised that Angelina Jolie had a lead role?)

Leetspeak moved on to the young and easily impressed, mostly counterstriking teenagers that today - half a generation later - reign supreme in most public discussion areas of the web and act as role models on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

And all game forums of course. 

I'm hopeful. One day, good language will get an extra achievement again in "Counterstrike 8: Operation ISIS". Which is a "retro-nostalgic costume piece infotainment 3DDD shooter", that will be published in 2061.

Three D's for even more definition. 

The achievement will be called The pen is mytier than the finger!!! - Use punctation corectly in 10/100/1000 sentenses.

Journalists will write about how educating computer games have become over the years and everyone will be happy.

For now, if it makes someone feel more efficient at communication and more trendy and rebellious even to write: 

c u l8 2n8t, xo xo, <3 :D :D :D :D :D

I'd say, enjoy life at the fullest and it probably depends on your definition of good conversation - and if you got a good Emoji translation table at hand.

Some very much recommended reading: 

A primer on modern internet, media and marketing language.


Business as usual.

Bit by bit, the internet in it's WWW incarnation did become 90% business driven.

While we still call it "e-commerce", this term will vanish from the history books. Obviously even today the lion's share of commerce is already driven or supported by the internet.

I strongly believe, we will see many shifts in income models of the online industry until things settle down.

Let's turn our attention to the simple fact, that a good share of internet business and especially on "social" platforms relies on user-generated content or - frankly - user-stolen content.

If that wasn't enough of a copyright mess, one might argue that in some legal frames of reference a lot of the end-user agreements are not legally binding, if they majorly disfavor the copyright holder. Giving them the right to withdraw licenses or renegotiate fees.

In the case of Facebook, "no fee at all" might one day be considered a bad deal provided by a company with an insane net worth and - miraculously - high earnings.

As global companies have many tools to evade legal consequences or at the very least slow them down to a point where they are but a drop of water in the income ocean, we see a lot of growth due to the vaccuum of copyright law.

Commonly known, the professional market of content creators and right owners are already knocking loudly on lots of doors for their fair share of income earned on the major platforms. (And yes, we're mostly talking about YouTube as the windmill of current right holders.) 

There is progress. But is it progress for us artists as well, especially the ones purely focused on online marketing, like 99% of all upcoming musicians?

The argument from the artist point of view is clear, as never before in history there was so precise data available, which piece of content was viewed how long and how often. Weirdly enough, we still distribute secondary rights fees mostly by a key constructed of direct sales and radio and television airplay. Which will further lose importance over the next decades.

With that came the Copyright War of the big players, and what in my opinion will turn into a full redefinition of what we consider intellectual property and how we distribute the income for that.

And what I'd currently call the Ad War, users and companies trying to agree on whether ad display is a user or a content provider decision. And the practical answer to that is very obvious, when you know what a web browser actually does. There's an intrinsic reason, all attempts to establish a more commercial-type of browser miserably failed.

Companies will have to further adapt and rethink their income models while the internet as a whole is changing and transforming.

*hugs internet*

Disagreeing with many nay-sayers, I think the corporate interest into the WWW was - all in all - a healthy development, with it came standards, innovation and another well of free and paid information and media.

It's interesting to note, that we already consider paid basic information and media - and 'basic' being defined rather broadly - as sort of a a rip-off already.

Which is admittedly bad for designer and musician fees, but good for a lot of other things, really.

From an artist points of view, the new means of production, promotion and sales of your works is immensily liberating.

Many young musicians will experiment with opting out of established ways to publish themselves - Bono did it, didn't he? While we encounter new obstacles as well - a shrinking live concert market, dwindling teaching fees, and a massive influx of professional and semiprofessional material on the ever growing internet market jungle.

On the other end, the marketing, prodution and (often forgotten) creative resources of minor and major labels will always be sought after.

At the very least, the restructuring of the music market as a whole will breed a new kind of producer-musician. Armed with capable project studios, surprisingly market-focused and business-savvy. Also, experts and early adopters of the online technology that are confident in how to represent their music and style in social media.

On the "street-level" side of music, we also see a strong backlash trend with true appreciation of life music and art that is perceived as genuine and relevant to the internet user - struggling with their daily intake of marketing material on Facebook and Twitter. 

This leads to a new local event culture: Sofa Sessions, Couch Concerts and the still very alive "tribal" scene of electronic music events that are organized online and collaboratively.

There's still a lot of warmth in the idea of meeting a musician at the bar or the campfire after the concert. As there always was and the sterile nature of online interaction is a bad surrogate to fill that urge to directly connect to music, the artist on stage and the rest of the audience.

This will transfer to the digital market and we might see "localized" listeners getting more importance as opposed to a target audience defined by age, gender and cultural background. (as in the world of globalization, local food becomes a trend again currently.)

And as a pure afterthought: The strong commercial focus is very apparent with the WWW surface internet, but there's other ways the internet is used and well used.

Obviously, the data exchange now possible for scientists and researchers is in the process of making diverse fields as Physics, Medicine or History skyrocket.

Obviously, a well of knowledge and media available to more and more people every year (in both developed and non-developed countries) is a good thing.

Not as apparent and maybe slower in creating its effects.

At this point you probably noticed I was and am an eternal Internet optimist.