When it was announced via Twitter that Twin Peaks would return to television in early 2016, Daniel Rehn knew what to do. He had done the same thing when the new My Bloody Valentine album was released in 2012, and when Bitcoin began its meteoric rise in late 2013.
Rehn went looking for tweets. Or, well, more specifically, things he could tweet. Though, he wouldn’t write any of them himself.
Rehn is an L.A.-based digital artist and curator, and he’s spent the better part of the past decade vacuuming up old chat logs, Usenet and bulletin board services (BBS) archives, Gopher sites, computer backups—pretty much anything he can get his hands on from the old Internet, that early period between 1980-1994, when online communities were nothing like they are now.
He republishes the most prescient bits on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, usually just a snippet of text with the date. Reading through these bits, the most surprising thing is how little seems to have changed: The things people talked about online during the Internet’s early days are more or less the same things we talk about today. Sometimes, eerily so—a mirror world, strangely compelling, of past-as-present posts.
In the case of My Bloody Valentine’s 2012 release mbv, “The fever was exactly the same right after Loveless came out in ’92,” Rehn told me in February 2012, almost 12 months after launching the project, which he calls wwwtxt.
Pronounced “web text,” wwwtxt was originally intended to include only content from 1988 to 1994, but now reaches all the way back to 1980. It works, in part, because of nostalgia; some of Rehn’s readers have memories of participating in these communities or using technology from the time. But for those born too late, when wwwtxt’s heyday era was already well underway, there’s also a fascination with not knowing what came before. Sometimes it’s a conversation about virtual reality or digital currency or Internet sex, all tinged with the unbridled enthusiasm of a nascent, booming, Internet age. But the reaction is often the same: People do a double take when they realize someone said that in, say, 1987.
Rehn found one post from the early 1980s, recently, about the Vietnam War. “And it’s heavy because it’s like, it’s hard to believe there was an Internet [discussion forum] five years after Vietnam. You don’t think of those things being so close to each other,” he says.
His collection—over 100 GB of mostly text when he started in 2011—continues to grow. In fact, he probably has the world’s largest, most comprehensive archive of the early Internet (or, at least, the most interesting cross-section of it, aside from maybe Google or the Internet Archive), from before the web, when people in disparate local-but-connected clusters were still figuring this whole computer thing out.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, Rehn too was one of those people, a pre-teen growing up in Illinois. He ran his first bulletin board system, or BBS, when he was “probably 9 or 10 … to bring digital art and demoscene stuff, video art stuff, to that area,” he explained to me during our first conversation in 2012. “So I’d actually call BBSs in other cities, like New York or San Francisco, download them, and then put them on my BBS so people in my area code could access them.”
“The things that I was exposed to from being online culturally, I wouldn’t have had access to where I grew up. It completely changed who I am and what happened and where I went in life,” he explained. Chronicling that early period has, in some ways, become his life’s work.
Sometimes Rehn scours his archive in part by plugging in keywords, autobiographical stream-of-consciousness bits, or things that are happening in the news. Gun control, virtual reality, early netizen opinions on Miami Vice—sometimes he strikes gold, and everything old is new again. But he says the best stuff comes when he just goes reading not for anything in particular, but aimlessly following threads and people to see where they go.
He’s tries to represent a good cross-section of the people at the time, warts and all. Angry stuff. Happy stuff. Serious stuff. Sad stuff. Funny stuff, too, but he’s very cognizant of not turning the entire project into a joke. Rehn knows where he’s more likely to find academics versus the cyberpunks, for example, or the people logging on for the very first time. He doesn’t draft any of his posts either, just dips into the archive when the mood strikes. And whenever the conversations he’s reading start slipping into a direction he doesn’t like, he just goes back to the start.
“I find that putting the parameters back to 1980-1988 always sets it straight,” Rehn explains. “It’s sort of getting back to the roots of things. There’s sort of this feeling like, as you get into your 1993-1994, things become a little too familiar. Things become a little too like today.”
“The 1980s opens up a lot of opportunities. There was a message about someone talking about Tron. They just got home from seeing Tron. Like, that’s incredible. And they’re saying how it wasn’t a very cyberpunk film, but it was a great light show.”
(Tron, by the way, came out in 1982.)
Usenet, by far, is Rehn’s biggest content source. The distributed global network of discussion groups—like rec.arts.drwho or alt.politics—came online in 1980. (Rehn’s archive was acquired from the now-defunct Deja News, which was acquired by Google in 2001.) These days, the majority of new content he gets is from old BBS archives, either given to him, or found on old floppy disks.
“If you were talking in terms of scale, each one of those BBSs is maybe like a van on the highway, and they’re driving by Usenet, and it’s one of those data centers that goes for 20 miles,” Rehn explains.
“BBSs are little autonomous, sections of content, very small, but then, equally—it’s hard to describe, but they’re equally interesting, but oftentimes more compelling.”
With its fourth anniversary in March, Rehn is considering where to take the project next. His pace has slowed down this year–in part, because the trove is so large that it’s tempting to break some aspects off into side projects, and others into longer-term investigations. He doesn’t take this lightly. He is, in a sense, now the custodian or caretaker of an era that most have forgot, or were never around to remember.
And, as the archive would say, “Things are strange here. Very very strange. ☯85AUG“