It was a dark cold Boston winter in 1989. I was
struggling to keep alive a high-tech company that I had foolishly started. One
day a letter arrived from Bethesda, Maryland, where I was reared, describing my
life in glowing terms. For the first time, my parents had taken it upon
themselves to write one of those New Year's "letters to the world" talking about
how great the family was doing.
My pathetic start-up companies (I started five of which two are still around
as of January 1, 1995) sounded like wonderful investments and huge successes. My
brother wasn't just in medical school, he was slated to be the next Surgeon
General. My sister's and parents' lives were picture perfect as well.
At first I recoiled in horror. Were we Greenspuns really the kind of people
narcissistic enough to write about our lives and then exercise a Xerox machine
and the U.S. Postal Service?
After the shock wore off, though, I thought "What if someone told the truth in
one of those New Year's letters?" The idea was so thrilling that I immediately
started PageMaker and sat at the Mac for a few hours until I had produced
Narcissism Today, February
1990. [I apologize for only making this available in PostScript, but HTML is
such an impoverished language that the work would lose most of its humor and
meaning if translated into HTML.]
I had the opus typeset on a Linotronic at 2400 dpi and made 100 copies to send
to all the friends I hadn't talked to in months. A week later, I was flooded with
phone calls. People loved Narcissism Today. I even got calls from
strangers who'd heard about it and wanted copies.
Sitting on a balcony in Hawaii one day with a huge stack of postcards, I asked
myself "Why does anyone write these?" I had just gotten off the phone with a
friend in Boston and was delighted to hear that the weather there was cold and
nasty. I had an epiphany: it felt great to learn that folks back home were
freezing because it made me feel like a genius for escaping, but my mood was even
better when I reminded folks back home how much of a genius I was by
sending them a postcard. Gloating didn't seem the most attractive human trait,
but I decided I might as well accept it in myself.
Having been on Internet since 1976, when it was still called ARPAnet, it
didn't take me long to realize that I could make the power of computers work for
me here. Was it really sensible to fill 25 postcards with illegible banal
scribbling ("weather is here, wish you were nice")? What if I wrote one decent
message and sent it to a mailing list at MIT for redistribution to all my friends
in a few seconds?
My first experiment with spamming my friends was
New Zealand, January 1993 and it was a big success.
Instead of complaints about junk email, I got accolades and even thoughtful
replies. Best of all, I was making new friends without even trying; my
friends were forwarding the messages. I even got a date with a beautiful
California blonde. A college friend had sent her my messages and she decided that
I was interesting enough to be worth the drive from Pasadena to LAX during my
The New Zealand story was 22,853 bytes of text. Berlin/Prague was 81,834.
Clearly it was time to do something truly massive and thus a few months later I
began sending out the email that turned into
Samantha, over 500,000 bytes of text.
Note that aside from a few
furtive postings on rec.travel, thus far I was writing only for my friends. That
all changed the day I typed "mosaic" at my UNIX box. I'd written lots of magazine
articles in the past, but I'd always been frustrated by the need to write
everything short and breezy. When I saw that I could combine my text and pictures
(my photographic career would be a whole story in itself, but suffice it to say
that I was a camera nerd before I became a computer nerd) and distribute them
from some of the fastest servers on the Internet, I felt that I had finally found
my medium. "Upon this Web I will build my stories."