One time in 1995, I figured out how to dial the 2800 baud modem on our family’s clunky old DOS computer into the public library, and was able to access the same system that was on terminals in the library branches, set up beside the card catalogue. (If you don’t know what a card catalogue is, you’ve seen one in that beginning scene of Ghostbusters. If you haven’t seen Ghostbusters, get on that STAT.) I reserved a book for myself, and as I did, felt a sensation go through my entire body, as though I had hacked into the Pentagon’s nuclear missiles.
At this time, it didn’t even make sense to describe the internet in terms of being in its “Wild West” phase — it barely seemed real at all, or even important.
Of course, 20 years later, the internet is very obviously real and important, though our digital lives are still only an artificial overlay on top of our real ones (albeit a very intrusive and pervasive overlay). We’re still decades, if not generations away from figuring out how to make it serve us, rather than the other way around. It’s because of this tension of who or what is in control that the podcast Reply All is so compelling.
Reply All is hosted by two guys, Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt in New York. They have worked together for several years, initially as producers for the WNYC show On The Media, and then on an earlier version of their current show, called TLDR. Their history and chemistry help keep them this side of the fine line between geek and cool. They call it “a show about the internet,” though the online world is usually only the starting point for a broader human story.
Some of their episodes focus on the early years of the internet: Jennifer Ringley, 19 years old in 1996, who became the first person to put a webcam on their entire life, the consequences of that, and the perspective she has on it now; Ethan Zuckerman, who invented the pop-up ad as a way of distancing paid advertisers from appearing to endorse offensive user-generated content, and the universal hatred he’s received since.
Most episodes, however, focus on more recent events: Lindsey Stone, whose accidentally public Facebook photo began garnering her death threats 18 months after she’d initially posted it; Shulem Deen, a former ultra-orthodox Jew excommunicated for losing his faith, who uses the internet to try to connect with his estranged children; Jamie Keiles, a writer who Instagrammed her crippling depression and eventual recovery from it.
If humans are the universe observing itself, then Reply All is the internet observing itself.
Dave Cusick is Director of Programming and Volunteers at CIVL Radio. He follows both Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt on Twitter, but hasn’t worked up to adding them on Facebook yet.