Friday, April 13, 2007

Was Chris Knight the world's very first blogger?

This isn't something to be making a post about unless there was serious documentation backing it up. And I wouldn't be claiming to be this for "bragging rights" either. Rather, it's purely for the sake of history that I would want to come forward with this and add it for consideration in our dialogue about such things.

But I will admit: when it dawned on me yesterday about what I was doing over 12 years ago, and how that has now become such a routine part of life today when at the time it was pretty unusual, I did feel a little bit of pride at the prospect. A guy can be afforded that much, can't he? :-)

So here's the tale about how your friend Chris Knight may have started the world's very first blog... ever.

How do we define "blog"?
Something needs to be addressed first though: how exactly do we define what a "blog" is? CNET News.com published a story last month about blogging turning 10 years old, and the story traces the history of online personal publishing. It began with .plan files that you read using the "finger" command with the Unix user prompt (something that I had on my account at Elon when I was a student there). Those weren't usually accessible through the World Wide Web, unless the .plan was made visible on a webpage via a CGI script or somesuch. When it comes to web-based publishing, the story cites Justin Hall and his Links.net page which Hall started in January 1994, and Carolyn Burke's online "Caroline's Diary" which began in January 1995 as the first online diary. The earliest true "blog" as mentioned in the story that is still active today is Dave Winer's Scripting News, which dates back to April 1st, 1997.

But in the modern sense, what exactly constitutes a "blog"?

In my mind, a "true blog" is an exercise in individual creativity and commentary, as expressed through the enabling of publication in an electronic medium for a wide audience. That's what makes a blog different from a diary: a blog is intended for publication. But as opposed to most publishing done in the modern era, there is no "gatekeeper" in place to control or edit the information that the blogger is sharing, where trying to share the contents of a written diary would have to pass muster with a number of editors.

A blog could be considered only truly a blog if it is not only an online log of information, but information in the form of thoughts and ideas coming unfettered from the mind of the blogger. At least, that is what "blogging" as we have come to understand it is considered to be. As such, it should be expected out of the blogger that he or she is actively producing new content from his or her unique perspective.

And in early October in 1994, that is exactly what I began doing...

Meddling with a modem
I got my first real computer for Christmas in 1993. It was an AST brand, 25 mhz 486 processor with 4 megabytes of RAM and a 170 megabyte hard drive... which back in those days was plenty, until Wing Commander III came out a year later and I found myself salivating for an upgrade. But for its time, it was a really nice thing to tinker with and learn from and actually doing stuff with like writing papers for college classes (at least, until the night that Johnny Yow brought over Doom and there's no telling how many hundreds of hours I've wasted on that game since).

It had a 4800 baud fax modem in it too. And I got to use it to send faxes to a number of places and it came in quite handy whenever I had a letter to the editor to submit to the News & Record in Greensboro. We'll come back to that in a bit, 'cuz my op-ed letters to that newspaper helped to germinate quite a bit the idea that I eventually had.

Well, I wasn't content to just send faxes with it. I wanted to use my computer as a real communication tool: something that I could actively engage in ideas with. At the time there were online services like CompuServe and America Online (which wasn't strictly an Internet provider per se at the time) and Prodigy and a few others. But those cost monthly fees to use, not to mention that to dial out from Reidsville, North Carolina to the nearest access number would have incurred long-distance charges. And yet, the desire to "go online and do something" wouldn't leave me alone.

Enter the NEXUS
I'd heard tell that there were smaller, privately-run versions of the bigger online services. These were the "bulletin board systems" or BBSes you've probably heard mentioned over the years. Just out of curiosity, I started asking around to see if any of those were in this area. One night I called my friend Mark Comer, who owned a computer store in town, and asked him if he knew of any. It turned out that Mark actually had his own BBS. He called it The NEXUS. He gave me the phone number and I dialed in from the computer. The modems did their "handshake" and for the first time in my life, I watched ASCII characters rain down from the top of the screen to form the welcome page for The NEXUS BBS.

From that moment on, I was captivated by the online world.

Mark had a few message boards and some files available for download, including Doom. Not long after I first found The NEXUS he added FidoNet connection to the board, including the Star Wars Echo, which for a lot of "old timers" was the very first time we could connect electronically with fellow fans of the saga.

I found The NEXUS right at the time when a lot of other people were either looking for BBSes to dial in to with their new computers, or were starting their own systems up. For rural Rockingham County, this was the most 'netting that we could have for awhile. Looking back, I think it's safe to say that there was an active and happy online presence, in spite of lacking a real Internet connection. It seemed like every week a new BBS was going up based in the county, usually from Reidsville or Eden and there was at least one good one in Stoneville. Every time word of one got around, I fired up my modem (and usually had to wait until I didn't get a busy signal 'cuz somebody else was using the BBS... which more often than not used only one phone line) and dialed in. Which sometimes let to some pretty funny stuff: one night I tried dialing in to what was supposed to be a new BBS in Eden. It was a non-existent number. So I changed one digit in the number to make it another Eden-based number, thinking that maybe I'd been given a mis-printed number. Well, imagine my shock when it turned out that I had dialed straight into the Eden branch of NationsBank (now Bank of America).

I was having loads of fun with the local BBSes, especially The NEXUS, which sort of became "home base" for me. And it wasn't long before an idea came to me...

Knight's Corner
I was 20 years old when all of this was happening, and "full of vinegar" as they say. I started writing letters to the editor of the area's big newspaper when I was 17, but it was when I was 19 or 20 that I really started to hit my stride. The thing is, the News & Record had (and still has) a policy: each person could have only one letter printed every 30 days. Any more than that wasn't allowed. Every time I saw one of my letters printed in the paper, it was like I felt a rush: knowing that people were reading my stuff and talking and more importantly thinking about it... that was a really good feeling! I would have submitted a lot more to the News & Record if I could. I was bursting at the seams with stuff that I wanted to write and talk about. But there was that pesky 30-day rule...

It was like a junkie going through withdrawal. I had to publish a lot, and I had to publish bad.

That's when a really crazy notion hit me.

I wanted to ask Mark if he would assign to me a special section of The NEXUS, that anyone in the public could read but only I would have the access to write to it. With that section, I would have free reign to write and post about whatever it was that was on my mind. Since I strongly considered myself to be a political conservative at the time, that would be a viewpoint that I would be bringing up for discussion and since this being 1994 and the big "topic" apart from O.J. was Hillary Clinton’s "health care reform", I could use this section to talk about how wrong I thought her ideas were (does this mean that I am the world's very first conservative blogger? Eat your heart out Powerline and Little Green Footballs!).

Or, I would use it to talk about anything else that was on my mind. It would be wide-open for me to use.

Mark loved the idea. And even though it was his BBS, Mark trusted me enough to not abuse the privileges he was giving me with it.

And it wouldn't be just about posting stuff with that being the final word about it either. Mark set it up so that whenever I posted something, other registered users of The NEXUS could leave comments about it.

We called it Knight's Corner.

For all intents and purposes, it was exactly what today could be called a blog. With new, original content that I wrote and posted at least 2 or 3 times a week and sometimes much more than that. And we started it up early in the month of October in 1994.

Those first few weeks, I wrote a lot about the upcoming November elections: the ones that wound up seeing the Republican party gaining control of the House and Senate for the first time in four decades. I don't think looking back that I was trying to be exactly "the online version of Rush Limbaugh", but using Knight's Corner to talk about ideas and issues was something that I did feel a great deal of satisfaction in doing. Some of the posts that I did sparked riotous debate. I remember one in particular that spiraled into how a Republican-held Congress would be disastrous for the country, because of the gridlock that would come between it and President Clinton. 'Course with me being a rock-ribbed Republican at the time, I thought that anything that would stifle the Clintons would be good for America.

I wrote a lot of other things to it, too. One night not long after the elections, for whatever reason, I shared my "secret recipe" for turning frozen pizza into a true gourmet delicacy: pour Paul Newman's Olive Oil and Vinegar Salad Dressing on top of it before putting it in the oven. Then there was my rant against airing hemorrhoid relief commercials during dinner hours, which apparently made a lot of people who read it laugh, gauging by the comments that were posted on that one. A few times I wrote reviews of movies that I had rented from Action Video, like Gettysburg and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (I was 20 years old before I saw that movie... pretty sad huh?).

Knight's Corner even had its own opening page and logo. It was something I whipped-up one night with this ASCII-art program that Mark had me download. It was a crudely-drawn stylized "Knight's Corner" in dark red font against a black background (the text of the rest of Knight's Corner was bright white). A few months later when Mark added RIP-scripted graphics, we made a new version of the logo with a RIP-drawing program too, for people who used dial-up programs that could handle RIP.

Would you like to know what the guy behind Knight's Corner looked like? Not long after we started Knight's Corner up, I got a handheld black and white scanner. I scanned a photo of myself and uploaded it to Mark's system and we told people where they could download it from (with either "x modem" or "y modem"... gotta wonder how many people reading this will remember those). So if Knight's Corner was the world's very first real blog, then that might have been the very first blog "profile picture" too.

The more I think about it, the more I feel confident in calling Knight's Corner, if not THE very first real blog, then certainly one of the very first. 'Course, the word "blog" didn't exist at the time. Neither Mark or myself knew what exactly to call Knight's Corner. We mostly referred to it as my "thingy".

What else can I say about Knight's Corner? It was a hoot to do. I had so much fun doing it, that my writing letters to the News & Record started to slack off big-time. And then the News & Record itself got wind of what was going on up in Rockingham County...

"Welcome to the Virtual Neighborhood"
The NEXUS BBS was becoming such a success, that I told Mark that maybe it was time to tell others outside of the county's "computer clique" about it and the other systems that were around. He agreed. I guess I did have an ulterior motive in suggesting this: the more people who used the BBS (which Mark had added quite a few number of phone lines to it), the more who could potentially read Knight's Corner. Which would make running Knight's Corner all the more fun :-)

So I used my handy-dandy fax modem and sent the News & Record a letter about The NEXUS and what we were doing with it and about how there were all these other systems around that were offering a taste of the online world to those who didn't have full-fledged Internet yet. Staff writer Susan Ladd got in touch with me and Mark and a few other people who were active on the BBSes. Her story ran on page D1 – the front page of the Life section – on January 21st, 1995. Her article, "Welcome to the Virtual Neighborhood", had a graphic of a cork bulletin board with Post-It notes and papers pertaining to BBS activity tacked to it. One of them said "Barney's Bulletins", which was a humorous reference to Knight's Corner. It was a great story with a lot of personality injected into it.

Here's part of Ladd's article that talks about Knight's Corner...

Knight maintains an area on the NEXUS board called Knight's Corner, with recipes, a humor column, even a photo. He also enjoys the debate forums.

"The topics change all the time, and since most people use an alias, you can say whatever you want," says Knight, who lives in Reidsville. "The topics are everything from health care reform to hemorrhoid commercials airing at dinner time - I started that one myself."

That weekend and the next few days, I noted that quite a few new users started using The NEXUS, and I heard from some of the other BBS operators that they saw a jump in new users, too. I made a post to Knight's Corner that welcomed the new arrivals, then commenced to writing even more about stuff that was on my mind. Some people liked what I had to say, others took issue with me. One article I wrote that particularly comes to mind had to do with abortion and why I thought it was wrong. Over a year later, I used many of the same arguments in that Knight's Corner article for my first op-ed piece in Elon's student newspaper, The Pendulum (which aroused quite a lot of reaction too, but that's a story for another time).

So there it is: documentation from a major newspaper that I was actively engaged in what can only be called "blogging" as early as late 1994. Pretty cool, huh? :-)

Behold... the Internet
I kept at Knight's Corner for the next several months. And then when a company called Interpath brought the very first Internet connection to Rockingham County in spring of 1995 and I discovered the Netscape browser, my interest in keeping Knight's Corner going started to slide considerably. I'll always have a lot of fond memories about the time when BBSes were king and my role in actively creating content for it... but when the Internet came, it really was like going from a bicycle to a Ferrari. Suddenly there was so much more wide-open possibility to explore and use.

But I didn't abandon Knight's Corner entirely. Not long after I started classes at Elon I took part in a 2-hour session about writing HTML and uploading them so that we could have our own homepages on Elon's server. The night after that lil' class, I was working on my homepage in the computer lab in the Alamance building. That’s when Ed Woody came in and asked what was I doing and I told him. I'll never forget the look of astonishment in his eyes as he saw that I was creating a real, honest-to-goodness webpage: "I thought you had to have special software to do that!" he exclaimed. I immediately began sharing with him all the tricks that I had learned the night before. We spent the rest of the evening merrily working on our homepages. And that was the start of the partnership between "Weird" Ed Woody and Christopher Knight :-)

But like I said, I didn't totally forget about Knight's Corner. Whenever I wrote a new piece to post on The NEXUS, I first did it in Microsoft Works (which came with the computer), then looked it over and then I had to laboriously type it in again into the BBS through my account. What this meant was, I still had the text of the Knight's Corner postings. I created a separate page off from my main homepage that I copied and pasted the text of a lot of those into, and linked to it from "Chris Knight's Eclectic Emporium" (yes that was the title of my VERY FIRST web page). I didn't bother with transcribing all the comments that my stuff on The NEXUS had received though.

So now Knight's Corner had a real live presence on the World Wide Web. I wrote a few new things to it every now and then, but by that point my creative energies were devoted mostly to unlocking the secrets of the Internet and learning how to use them productively. The last thing I really posted to the Knight's Corner "blog" was my column about abortion from that issue of The Pendulum from March of 1996. I received quite a bit of e-mail about it, and added those to the article just under the main piece, complete with dates received.

What happened after that? Well, in July 1996 came the movie Independence Day and I went nuts for that movie and created the "Chris Knight's Unofficial ID4 Homepage" to express my love for it, and it soon turned into the biggest webpage on Elon's servers. I even got a nice e-mail from Dean Devlin about it. It wasn't a question of disk space per se, but by that time I realized that keeping the Independence Day page up was really what my momentary passion was. I quit posting to Knight's Corner entirely.

When I re-designed my homepage a few months later (this time calling it "Chris Knight's Carnival of Coolness") Knight's Corner was gone completely. I'd become a regular op-ed writer for The Pendulum by then, and that's where I then focused my mind on serious matters. But I've still got floppies containing the original Knight's Corner articles floating around somewhere. Maybe someday I'll find them again and post them here.

Knight's Corner 2.0
When blogging started becoming big a few years ago, I couldn't help but remember doing Knight's Corner. In fact, I would definitely say that The Knight Shift blog is the spiritual descendant of Knight's Corner, if not actually being Knight's Corner 2.0. There aren't many times that I make a post here that I don't think back to how this was done in "the old days": using a terminal program dialed into a BBS to methodically type in text that was often slow – sometimes by several minutes – to show up in your window. It's so much easier now. In fact, right now I'm typing this up in Microsoft Word and will soon be copy and pasting it into the text window on my Blogger dashboard, just like millions of other active bloggers do on a daily basis.

Anyway, yesterday when the article about me and Schrodinger's Bedroom came out in goTriad, it made me think back over the years to all the other... stuff... that landed me in the newspapers. It's not that I've tried to draw attention to myself all this time. It's just that whether it's BBSes or desktop filmmaking, I've always wanted to point out the neat stuff to people so that they can take it and run with it and do something really cool with it, too. Everything I've done most of my life has been with trying to encourage people to do something good, or making them think a little more, or entertaining them in mind (and sometimes all at once, like what I did with my school board commercials). I remembered back to this article from 1995 that Susan Ladd did. And it was only then that it hit me like a hammer upside the head: that I was actively keeping a blog, with a lot of personally-created content, long before anyone else is on record as having done that. With documented evidence proving this, to boot.

So, there you have it: I may have been the world's very first real blogger (which would make Reidsville, North Carolina the birthplace of blogging). Or maybe not. I'm guessing probably not and that there might be someone else out there who was doing this already before the fall of 1994.

But regardless of that, it is a nice feeling to be able to say that you were definitely one of the pioneers in an uncharted territory that is today enjoyed by countless others worldwide. And more than looking back on what I might have done, I enjoy seeing what everyone else is writing and making with what is still our nascent sense of empowerment... and thinking about the things that are yet waiting to be accomplished with it.

3 comments:

Jenna St.Hilaire said...

I'm not at all surprised to hear that you were one of the first bloggers ever :-) You're definitely the pioneering type! Also, I envy your ability to write well quickly and frequently... it takes me an absurd amount of time to write a decent post.

As far as the Holy Grail (Monty Python) goes, I didn't see that until I was about 26, and then only because a bunch of friends went "WHAT??!!!" when I said I hadn't seen it. They made me watch it, and censored out all of the naughty stuff with loud throat-clearing noises :-D

Anonymous said...

Here is a guy who created a blog in 1982 and it was online:
http://www.linkedin.com/in/debber

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