4 'Internet Things' That Are Older Than You Thought
A common belief about the internet is that it fundamentally changed the way we think, interact, and crank it. But more often than not, all it really did was accelerate behavior that's existed for centuries. Your distant ancestors also shared memes, fell for scams, and shamefully got off to some weird nonsense, and while old-timey Archie porn may not have made your history books, Cracked has you covered.
We've Been Churning Out Fanfiction For Well Over A Century
Still upset about that terrible Game of Thrones ending? Maybe one of the 9,600 stories on fanfiction.net will soothe the pain. The internet has a staggering amount of fanfic; you could dedicate the rest of your life to reading the 830,000 Harry Potter stories stored on one site alone, and you might even find as many as five good ones.
This all traces back to the mimeographed Star Trek fanfic of the 1960s and '70s, which was sold at nerd conventions. Other fandoms passed around fanfic too, but Trek was the biggest, presumably because fans watched a show that said, "Screw it, this week a rock monster makes Abraham Lincoln fight Genghis Khan" and said, "I could do better than that." So your parents could read about Spock learning the real meaning behind Bones' nickname; they just had to drive all the way out to the airport Ramada to do it.
But go back even further, and you could buy fanfiction in bookstores. The line between fanfic and novel has always been blurry, often dictated by the fame of the writer or the marketability of the idea. Name a classic novel, and it's probably inspired a modern retelling by someone churned out of an MFA class. Pride and Prejudice alone has inspired Bridget Jones' Diary, been set in modern Ohio and spun-off into a murder mystery, and kickstarted dozens of beach reads about Mr. Darcy's children and cousins and identical twins. And yet, when we pitch an alternate history where Elizabeth Bennet ditches Mr. Darcy for a sentient Marmaduke, it's suddenly "unpublishable" and "borderline immoral."
But modern writers at least tend to put a twist on the classics (what if Sherlock Holmes worked in Lovecraft's universe?), update them (what if Howards End was just as boring today?), or reinterpret them (what did Jane Eyre look like from the perspective of the "mad wife"?). Around the turn of the 20th century, anyone could just say, "Hey, remember those characters you love? They're still having adventures!" and get published.
And so 1895's A New Alice in the Old Wonderland dropped an American Alice into Wonderland to meet all of Lewis Carroll's characters. Old Friends and New Fancies was a 1913 novel that crammed characters from six Jane Austen novels into one confusing adventure, although because the term "fanfiction" didn't exist yet it was dubbed an "imaginary sequel." But it's infamous for its directionless rambling, which clearly makes it fanfic through and through. And when Sherlock Holmes was killed off in 1893, fans (including Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie) immediately brought him back to life through fanfic.
This continued for decades. If you needed to know what Heidi was up to as an adult, or what happened before and after Treasure Island, some mediocre book had you covered. Complain all you want about endless sequels and spinoffs, but it's not exactly a new problem.
The Nigerian Prince Used To Be A Spanish Prisoner
Have a look at this sentence: "Sir,--You will doubtlessly be astonished at receiving a letter from a person unknown to you." You immediately recognize it, right? It's clearly the opening of some bullshit tale of treasure and woe. Someone from another country will claim they own a small fortune, but they can't move their funds because of politics or legal issues. You, a kind stranger, can help them; all they need is some cash to kickstart the process or access to your bank account so their riches can be stored there. You'll get a cut for your help and definitely won't just be mocked as your money buys a round of drinks in Abuja. You've got a dozen of these emails in your spam folder right now.
But that particular sample was from the early 19th century when the already hoary scam was known as letters from Jerusalem. In one example, a humble valet claims to have helped his marquis emigrate, but he had to hide his master's gold and diamonds so as to not draw attention on the road. When the valet later returned to retrieve the fortune, he was arrested on some bogus charge, and turns to you for help instead of, for some reason, his boss. The only real difference from today's scam is that the letter uses phrases like "I am lost if some honourable person will not lend me succour."
Ironically the Jerusalem letters were often written by prisoners, who would give their jailers a cut of any profits. In 1898, the letters evolved into the Spanish Prisoner scam because fraudsters had begun claiming they were in jail on account of the Spanish-American War. And in 1922, an American newspaper warned readers that Germans were putting "the old Spanish prisoner game in a new form." Supposedly, down on their luck Germans just needed a bit of American money to launch a brewery that would return the investment many times over.
The Nigerian princes took the reins in the 1980s, upgraded to fax machines in the '90s and email in the 2000s, and still make hundreds of thousands of dollars today. Someday your grandchild will get communiques from desperate Moon rebels beamed directly into their eyeballs.
Then, as now, the scam relied on sheer volume. It didn't matter if thousands of people mulched your letter so long as you hooked one desperate schmuck. In the 1800s, a wealthy European province would be targeted until word of the scam spread, at which point a different region would be hit. Today, scammers are starting to focus on the developing world, where internet culture hasn't yet beaten Nigerian prince jokes into the ground. So if you've ever fallen for a dumb internet scam, at least you didn't take the time to write and mail a letter while thinking, "This seems legit!"
Tijuana Bibles Were The Original Rule 34
This is a golden age for people who want to see SpongeBob SquarePants have sex with the cast of The Last of Us. If there's a perversion on your mind, you're just one incognito search away from fulfilling it, which wasn't the case in your grandfather's day. Oh, he could still fulfill his fantasies; it's just that when the Greatest Generation had strange thoughts about Blondie and Snow White, they had to go out and pay for print media.
Tijuana bibles were small, short comic books about bangin'. Named after the myth that they were smuggled across the Mexican border, some featured original stories, but many starred pop culture staples, celebrity knockoffs, and parodies of gangsters and historical figures. They were made from the 1920s through the '60s but peaked during the Great Depression when the unemployed masses figured that if they couldn't find work, they might as well crank it to Mickey and Minnie Mouse enjoying a moment of intimacy. Forget Migrant Mother; where's the era-defining photo Sad Oakie Jerking It to Horny Barney Google?
Produced by the millions (possibly by bootleggers, who already used printing presses for their bottle labels), Tijuana bibles were sold in speakeasies and via discreet mail-order ads, then got passed around by students, soldiers, and other concentrations of the desperately horny. Imagine walking into a bar and asking a grizzled old man for the comic book where Popeye plows Clara Bow. That's the kind of dedication it took to fulfill your fantasies before the internet. Appreciate your elaborate Last Airbender smut creators, kids.
Tijuana Bibles were also very illegal, both for their violation of copyright and libel laws and because mid-century America didn't take a very progressive view of Donald Duck railing Rita Hayworth. While talk of them was usually hushed up, it was frontpage news in 1930 when a woman busted her 17-year-old nephew, who implicated the local barber as his provider. There were some moral crusades, too, although these usually protested "cartoon books" because no one wanted to call themselves Concerned Parents Against Dick Tracy Spilling His Seed On Mae West.
While never a top law enforcement priority, there were raids and the odd arrest, so peddlers had to smuggle the little books, and artists were anonymous (we still have no idea who most of them were). Even the FBI was monitoring the Tijuana bible trade, so why haven't we got an Untouchables about a crack G-man squad going to war against Betty Boop porn? Because Hollywood is full of cowards, that's why.
Before Online Gaming There Was Play By Mail
Online gaming gave us the incredible ability to have our mood ruined by a 14-year-old. But a child could destroy you at a game well before the internet came around; they would just have to do it by mail.
Chess was played by mail between fancy people since at least the 17th century, but increasingly cheap postal service made it affordable to the everydork in the 1800s. There's a record of an 1804 game between two Dutch military officers and chess clubs in different cities played by mail, telegram, and then fax. But while games like chess and go were played by mail for centuries, the 1970s saw a boom in "PBM" games that resembled the kind of life-sucking 4X video games you can lose hundreds of hours to today.
The first was Nuclear Destruction, created in 1970 by soldier and gaming nerd Rick Loomis. The game could have as many as 30 players, and all you had to do to nuke your buddy was send Loomis your move and a quarter. It was popular enough that Loomis had to hire a friend who knew how to work some newfangled machine called a "computer" to help moderate ongoing games, and when they left the military, they founded a company dedicated to PBM that will still be happy to loop you in on a new game of Nuclear Destruction today. Although each move will now set you back $2.50.
Many, many, many games followed. Rivals to Loomis popped up, and together they covered every genre and level of complexity you can imagine. Lengthy space opera Empyrean Challenge could feature as many as 150 players, all of whom would need to maintain complex spreadsheets to have any hope of winning, or you could just play Monopoly. You just had to buy a rulebook, sign up for a game, wait for your biweekly updates, and hope that both the game and your strategy didn't suck.
And if you read old magazines dedicated to PBM, you'll find that every complaint gamers have today are older than half the people doing the complaining. Players vented about unfair rules, biased moderation, bad games that wasted their money, and opponents dropping out of games the moment things started looking bad. There were even complaints about games that let players unleash special moves if they forked over extra cash. Yes, pay to win has been a problem since the late '70s. According to a PBM columnist, serious players of The Tribes of Crane would drop hundreds of dollars on boosts to their paper civilization.
Then the '90s rolled around, and while some PBM games took to email, a 1993 fan article declared that the hobby's future looked "bleak." You can imagine why. Still, a few PBM games soldier on in defiance of modernity. If you're a gamer, have you been upset by a last-minute twist of fate in a Civilization game? Now imagine that instead of playing it over a couple of weeks, it took you a year and a half.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
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