Jack Reid

@fat: The Internet Historian

July 28, 2015

If you take a listen to Rives’ great TED talk from 2006 today, it’s pretty easy to see it as a little time capsule. Here he is talking (eloquently and entertainingly) about Napster and Friendster. What was, at the time, a piece of pop culture criticism and entertainment, is just as easily viewed as artefact of an era in the internet history. The internet moves fast, look at how quickly we moved from the bullshit-ly labelled Internet 1.0, to Internet 2.0, to deciding that numbering eras of the internet like that is stupid. That’s how a talk from 2006 can refer to long defunct technologies and come off sounding like archive footage explaining the social norms of telegraph communication.

We don’t much in the way of a history of the internet. To many, it would seem far too soon to begin the active process of cataloguing and historicising the internet. There have been provisional efforts. The Wayback Machine gives one access to the internet archives, and there’s a hell of a lot of data there. You can find the technical specifications for deprecated versions of web technologies like Apache and table-based layouts if you dig hard enough. All of that is just raw material though. The contents of an Egyptian tomb aren’t history until the tomb is unsealed and explored by the people of the present, who weave a narrative for us out of these inanimate objects.

@fat is who we’ve been waiting for. In 2015, @fat spoke at Code Genius in NYC about the “Cascading Shit Show”. Talks at these conferences, and I’ve watched a lot of them, usually fall into the following archetypes: evangelising a new technique or technology, or calling the industry to action on a lack or inadequacy of some kind (whether it be cultural, technical, or in user experience). Not so with @fat’s talks. Cascading Shit Show isn’t a teardown of the silliness of the omnipresent technology and a prescription for the alternative, as the name might suggest. Instead, it is an impeccably researched history lesson about the evolution and the architecting of CSS. Digging through primary sources that sound incredibly tedious to unearth and parse, @fat is able to tie together an incredible story with a whole cast of characters crudely rendered with the pen tool in Photoshop.

In What Is Open Source And Why Do I Feel So Guilty, at dotJS in Paris, @fat stands in front of an enormous drawing of Linus Torvalds. Torvalds has been drawn sketchily, looking a little like a bargain basement Pendleton Ward character. @fat is talking about his side project, or rather his all-consuming project, Bootstrap. Or rather, he’s talking about how open-source projects have the habit of mushrooming from fun ideas into time intensive nightmares that need constant maintaining and marshalling. That synopsis makes the talk sound like it would totally fit into one of those archetypes I mentioned, right? Nah, @fat approaches the topic by giving us a run through the history of the open source movement: how we got to where we are today. Hence, Linus Torvalds.

@fat’s tone is irreverent, self-aware, acerbic, and ironic. It’s just perfect for the historian of our times. He’s a literature major, he might even recognise himself in Dave Eggers. God knows he’s self-aware and puckish enough. The bizarre mixture of having a ADD-style short attention span and an incredible depth of knowledge on a given issue that he’s decided to research, is matched exactly to the simultaneous depth and shallowness of the internet he has adopted as his area of speciality. Even just these two talks that are available to those who aren’t blessed enough to be able to afford conference tickets, are enough to begin a new school of history. @fat is telling stories about us that haven’t been told yet, and he’s damn good at telling them. Forget Bootstrap, the framework that has set the visual tone of the internet for years now, @fat’s histories are his most important work, and we should be doing more to join him in that work.