The title of this column—"No Life Offline"—is recycled.
Eight years ago, I penned a weekly column for a small, free paper for students in Tempe, Ariz., under the same heading, but writing under a ridiculous byline that changed every week. Playing off the abbreviation "URL," the column was attributed at first to an author named "You Are Elephant," then "You Are Elderberry" and "You Are Elemenopee" and "You Are Eligible for Parole." The Dave Maass of 2004 thought the pseudonyms had a cool "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" feel, but looking back now, I realize it couldn't have made much sense at the time, and it makes even less sense now.
But doesn't that kind of hold true for all the Internet?
Web years are like dog years. That's to say, the technological distance between 2004 and 2012 might as well be a century. In August 2004, when the column was first published, there was no YouTube, Firefox was still in Mozilla's birth canal and Facebook was thefacebook.com and less than a 10th of a percent of the population it is now. So, what the hell was I writing about back then?
I searched through my Gmail to find that first-ever draft, only to discover that I was writing about Google's new Gmail and how I'd won a beta-test invite.
"I've got a Gmail account, and you don't. Sucker," I wrote, dickishly. "Google's new Web-based email system is the new hotness. It's what email should've been from the get-go."
I spewed effusively about the then-enormous 1 gigabyte of free storage space (Yahoo! offered only 25 megabytes). I was damned impressed that you could search your emails and with the innovative way Gmail creates email chains. I predicted Gmail would drive the other free services into obsolescence. I was pretty close to the mark. When's the last time you took someone with an AOL.com account seriously?
I have friends who won't use Gmail on principle, saying they don't want a single, humungous corporation to have that much access to their personal data. I have similar concerns, but they're not as immediate. I worry that 70 years after my death—a millennium in web years—when half a lifetime of my emails and chat logs fall into the public domain, Google will plug my writing patterns into a fancy algorithm to create a digital slave version of me for their Digital Museum of the 21st Century.
And there's my crystal face.
Not everything I plugged in that first column survived (oh, toostupidtobepresident.com, where have your animations gone?), but here are three projects that have managed to keep up:
Pushed too far: In 2004, I was obsessed with "Stair Dismount" (or "Porrasturvat" in software designer Jetro Lauha's native Finnish), a free game that simulated pushing a dummy down a tall flight of stairs. You chose the area of the anatomy you were going to strike, the angle of the blow and the amount of force, then racked up points for damage. The game was simple, elegant, morbid and educational, teaching everything you need to now know about the practical effect of gravity on the human body. Today, Stair Dismount is a sophisticated—and still free—mobile-phone app, with all the same features but a large repertoire of falling scenarios. You can push someone down the sinking Titanic, off a high dive and down the ramp of an airplane, like President Gerald Ford circa 1975. And when I say "someone," I mean your friends or yourself, since the app now lets you grab mugs from Facebook to paste over the dummy's head.
They still rule: Relationship visualizations—the mapping of connections between entities—is pretty trendy these days, but Josh On's Theyrule.net did it first and still does it the best, despite retaining the same interface all these years. The site starts with the premise that corporate boards wield immense power in this country and that if you look closely, it's really a small group of individuals who sit on multiple boards. Theyrule.net allows you to expand a corporation into its board members (illustrated as chubby business people—the more boards, the fatter) and explore the ties. In 2011, the site struck a deal with the Public Accountability Initiative's LilSis.org, which now allows Theyrule.net to map out the top 1,000 companies in the U.S.
Weebl-wobble: Yes, videos still went viral before the days of YouTube, and Weebl's Stuff was the center of the epidemic with looped song-and-animation vids like "Badgers" (BADGERS BADGERS BADGERS! MUSHROOM! MUSHROOM!) and "Kenya" (Lions and tigers, only in Kenya! Forget Norway!). Today, Weebl is still going strong with original animation series including "Cat Face" (self explanatory) and "The Jute Pompadillo Experience" (an animated sitcom about a touring prog-rock band), plus all-new addictive loops, like "Shrimp," an electronic dance track about shrimps playing the glockenspiel.