The internet is kind of like a giant game of ping-pong where there’s always somebody at the other end of the table ready to rally the ball back—whether you like it or not. A thought served out is returned with a friendly lob, the start of a conversation. A joke is returned with sidespin, the same joke but a little bit funnier. An opinion meant for the person across the table is returned with pummeling aggression from ten tables over, soon a barrage from all sides. Thwacks, bounces, ricochets. They echo and redouble.
What kind of space is this for language, for poetry, for art? We’re now almost thirty years deep into the experiment of the World Wide Web, and we still don’t really know. This featured series takes stock of the internet’s ping-ponging echoes by asking how we make art and tell stories about the internet, with the internet, and around the internet.
In this first installment, Micah Bateman takes us back to the web’s early beginnings with “The First ‘Last Page of the Internet.’” Part personal history, part tour of 1990s internet culture, Bateman lets us hear the early echoes of the web again as his younger self encounters eMates and Dogpile and Star Wars role-playing shooter games and of course the essay’s titular meme: “You have reached the very last page of the Internet. Now turn off your computer and go outside.” Being consumed by the internet is an old joke and now a seemingly inevitable state. Bateman shows us the steady encroachment of that consumption and dives into our cultural desire to imagine an end of the internet.
— Melanie Walsh
The First “Last Page of the Internet”
By Micah Bateman
Tim Berners-Lee published the first web page in 1991, which introduced the World Wide Web project. Since this web page was already hyperlinked to ancillary pages, the first page of the web was never also the last page, the final page, the end. “There is no ‘top’ to the World-Wide Web,” as the “General Overview” of the WWW explained. Thus I err twice in calling this first web page either “first” or a “page,” which suggests, as of a book, a beginning and end. Berners-Lee was careful to call them documents.
One of the web’s early memes was a correction to Berners-Lee’s project known as “The Last Page of the Internet.” “You have reached the very last page of the Internet,” a minimalistic web page announced. “Now turn off your computer and go outside.” By the time the meme was popular in 1998, Berners-Lee’s web had spread immensely. It was both funny and a relief to think that the web could be closed, that you could be on the outside of it, that it was bound.
My junior high humanities teacher Ms. M was an early web adopter, one of the earliest in our small, rural East Texas town. In the mid- to late 90s, we were using the web in her classroom. She chuckled when she introduced me to “The Last Page of the Internet.” At the time, President Clinton’s two-billion-dollar plan to democratize internet access in schools was scarcely underway. He called the plan “the great equalizer,” and he launched it from a middle school even more underserved than mine. Though my school was poorly funded, Ms. M’s humanities course was coded under an ill-named “gifted and talented” program and thus legislated to receive as much funding as our athletics programs, which were so bloated they might as well have been endowed by Rockefeller monies. And so, in addition to the internet, we also enjoyed a classroom set of personal laptops, ones we could take home, called eMates—small, green, tortoise-like affairs that charged by stacking atop one another, a phenomenon that my classmate Owen described as “turtles e-mating.”
The eMate was a notably early touch-screen. However, its requirement of a stylus combined with its generally unappealing curvatures—its poor design, in other words—demonstrate that the eMate was designed before Steve Jobs’s return to Apple in February 1997. The eMate debuted a month later and was discontinued a year later, though Jobs was very interested in it and redistributed its strengths to other projects. Apple and Jobs both thought the eMate had enormous potential. The product specifications announcement touted that, like Clinton’s plan, the eMate would bring information access to the masses, bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Thinking of the marriage between its democratic goals and its strange, curvaceous, and green design reminds one of poet Marianne Moore’s suggestions for the naming of the unfortunate Ford Edsel: the eMate was indeed a “Utopian Turtletop.” The jocks who barely spoke to me continually asked to borrow mine when I took it home. That’s how utopian it was; it brought equilibrium, if briefly, to the nerd-jock ecology.
My classmates and I beamed messages to one another on our eMates from across the room by perfectly aligning small sensors located on their spines—an activity that anticipated our devotion to instant messaging in the near years to come, and one that forced us to configure ourselves oddly around the room in order to transmit successfully. It was a game to pass notes without the teacher noticing, which often involved the implicit conscription of three or more students who stood as obstacles between the two sensors of the note-passing parties. The eMates required this social participation, making of our classroom a social web or sphere we were each alternately at the center or defining periphery of.
Ms. M taught us the new Boolean language of search engines with their operators like AND, OR, and NOT. In the mid- to late 90s, Yahoo! was still popular, but the hip-to-the-web kids were using Dogpile, a search engine that aggregated its better-known others like AskJeeves and AltaVista. We were already becoming enculturated in the humors and vernaculars of the web, despite almost none of us having access at home. 1996 was the year of the Dancing Baby, in the manner of which my classmates and I wagged our hips. 1998 was the year of “ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US,” an early meme that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would humorously cite in 2019, only to have her grammar corrected. Of her correctors, we might say that they were pwned! ROFL. Friends of mine had t-shirts with this quotation. Also in that year hamsters danced across screens like the twee stuff of nightmares, and we’d stealth-link each other to the page as a prank, because the hamsterdance song was an earworm that would not dislodge.
There was also, as Ms. M showed us, the internet’s “Last Page,” another exemplary meme that added to our in-crowd web vernacular. Like our eMates, the web was making an in us nerds could be the crowd of. This came at the same time that the web was supposed to be the “great equalizer,” the democracy-maker that would break down the barriers that made any crowds in or out.
It wasn’t until December of 1998 that my family got our first internet-capable computer. It was a Christmas gift to me, and I kept it in my room. My parents conscripted my friend Allan to assemble it from parts, because he was the most in of the cyber in crowd. More practically Allan knew how to hotwire payphones and, more beneficial to me, build a top-end computer using parts bought separately at cost.
Back in 1993, my family had a Hewlett Packard that could activate Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail via MS-DOS commands that only I and my brother, eight and twelve, could remember. The command-line prompt of MS-DOS enabled me to pretend I was a dangerous and capable hacker like I would imagine my friend Allan to be later that decade. To date I’m not sure I don’t still prefer the “calling up” of documents and applications via the command-line prompt to the spatial metaphors of graphic user interfaces like Windows that, through our stand-in, the mouse, we could be inside of.
Nevertheless, by age 14, my new, Allan-assembled machine was run by Windows 98, and I leaned in to its mass appeal, downloading free desktop themes from Tucows that changed my mouse to Mickey from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, whose wand spewed streams of stars when the system was “thinking.” Unlike the eMate, my personal desktop was not a device that I carried alongside me. It was a thing I, myself, lived alongside, orbited.
“There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves’” writes George Oppen. My computer was the central thing by which I knew my teen self.
I slept around it. In the era before music companies had cracked down on file-sharing scofflaws, I left my computer on all night as it downloaded tunes I’d barely listen to. Its industrial hum dogged my sleep, an irony given my predilection for white noise machines. But its white noise was different from rainy forests, babbling brooks, or even the box fan I set on high whose interior grate is furred with black dust. My computer’s hum was a fan, too, one to keep the motherboard cool while it retrieved—another irony—relaxing music.
On the web I learned a technique by which to fall asleep, an alternative to counting sheep or dancing hamsters, or, later, taking Xanax or the like. You imagine traveling down the interior of a long tunnel composed of black and white stripes at the end of which is an opening of light that you approach but should never reach. In Jorge Luis Borges’s “Library of Babel,” to die is to be thrown outside of the endless library into the “fathomless air.” The sleep technique is the obverse of Borges’s nightmare of death in that you’re endlessly falling through an interior you never reach the outside of. What a perfect metaphor for the liminal abeyance of sleep itself, a mode that by then our machines had as well. Though my Central Processing Unit fanned itself while downloading music files, my monitor would enter Sleep Mode—a state neither on nor off. I seldom slept for more than four hours after I got my bedroom computer.
I was gifted my internet-capable computer four months before Columbine and eight months before starting the ninth grade, a year during which my friends and I were bullied and hazed in the gender-exclusive locker rooms of the soccer team, upended in dumpsters, shoved into lockers, mocked, called homophobic epithets while books were knocked out of our arms. One boy used to throw his shoes at me, and when I wouldn’t toss them back to have them thrown at me again (a task to put the sissy in Sisyphean), he’d slam my head into the concrete floor until I released them, bled, or cried.
But by night my friends and I were Jedi Knights. We played a Star Wars-themed multiplayer role-playing shooter game with colleagues across the internet, accessed using my faster-than-usual dial-up connection. Teammates formed “clans.” Ours was the _187_, after the numerical police code for murder. You appended your clan name to the front of your username. Thus, I was _187_Sinister, a “full-force saberist,” which meant that, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I used magic instead of guns. We’d play as soon as we returned home from school. I’d go straight to my room, turn the lights out, and put on a rotation of Foo Fighters albums. Then I was “jacked in” for hours. That was also the year of The Matrix, a film positing an in and out of virtual life, where humans’ heads had literal jacks in them. I preferred being “jacked in” to the Matrix to the hellscape of reality in which I was battered against the concrete floors of locker rooms.
I did stop gaming after the hazing stopped. The Feds downed Napster. Soon computing wouldn’t be an activity that I would orbit. As with my old eMate, once again I’d carry it with me.
The website Know Your Meme traces the origins of the “Last Page of the Internet.” I’m curious about its origins. Whose was the first “Last Page”? Know Your Meme has found four instances, the oldest of which dates to January 1, 1998. This supposed first “Last Page” is defunct, however. You can’t step into the same web twice.
It strikes me that the search for the origin is twinned with the desire for termination that enabled the imagination of the meme in the first place. We were never good with Berners-Lee’s insistence that there was no top to the web. Julia Kristeva has posited the “deject” as “a deviser of territories, languages, works,” who “never stops demarcating his universe”: “He is on a journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding.” Whoever made the first “Last Page of the Internet” perhaps herself was a deject, needing to demarcate and delimit the fluid and unending confines of the web’s infinite loop. Or maybe she was a caregiver, granting us the respite of termination, a transition back to a phenomenal world with its maternal gravity and forces of physical belonging.
I too want to demarcate fluidity. I need this meme to have begun. Like the CDC official of a dystopian fiction, I must find Patient Zero in order to understand the contagion that grows without end.
You have reached the end of this essay. Now turn off your computer and imagine an outside.
Micah Bateman is a Mellon ESI fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is at work on a dissertation, “#WebPoetsSociety: Poetry in the Digital Public Sphere.” He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he is the recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Lyric Poetry Award. His essay “Son of Batman” was a finalist for the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize, as well as the Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, and can be found in The Iowa Review.
Melanie Walsh is a PhD candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis, where she is completing a dissertation about the recirculation of postwar literary texts on the internet. Beginning in August 2019, she will be a postdoctoral associate in Information Science at Cornell University.