For some of us who grew up on the world wide web, the idea of a private internet didn’t come into focus until entering a college campus or workplace. But intranets are some of the best places to be — zones often closed off from the endless chaos of the broader internet where people can manage (or deliberately not manage) things to fit a particular community’s needs.
As ethernet turns 50 years old, we’re looking back on some of our favorite memories from places where networking was more intimate and hands-on. And we’d love for you to join us by sharing your own networking memories in the comments, whether it’s about lugging your hardware to LAN parties or building your own first network at home.
For me, that first experience was at a small liberal arts college in the early 2000s. Despite being a pretty small campus, it had a great high-speed network — better than anything I’d had my entire life, having grown up mostly on 56K from AOL and CompuServe. (I mostly used it to play EverQuest.)
Beyond the shocking speeds on campus, the real prize turned out to be a private network that filtered out the noise of the broader internet. The whole student body seemed involved in a project to amass content on the shared campuswide file system. The whole thing appeared unmoderated except for the changes that (anyone) could make to the organization and contents of the server.
Well before Facebook rode into town and painted it blue, the shared file system gave us a way to build our own culture and develop a shared language around naming files and organizing them. There was never any ruling authority to this — just people who seemed to come together to build an underground library. And almost nobody dared to pollute the directory with an unpruned file name from the depths of torrent hell. It was our dragon’s hoard.
Campus IT services eventually shut down this scheme, but for a shining moment in time, it was one of the best connected experiences I’ve ever had. A space based on meaningful local relationships, untainted by the machinations of a broader global internet. — TC Sottek, executive editor
I went to college toward the end of the ’00s piracy wars, and I worked at my school’s IT helpdesk, the natural home of nerds who treated finding a film for a movie night like smuggling blue jeans over the Berlin Wall. My devotion was less to any one tool than a word-of-mouth system that could direct you toward free access to nearly any media ever composed by human hands. The file quality was often atrocious. The thrill was in the chase.
I’d grown up with binders of burned CDs from friends, and file sharing felt like an extension of the sudden, incredible access to information college had given me. A lot of my media diet at the time was legally drawn from my school’s vast and arcane library network, where you could dig up anything from little-known wuxia films to ’60s pulp novels. It felt natural that I’d also get my music from the campus DC++ network, my comic scans from some private BitTorrent tracker my boyfriend wrangled an invite to, or my blockbuster films from a friend who subscribed to pre-streaming Netflix so he could order DVDs nonstop and rip them to a hard drive. That wasn’t even intranet. It was sneakernet.
There are any number of legal and moral questions here, but there was a real sense of community in these collective efforts to hunt down and share knowledge. It was a mirror to all the other casual connections that were easy to form in college — long nights trekking between near-strangers’ parties, instant bonds with roommates — and increasingly difficult in the years that followed. Sure, I can pull up a movie in seconds on Netflix… but it’s not half as satisfying as telling my housemates I nabbed a just-aired Battlestar Galactica episode off EZTV. — Adi Robertson, senior tech & policy editor
I grew up pretty sheltered. In high school, I had two reliable ways to access the internet: the town library or my parents’ desktop computer with 56K dial-up and a program that took a screenshot every couple of minutes and sent it to my parents (I am the oldest of a very large family). So when I plugged my new Dell desktop into my dorm room’s T1 connection in 2003, it was a revelation.
It was a communications dorm, which meant I went from a very sheltered upbringing to sharing physical space and a local area network with 100 film, TV, theater, and communications nerds. I could go on about the music I discovered on my dormmates’ shared iTunes libraries or the hours of my life I sank into a text-based “society simulator” that inexplicably still exists more than 20 years later. But my favorite LAN memory from that dorm didn’t technically involve the network at all.
The dorm’s ground floor had three projector rooms and a big-screen TV, all within shouting distance of each other. Twice a week, we’d hook up four Xboxes for 16-player Halo matches. I don’t remember why we couldn’t use the dorm LAN for this, but instead, we ran long ethernet cables from each Xbox into a networking switch in the hallway.
When Halo 2 came out the next year, a lot of the crew had moved into their own places. They kept playing Halo together for years over Xbox Live, but for me, the vibe was never the same as when we all had to be in the same place, yelling at each other down the hallway when someone got pistol-sniped from across the map or flattened by a Ghost in Blood Gulch. — Nathan Edwards, senior reviews editor
Dorm life had its perks. Meals were minutes away, already prepared and paid for. Roommates were sometimes fun! But for me, the best part might have been the ethernet jack partway up the wall. I came to learn that what looked like a rudimentary internet connection was actually part of a vast intranet spanning the entire campus — every dorm part of a giant LAN. And one day, someone invited me to join the DC++ server… which turned out to be a treasure chest with an integrated chat system.
In the days when Netflix was exclusively a DVD-by-mail company and consumer internet speeds were largely still measured in kilobytes per second, I had never imagined having access to so much content before, let alone for free. And the speeds, oh the speeds — you’d have a song downloaded on your computer a moment after you clicked it.
It was a different era, though. While the RIAA and MPAA were pushing hard against piracy, there was this strong sense in college that the juggernauts would lose, that they were in the wrong, and file sharing was appropriate and right. Everyone was doing it, so wouldn’t it become the new norm? I remember walking into the dorm’s cafeteria one day and seeing posted warnings that filesharers would be fined and prosecuted, but I never gave it serious thought. In fact, one of my first stories on the internet was a guide to file sharing I wrote for Wired, which basically encouraged people to build their own darknets and take advantage of these services.
To satisfy the editors, I had to disclose that it wasn’t clear what kinds of files are legal to share and provide some additional reading to help readers make up their own minds. I warned: “we recommend you check your college’s ‘acceptable use policy’ and similar documents to determine their position on file sharing before engaging in potentially illegal activity, or at least make sure you save three grand, the going rate, in case you get caught.” — Sean Hollister, senior editor
As a commuter student, I never lived the dorm life. But during those days, my family home became a tiny LAN once my older brother set up a second PC opposite our existing one. This set in motion years of side-by-side co-op and parallel gaming that got me deep into games like classic Counter-Strike and Diablo 2 (and its expansive Median XL mod). Sure, the ethernet wiring we set up and ran along a ceiling beam was quite the eyesore (sorry, Mom!), but it meant I rarely had to wait my turn to browse sites, chat with friends on AIM, or play games. It was freeing to be able to share files back and forth, and by our powers — and computers — combined, we amassed a large catalog of mp3s from all the punk and hardcore bands we were into and still discovering.
This also set the table for a signature of our family home, hosting Halo LAN parties of up to four Xboxes and 16 players. We first started doing Halo parties at a friend’s house with eight-player Halo: Combat Evolved on two original Xbox consoles, and it was a transformative experience. I always remember that amazing first night, staying up past 6AM, powered by gallons of Mountain Dew, multiple Crave Cases of White Castle, and the sheer joy of this new experience. As we slowly expanded to more Xboxes and more players, the venue transitioned to my family home and remained there for years and subsequent Halo releases — all the way through Halo: Reach. We occasionally tried other games along the way, like the original Star Wars: Battlefront II, but few had as robust and rock-solid of a System Link mode as Bungie’s epic series.
Our small home network made for an easy expansion, able to house four connected Xbox or Xbox 360 consoles for a night, with our tiny bit of wiring infrastructure setting the table. We ran lengths of ethernet cables ranging from 10 to 50 feet long, just casually (and hazardously) running along the floor, up sets of stairs, and into bedrooms and the living room — even sometimes entangling the kitchen or dining room. Where there was a TV, it got used, and where a TV could be set up, one was plonked down for the evening with a console, a cable, and up to four weirdos in front of it.
I’m certain many other people’s histories with LAN parties and Halo parties, in particular, sound very similar (I’d love to hear yours, too, by the way). For me, they are some of my fondest memories from the salad days of my youth, and it was in part because it brought together a very diverse extended network of people — many of whom remain close even many years later.
It’s kind of quaint how those simple ethernet cables strewn about our family home were our windows to the greater world through the internet, and yet the in-person connections they laid the groundwork for remain some of the strongest in our lives. I still have many of those lengthy runs of ethernet, coiled up in drawers, and even though System Link play is a relic of the past, it’s nostalgic to think of diving back into some original Xbox-era split-screen LAN gaming. I hear it still holds up. — Antonio G. Di Benedetto, commerce & deals writer