Flashback: Nashville & the Internet in 1998

How long has it been since ten years ago? Here’s a hint: Ten years ago was when you first heard a President say, “I did not have sex with that woman.” Here’s another hint: Ten years ago is when I purchased the car I’m still driving. In other words, ten years ago seems like a lifetime ago — but not that long ago, at all.

Ten years ago, Fortune Magazine sent a reporter to Nashville in search of how middle-America was being changed by the Internet. Writer Eryn Brown spent three weeks here working on the story — and did what I thought was a great job capturing those early, innocent days of World Wide Webness. Back then, only 12% of Nashville’s population was online (compared with around 26% in San Francisco at the time) but we were one of the first 20 markets to have cable-based Net access. Reba McEntire told Brown how her company’s Music Row studio had, “ISDN lines, fiber-optic lines, ‘the kit and kaboodle…We do teleconferencing, satellite feeds all over the world.’ McEntire can even do real-time remote recording, singing over ISDN lines while her session musicians and producer are in the Starstruck Studios back in Nashville.” In other words, it was a lifetime ago — but not that long ago, at all — especially if you change the initials ISDN to DSL.

I had a small role in Eryn’s article:

To people on the outside, Nashville’s all about country. Most people who live here, though, aren’t hooked into “the business.” They’re working regular jobs, caught up in the same everyday concerns as everyone else. Like the weather. On April 16, publisher Rex Hammock and his Webmaster, Will Weaver, stood at the plate-glass window in Hammock’s office and watched two tornados plow toward their building from downtown Nashville. “That probably wasn’t so smart,” Hammock laughs. The two men snapped some digital pictures, waited for things to calm down, and then hopped up the street to grab a few shots of Nashville’s Parthenon (a full-sized replica of the real thing in Greece), which had been damaged in the storm. Hammock and Weaver then posted the photos on their corporate site, along with phone numbers for the Red Cross and other relief organizations. MSNBC and CNN found the snapshots almost immediately and linked to them. Within a week, www.hammock.com had a million hits. (Hammock Publishing’s site usually gets about 3,000 a month.) “When I took my daughter to school the next day,” Hammock says, “I had little kids telling me they had seen my pictures on the Net.”

Hammock Publishing has been creating Internet content for five years now. Business is chugging along: Revenues should go up 25% this year, to $4 million. Even though he’s 44 years old, Hammock’s part of what passes for Nashville’s Internet community. He knows the guys who run the city’s handful of Gen-X Net startups. He works with Telalink, an Internet service provider started by a couple of Vanderbilt University grads in 1993. (The company’s principals, now 28 and 29, still work out of the condo they lived in when they graduated. Their dress code: shorts and inline skates.) Hammock also teaches night classes about the Net at Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville’s tony boys’ school. Most of his students are budding hobbyists in their 50s and 60s who want to use the Net to read up on gardening, fill in family trees, or find that perfect ski resort in Colorado. Jake Wallace was in Hammock’s class for a little while.

Hammock doesn’t think Nashville’s quite there yet, when it comes to the Net. “We haven’t had our defining moment,” he laments. The tornados could have been it, he thinks, had any of the official disaster-related organizations taken full advantage of the medium. They could have used it to match volunteers with people in need of help, he thinks, or at least to build a sense of community after the calamity. “If it’s something of importance, of immediacy, people reach out to the Web. I don’t think the media here, or the government, understand what a useful tool this can be.”

Geez. That was ten years ago. And I was already getting the “even though he’s an old guy” caveat. And I was already complaining about no one doing anything about the weather — or, at least, the way the Internet can be used after a weather catastrophe. Fortunately, the use of the Internet after a disaster has begun to change, but re-reading that story, I’m convinced there’s little new thinking that was not at least roughed-out a decade ago. Things are smaller (with more capacity), faster, hipper, cooler — but most of the technology we are using today was around in the 1980s — it was just clunkier and slower.

As far as Nashville goes, while I’m not sure Mr. Wallace has increased his usage of the Internet, the son he mentioned is definitely a member of the Nashville geekorati — as I was communicating with him yesterday afternoon via e-mail he was reading on his phone. I was asking him if his dad was out of kindergarten. On the business end of things, there have been some genuine success stories among Web-based startups in Nashville. And plenty of setbacks, er, lessons along the way. Last week, Jackson Millier, a Nashville friend I met through the blogosphere, wrote about what he’s seeing in Nashville these days:

“I feel like I know a million geeks in Nashville now, and I meet more all the time. There are lots more people out there that are doing cool things who have not yet been brought into the fold. I honestly think that the more cohesive and supportive the Nashville tech culture gets, the more likely Nashville will be recognized as a national tech hub. It is amazing how this city has changed over the last 3 years and I am very grateful to each and everyone one of you who have helped make it happen.”

While I’m not so sure Nashville will ever be recognized as a national tech hub, I do know it’s a great place to live, raise a family and grow a business — geek or not.