Death of a Netizen

Michael Hauben: there is more to life than to just click and surf

On June 29, 2001, funeral services were held for Michael Hauben in New York. Credited with ushering in the term "netizen", his unexpected death was a shock to many. As one persona noted on the Netizen list, "today we at Netizens are experiencing a very sad and grave loss, not only because of our frienship [sic!] and camaraderie with The Haubens, but also our cause, has lost a great leader and friend!". Laura Gould, one of the founding members of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, upon learning the death of Michael Hauben, wrote "I so regret the death of the original Netizen."

Outside the community of netizens, Michael Hauben was not very well known. His name was not splashed across the front pages of newspapers or propagated through mainstream broadcast media. Even in "cyberspace" he was relatively unknown, like most of us. Nevertheless, his words and ideas have had a profound effect on all those who regularly use the Internet, whether they realise it or not. Indeed, in Europe it was the foundation to what is now commonly referred to throughout member states and accession countries, not mention the European Commission itself, as the "information society".

In a 1992 article entitled "The Net and Netizens: The Impact the Net Has on People's Lives", Michael Hauben wrote the following:

"Welcome to the 21st Century. You are a Netizen (a Net Citizen), and you exist as a citizen of the world thanks to the global connectivity that the Net makes possible. You consider everyone as your compatriot. You physically live in one country but you are in contact with much of the world via the global computer network. Virtually, you live next door to every other single Netizen in the world. Geographical separation is replaced by existence in the same virtual space."

With these words the concept of a "netizen" was introduced and quickly spread into popular use. Later, in a book called "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet", co-authored by Ronda Hauben, herself a renown netizen and ardent critic of ICANN, Michael Hauben elaborated his concept:

"My initial research concerned the origins and development of the global discussion forum Usenet. [...] I wanted to explore the larger Net and what it was and its significance. This is when my research uncovered the remaining details that helped me to recognize the emergence of Netizens. There are people online who actively contribute towards the development of the Net. These people understand the value of collective work and the communal aspects of public communications. These are the people who discuss and debate topics in a constructive manner, who e-mail answers to people and provide help to new-comers, who maintain FAQ files and other public information repositories, who maintain mailing lists, and so on. These are people who discuss the nature and role of this new communications medium. These are the people who act as citizens of the Net."

Although in global terms Michael Hauben may be relatively unknown, the words and ideas he introduced, embodied in the term netizen, is something which in retrospect seems as a matter of course and a natural part of our language and civic discourse (other such concepts include the Cold War, for instance, which was coined by a French journalist). The ability to develop such a concept and introduce it into daily use, which then remains as an integral part of our intellectual heritage, betrays an insight akin to that of what we generally consider to be a great thinker (The need for a Netizens Association).

Despite not being a pop-icon, Michael Hauben's influence extended far and wide. He was invited to Japan to speak about his ideas, and he appeared in documentaries about the Internet on TV Tokyo. He also was frequently consulted to comment on the growing importance of the Internet as a new democratic communications medium. Not surprisingly, his co-authored book "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet" is published not only in an English but in Japanese as well.

Born on May 1, 1973, Michael Hauben was an active member of the online community since the early 1980s. According to his parents, there were early indications of his interest and talent in the field of informatics when he asked for a hand-held calculator for his fifth birthday. His father recollects how they has great fun using the calculator to do iterations and other math tricks.

His first experience with computers came at the Toronto Science Center in 1980 when he was 7 years old. There were hands-on computer exhibits and an exhibit of computer controlled robots. He was soon asking for his own computer and a few years later he had his own TS 1000 computer. The computer had 3K of memory; a tape recorder was used as the storage device and the TV was used as a monitor. In 1985 he became acquainted with the Apple II and learned BASIC, and was soon able to write his own graphic programs (his very first such program was called BOO; it was a skeleton that blinked its eyes and made faces).

Soon Michael Hauben was using the computer as a communication device and participated in BBSs, being one of the youngest and active participants in the BBS communities of the Detroit area. He then found out about an online time sharing system set up near the University of Michigan, called MNet and became an active member of that community also, even though the other members were college students or much older.

At this point, Michael Hauben's notions of netizens can be said to have germinated. His father was opposed him being involved in a group where more mature discussions raged, such as how to pick up women and things like that. In response to this opposition, he wrote an essay about censorship in Nazi Germany that convinced his father that censoring him was wrong. His argument was if the Nazis had not been censored by the previous government, Hitler could not have come to power. The German people would have been inoculated against Nazism by the debate that would have occurred in the earlier days.

Ironically, it was another point in German history which further contributed to Michael Hauben's notion of netizens and his enthusiasm about the Internet: the fall of the Berlin Wall. In much the same way that its demise had given Germans a renewed sense of hope, the rise of the Internet held promise of a fuller more interesting life for everyone who could get connected.

In the late 1980s, Michael Hauben heard about Usenet from MNet. In many ways, he was unaware that he had been using the Internet until he became more acquainted with the structure of the network while at Columbia University in 1991. He graduated from Columbia University with a BA degree in Computer Science and a Masters' Degree from Teachers College. He wanted to continue in the world of academia but was unable to get into a PhD program.

After this he went to work doing computer support. He also became involved with mailing lists of young people trying to create a cooperative culture via music events. "He loved to help people use computers and the Internet," recollected Ronda Hauben at the funeral service.

Unfortunately, like so many a story, the life of Michael Hauben was not one full of spotlights and applause. In many ways, it was one filled with tragedy. Like so many of us, contrary to the pay-per-view televised reality being forced upon us, numerous burdens hindered his path which couldn't be simply zapped away through the click of a button. "I don't know why we lost Michael," lamented Ronda Hauben. "I do know that someone who had contributed so much and had such potential for continuing contributions needed a way of finding help with these burdens."

Not long before his death, Michael Hauben was hit by a taxi cab and had difficulty getting adequate medical attention because of weaknesses in the "no fault insurance" laws in the US. Subsequently, he lost a job that he loved and was having a frustrating time trying to utilise a grievance procedure that seemed broken. He also had a large credit card debt, but only got a little money from unemployment. Even this bit of money was soon to run out.

To make matters worse, he was about to lose his apartment. Meanwhile, job recruiters had told him that despite his knowledge and expertise, the economic conditions were such that they weren't sending out resumes of people with gaps due to unemployment. "Such problems would have made a strong person cringe," noted Ronda Hauben. "Michael was a sensitive and courageous person, but he felt he had been weakened by the recent events he had suffered through."

After Michael died the Haubens found a notebook he had written some notes in. Among the notes he wrote: "Someone/thing is trying to help but it is not enough."

Although Michael Hauben is gone, his legacy remains. With a world becoming increasingly preoccupied with moving images based on ether, one can view the death of the original netizen as a sobering wake-up call. That is, there is more to life than to just click and surf. There are responsibilities and burdens, and that our on-line experiences should take into account and reflect the circumstances of our off-line existence. Perhaps this is the real meaning of the term netizen.

Michael Hauben's original website can still be found on the Columbia University website.

The memorial web site set up by Michael Hauben's music friends. (John Horvath)