Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now. That’s me, sitting down in the suit — clean-cut, respectable and still the right side of thirty — on 30 June 01995. Standing behind me are (from left) Ian Gow, Pro-vice Chancellor at University of Sheffield, Mike Bower, then leader of Sheffield City Council, and Richard Caborn MP. We were photographed at the launch of the Sheffield Network Users’ Forum, attended by 150-200 people at St George’s Lecture Theatre, a converted church owned by the University.
At the time, this was the largest public meeting at which people from communities, business and education came together in Sheffield to share ideas and experiences of applying the Internet to their lives. The Sheffield Network Users’ Forum — quickly re-branded as just the Network Users’ Forum (NUF) in a vain attempt to avoid South Yorkshire identity politics — was an idea I seeded and grew through the Information Communications Technology group of the City Liaison Group (now Sheffield First).
All this was done without any formal budget. After the launch we raised perhaps two or three thousand pounds in subscription payments, but probably not enough to pay for the buffet lunch and the design and printing costs of the leaflet (here’s a PDF of the leaflet before it went to the designers). NUF didn’t have any money until 01997, when we got a grant from the European Regional Development Fund. My time, from mid-’94 to end-’96 was unpaid, and University of Sheffield met the costs that exceeded the subscription revenue from its own funds. Possibly this was evidence of the University’s commitment to supporting the city, or could it have even been confidence in my vision and leadership as director of NUF? At the same time, Sheffield Hallam University was preparing a £15 million project called SYCLOPS (South Yorkshire Collaboration Project for Superhighway) and I suspect a degree of rivalry may have played a bigger role in convincing the ‘old’ University to invest in raising its profile in this area. (The SYCLOPS bid for a European grant was later rejected.)
We were still using the Clinton/Gore terminology of superhighways ten years ago. I remember an engineer from Yorkshire Cable (now part of Telewest) telling me how the Internet was an unruly mess, and the quicker we superseded it with a proper, more regulated ‘superhighway’ information architecture the better. Ten years ago we were in the middle of a heatwave, though it remained pleasantly cool in the church. Paul Griffiths (a.k.a. Griff, then of Fretwell-Downing Data Systems, now a director at Dialogue Communications) and I spent a day and a half setting up and testing the technical configuration for the live online demonstrations we had planned. At one point Griff made the rash decision to see if things would work better if he installed a beta of this unreleased software called Windows 95. We lost all the audio for an hour or two, and I nearly had kittens.
The reason we needed audio was that, as well as launching the Sheffield Network Users’ Forum, we also launched the first web site of the National Centre for Popular Music on 30 June 01995. That was another unpaid labour of love, led technically by Griff at Fretwell-Downing Data Systems, with graphics by Dom Raban at Eg.G (I think his first attempt at web graphics), copy text by Tim Strickland and Mike Jones, and some of my first HTML coding, learnt sitting-by-nellie style from Griff. The Internet Archive doesn’t seem to have a version of the site from launch date, but here is the home page in 01996. Tim presented the site at the launch and downloaded and played a clip of the Longpigs first single, before it was released (see the Longpigs page on the site). This was even before the MP3 format came into wide usage — Tim had many contacts in the Sheffield music industry, and had permission from the bands to use these files on the site.
Looking back at the programme for the afternoon (PDF of annotated version), I think we got a really good balance and perspective from unusual applications like the NCPM to small business networking, further education learning, libraries and community participation online, a view of networking in another city (Manchester), and a demonstration of a kids’ online games and bulletin board system that ran over a low-speed modem.
One of the things I did at the launch was ask for a show of hands from all those present who had access to the Internet. Even among this audience who were presumably interested in online developments, the proportion was well under half. So the Network Users’ Forum could not rely on online communications in its early years. We started out with a simple two-sided newsletter that was posted out and left in the cybercafés that started to appear later in the year in Sheffield — here’s a PDF of Issue 1 — and gradually this grew to four pages, and, when we had a budget in ’97, went glossy with a little bit of colour.
By 01997, when we got our grant, there were starting to be enough people online to make it viable to set up more online forums. We must have started about twenty such forums, using email lists and web conferencing, and working with groups like the Sheffield Small Business Club (now Sheffield Business Club) and Medilink, as well as attempting to help Sheffield First carry out part of their consultation on regeneration strategy through a web bulletin board. The majority of these forums flowered briefly, if at all, and then either withered away or were transformed by their organisational ‘sponsors’ from two-way discussions to one-way marketing and announcement channels.
The exception to this was an email list called snuf-l (the -l being a vestige of the old listserver software on which it ran when first created). In 01995 this list had about 30 members, who exchanged only 5 or 10 messages a month. But we stuck with it, and after two or three years, membership had risen to 130-150, and traffic was regularly 150-200 messages a month. We traded news of new online services, troubleshooting tips, and made sarcy comments about the inept web escapades of the Training and Enterprise Council and the regional development agency.
The grant money ran out in 01998 and we had a number of extended conversations about the potential for turning NUF into an ‘e-mutual’ or a company limited guarantee. But by that time the Internet-support field was fairly crowded, both with very well-endowed grant-funded initiatives and with private networking agencies like First Tuesday. So instead we cut NUF’s overheads back down to near zero and turned it into an unincorporated membership association, run by and for its members. I stayed on the steering committee until 02001, and I confess I unsubscribed from the snuf-l list later that year when I went on a long holiday, and never re-subscribed (I was planning to leave Sheffield by then, and mentally had already packed by bags). Since then I think even the overhead of the steering committee came to be seen as too much, and activity has scaled back from the heights of the late ’90s. You can read more about the history of NUF on the ‘About the forum‘ page of the mothballed web site.
Next to craigslist, which started around the same time, the Network Users’ Forum was never a big success. There are very many factors that contributed to that. Under my stairs I’ve got a box of cassettes with my audio diaries from 01995 that might help unpick some of them — though were I ever to dig them out, I fear they might be unplayable.