The worlds first Internet bench.

The worlds first Internet bench.

– In August 2001, the press descended on the town of Bury St Edmunds in south-east England. The mayor was going to unveil the world’s first Internet Bench here in the Abbey Gardens. Anyway, “internet bench” sounds ridiculous, but you have to remember in2001, there were no smartphones. Wifi did technically exist,but it wasn’t widespread. And mobile internet was limited to a few specially coded, tiny black and white sites, which could be accessed slowly and expensively on just a few models of phone.

If you wanted an internet connection in 2001, your computer had tobe plugged in somehow, you couldn’t just expect to check your email in a park, and thus: the Internet Bench. A bench with sockets you could plug your computer’s modem into, and dial up to the internet over a phone line. Which is weird, right? ‘Cause surely the sensible thing to do, even back then, would’ve been to have one internet connection, maybe an ADSL line, and then share it like a regular corporate network, just plug in an ethernet cable and you’d have a connection. But no, you had to use a phone cable,and your laptop would have to dial a regular landline phone number to connect to… well. Who?

Launch day photos make it very clear who you were supposed to connect to, or at least it would,if the mayor had realised which way up stickers need to be on a laptop. This was all a publicity stunt for MSN,the Microsoft Network. And there are some very nice quotes from MSN staff in the BBC article about it, which were probably pasted straight from the press release. In truth, this wasn’t really an internet bench, it was a bench with a couple of phone extensions run to it, and that was it. For a three-month trial period, you could dial up to your own internet account from here, and it didn’t take long before some local tech-savvy teenagers worked out there wasn’t any block on the numbers you could call from here.

The bench just had a few phone sockets wired into the exchange at Microsoft’s expense. So, of course, they made a couple of international calls for free and tried to get through to Bill Gates. They didn’t manage it, but they did get a nice write-up in the local paper. And one of the most wonderfully-2000s posed photos I have ever seen. From a technical standpoint,this bench was a disaster, but MSN were probably happy with it. They’d have been happy with the teenage hackers, as well. It got their company name in the paper again. They’re probably still happy with this video, even as I tell you it was a terrible half-assed idea. Because what it did, and what it’s still doing, was get their name and login front of an audience. They just want to be noticed. That’s one of the dirty secrets of public relations.

If you want to get the attention of the press, if you want your brand in front of the world, you don’t have to actually make something good, or useful, or sensible, or that even work like you said it would. The truth is malleable. You just have to tell a story that resonates, get the press in to take some pictures, and figure they don’t know enough about the subject to ask technical questions. And then after you’ve got those column inches, or these days, the retweets and clicks, you can basically abandon the whole project.

The public are fine with it.It’s a silly story that doesn’t matter. The press are fine with it. They’ve got content and sold the adverts around it, and it doesn’t matter if it gets ripped apart later, as long as it doesn’t kill or maim anyone,then you got your free advertising. And we’ve seen this time after time after time. Heck, I’ve done this occasionally in the past. That’s not even the same bench, actually. It’s the right location, but it’s been swapped out for a different one with a couple of plaques on it and no phone sockets. But then, the bench working was never the point.

This wasn’t about connecting the town of Bury St Edmunds or blazing a trail into the future, it was about getting cheap advertising. And here I am, 20 years later,still giving them that, because World’s First Internet Bench still gets attention. Oh, someone sat in it.

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