Perhaps you’ve encountered Internet Archive somewhere in your travels through the digital world – if you ever went looking for your old blog or Myspace page, you almost certainly used their Wayback Machine. For over 30 years founder Brewster Kahle and his wife Mary Kahle-Austin, the self-appointed archivists of the internet who share the mission of creating “universal access to all knowledge,” have been hosting weekly salons known only as Thursday Night Dinner. Quietly carrying out their mission in-person, analog-style, TND as it’s called by its community, took on a new and uniquely on-brand form in Covid. I was lucky enough to snag an invite from one of its legacy attendees, laughing as I signed into their Zoom for the first time at how meta it was to finally get invited to the Internet Archive’s legendary dinner party only after it moved online.
I’d heard about this iconic San Francisco salon community long before the pandemic, alleged to be a living archive in it’s own right attended by folks who created much of the technology so ubiquitous we’ve come to take for granted today. Usually Bay Area partygoers are muttering under their breath about an A-list co-founder being in the room, not the guy who invented the hyperlink or spacebar. Even though I’d heard stories, I still had no idea what to expect and nothing could have prepared me for my first TND, April Fool’s Edition. The format of the dinner was a roundtable prompt where everyone was asked to share a short story about a topic, in this case to talk about a prank we each participated in or had been perpetrated upon us.
The responses were so outstanding I understood the magic of TND right away – it eradicates the typically prescribed and constricting ways in which we’re programmed to get to know each other (yes, that was a 100% organic tech pun). Where are you from? What do you do? There was an instant-thrill to realizing I was practicing a new and infinitely more satisfying way of getting to know strangers. It was nothing short of magical to hear Internet Archive’s decentralization tech lead Mitra Ardron‘s prank story about he and his friends breaking into their college mentor’s office to hang absurd wallpaper, with photographic evidence. Sharing a laugh is one of the most potent, instantaneous connections you can make with other humans! In one TND I shared laughs with extraordinary people, some from across the world, like Mitra in Australia.
TND also serves as a forum to share the Internet Archive’s latest happenings, including their gag start-up for April Fool’s 2021 (a Trojan horse fundraiser for the Internet Archive) called isEven, which tells you instantly whether a number is odd or even. Both the concept and the website are just deadpan enough that I found myself having several “wait what?!” moments while browsing their features and pricing pages.
Since that first night I’ve gone back to TND several other Thursdays and heard everyone’s best roadtrip story, what vinyl records and magazines most influenced them and why, what they care about the most and how they’ve been through the past year’s separation from community. Brewster seems to constantly be generating must-Google factoids, and most TND-ers hastily search and report on topics of discussion, be it long lost media, memes, theories or destinations. After showing the group the below snake house in Mexico a friend of mine rented last year that I’ve been dying to go to, I’m now confident I’ve made some new friends who are down to take this internet dream IRL.
The conversations Mary and Brewster invite are fascinating, fervent yet relaxed, deep but accessible, often hilarious, but ALWAYS righteously enthusiastic. Besides being just a generally delightful discussion, TND is a platform for new connections to form. We asked the Internet Archive’s resident salonista Mary Kahle-Austin to tell us about its origins and reveal a few of her and Brewster’s tricks behind TND’s magic. We also must take a moment to shout out Mary’s legendary cooking and the unique menus she’s designed for each meal and archived for over 30 years!
TheSalonHost: How big is the rotating cast of TND regulars 30 years in?
MKA: It is a revolving group of maybe 300 people or so – and it is every expanding, so that keeps it fresh. Periodically we have themes which I can use as a hook to bring in guests, but the fact that there is a gathering every week means that you develop a real community… people know each other – and get to know each other.
TheSalonHost: What do you and your guests have in common?
MKA: There is a shared sense of community, but other than that it’s a pretty broad group. We encourage people to bring friends. or family – we sometimes have a table with 3 or 4 generations. The point is to be together, to cook together, to clean up together, to learn and to enjoy.
TheSalonHost: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to cultivate a community amongst their friends like TND but has no experience?
MKA: Just do it! It doesn’t have to be fancy – in fact you don’t even have to cook – you could have a revolving pizza party and just have the pizza flown in – although I do personally think that the cooking together is a wonderfully rich part of the evening.
TheSalonHost: What are some of the most impactful connections that have come out of your salons?
MKA: There are impactful connections all the time at TND – but, since I already know most of the folks attending, I think the the most impactful connections happen between guests. We have had a few relationships that have started at TND, And a few surprise connection (oh – I think I dated you in high school – sort of thing) And there are certainly guests who people would “know” every once in a while…
And there are some nights that are just magic… people are still talking about the gold rush dinner, or the night Larry Lessig came and in his “answer” to Brewster’s question, addressed every other response in his response – amazing! If I could find the exact formula for that – I would bottle it – but it just happens organically, which is also fun. After more than a year online we’re excited to report that TND has returned in person (with a Zoom set-up in the corner so friends from around the world).
TND reflects Brewster‘s firmly held belief that, “Stories happen to people who tell stories.” The TND crowd could not be a greater living example of this ethos, and one of my favorite thing about them is they love to tell stories about the people who inspired them to think and live so boldly. The best Google rabbit hole Brewster has inadvertently sent me down yet is about one of his personal heroes, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist named Dr. Richard Feynmann, author of the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynmann. Quite a few members of the TND community come off as diehard physics and natural science fans, perhaps even moreso than they are computer science geeks.
But no one has revealed themselves to be more of a fanboy than Brewster is about Dr. Feynmann, who he got to work with over two summers when he was young. Of the half a dozen times or so I’ve attended, I’ve heard him tell it at least twice – it’s his Shania Twain mayo story (if you’ve never seen I Heart Huckabees we included the clip below so you can be in on this joke). And here’s Brewster telling the story again at the last IRL Thursday Night Dinner of 2020 where he explained, “Richard Feynmann was a really great physicist, but I’m convinced he’s so famous because he’s a really great storyteller… If you tell stories, you’re always looking for more stories to tell, whether they’re about other people or better yet, about things that happen to you.” As Susan believes, if you want to lead a fascinating life, be a fascinating person!
Now that I stop to think about it, how meta and on-brand for Internet Archive is it that the keepers of all the knowledge known to mankind, are also the keepers of the stories of some of history’s greatest storytellers?! It all feels so cosmically correct. And here I am becoming the teller of TND’s story, playing my part in the complex social ecosystem a great story always makes its way through. And it’s not just great stories making their way around, it’s paradigm-shifting ideas the world needs. Brewster’s put a ton of thought into on how to decentralize ride-share apps to make drivers more money, or how to optimize he and Mary’s aptly titled Open Source Housing Project program, an exploratory and largely successful effort to provide affordable local housing for the Internet Archive’s San Francisco employees. These are better ideas than we hear from most politicians!
While salons seem to cycle in and out of fashion, Thursday Night Dinner is evidence that they really never fully die out, but rather take on new permutations amongst the most curious, intellectual and usually privileged communities. Here’s to using that forum, privilege and neural network of human beings to find ways to alleviate suffering in the world. Support universal access to all knowledge by donating to the Internet Archive, which turns 25 this year, and support access to affordable housing for Bay Area residents by donating to the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California. And, if you’re so curious, you can cruise the TND photo gallery and see Polaroids dating all the way back to the early ’90s!