The web in 1996 wasn’t as bad as Slate makes out

February 26, 2009 — 12 Comments

Farhad Manjoo at Slate has a rather weird post up on the Internet circa 1996. I say weird because he makes conclusions about the internet at that time based on what we expect from the web today, with the following conclusions:

I started thinking about the Web of yesteryear after I got an e-mail from an idly curious Slate colleague: What did people do online back when Slate launched, he wondered? After plunging into the Internet Archive and talking to several people who were watching the Web closely back then, I’ve got an answer: not very much.

and more

We all know that the Internet has changed radically since the ’90s, but there’s something dizzying about going back to look at how people spent their time 13 years ago. Sifting through old Web pages today is a bit like playing video games from the 1970s; the fun is in considering how awesome people thought they were, despite all that was missing.

Notably he also links to archived pages at The Internet Archive, despite the fact modern browsers don’t render them correctly (Yahoo didn’t look like this in Mosaic or Netscape 1), but I digress.

People still refer to the new medium by its full name?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe World Wide Web?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand although you sometimes find interesting stuff here, you’re constantly struck by how little there is to do. You rarely linger on the Web; your computer takes about 30 seconds to load each page, and, hey, you’re paying for the Internet by the hour. Plus, you’re tying up the phone line. Ten minutes after you log in, you shut down your modem. You’ve got other things to do?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùafter all, a new episode of Seinfeld is on.

Now my memory of the time may be dulled by age, but it wasn’t quite like this.

Sure, you paid by the hour, and it was as expensive as hell. I think at first I was paying something like $50/ mth for 6-8 hours,then $5 an hour over that, and I use to get these horrible excess use bills. Yes, it was slow on my 14.4k modem I paid $500 for at Grace Bros (now Myer) in 96. I went back to Uni briefly in 96 as well, so I had free access on campus as well, which helped.

But to suggest that there was nothing to do on the web in 96 is disingenuous.

In fact, with maybe the exception of Wikipedia today, I actually read more widely in 96 than I do today, despite hundreds of millions of extra sites to pick from.

There wasn’t as much, but compared to before it was more than enough.

The marvel of reading a foreign newspaper online like the NY Times might be taken for granted today, but in 96 it was a miracle of the digital age.

The front page of Yahoo acted as a portal to information that went beyond the local library into areas you simply would never have known about or had access to.

Discovery of interesting content was half the fun, even if perhaps it didn’t share the purpose driven goals of today.

Sure, what video there was usually appeared in a very small portion of the screen and took a decent time to play, but there was multimedia.

Mark Cuban’s Broadcast.com was founded in 1995. I remember vividly listening in (I believe on broadcast.com, but I could be wrong) to New York Police Scanners and Air traffic control in Houston, Texas. Would that enthrall people today? Probably not, but in 96 this idea you could listen to police attending callouts on the other side of the planet in real time was radical, and simply amazing.

There was plenty of other things to do as well. Manjoo points out that during this time Geocities started to become popular. I don’t recall when I set up my Geocities account, might have been 97, but I set up my first site in 96 on my ISP account, the first branch of a political party in Australia online I might add. In 96 I taught myself the basics of html, used hotdog along the way, and actually created something that others outside my own small world could see.

The Internet at this stage started to change the world as we knew it. It wasn’t boring in any shape or form given the standards of the time. If we were to time travel back: yes, the web may have been boring by todays standards, but students of history know better than to judge history strictly by modern eyes.

12 responses to The web in 1996 wasn’t as bad as Slate makes out

  1. eBay was there too in 1996 (Pierre Omidyar started it in 1995). Sure, text-only, no item photos, very basic… yet I am surprised that Manjoo's article doesn't even mention it.

  2. I completely concur. The internet of 1996 was amazing. As you noted it is a fools errand to examine history in a comparative fashion. The Slate author was obviously having a slow day with a fast approaching headline.

    I'd challenge him to examine the pre-Internet BBS days and hopefully he would realize that the networked data has always been a fascinating arena.

  3. I'd stopped paying by the hour for my internet in 93. By 96 I'd been on permanent dialup for 2 years. /. began in 96 so there was plenty to do =) Also there was a stack of mu* (the Second Life's of their day) to while away the endless hours between shopping trips to Amazon. I stopped buying newspapers in 96 so the news coverage was pretty good. I remember scripting up pages to grab 'my news headlines' and comics and show them on my personal news page. This was before rss and it was a constant battle to keep ahead of the sites who were always changing the layout in order to defeat folks like me. Good times.

  4. 1996 was the year when every one thought that net is the ultimate advancement one could ever experience. With time net evolved and renewed its history. So, I guess net is always great and will remain the same but in any era, with every little improvement to can enhance its own charm.

  5. Singularly dumb, to rely on the Internet Archive and people who were “watching the Web closely back then”. “Watching”? Oh, like the people who “watch” social media now and declare it all meaningless?
    Your post prompted me to check back on a resource I put together in 1996 and posted. I wanted to be able to compare the arts policies of the parties in the Australian federal electoral sphere. I was amazed that from my home office in Sydney, at no cost other than the already paid connection cost, I was able to pull together a unique resource for anyone who wanted to compare the policies of the parties.
    The other bit the Slate writer doesn't get is the community aspect. Yes, on Compuserve we paid so much in Australia that we used special tools to download threads, reply/comment offline and then upload them in a batch. But we were part of global conversations that were simply not possible before for any but some very privileged people, or very savvy techies. And then travelling and meeting face to face people, you had become friends with virtually, was something so amazing that friends and family who stayed determinedly offline simply did not get.
    We did “not very much”? Little does your Slate person know.

  6. By the way, that resource I put together, the arts policies of the political parties? Gone, not archived. I used to be such a fan/advocate of the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine, but sadly it's a shadow of the original dream.

  7. Singularly dumb, to rely on the Internet Archive and people who were “watching the Web closely back then”. “Watching”? Oh, like the people who “watch” social media now and declare it all meaningless?
    Your post prompted me to check back on a resource I put together in 1996 and posted. I wanted to be able to compare the arts policies of the parties in the Australian federal electoral sphere. I was amazed that from my home office in Sydney, at no cost other than the already paid connection cost, I was able to pull together a unique resource for anyone who wanted to compare the policies of the parties.
    The other bit the Slate writer doesn't get is the community aspect. Yes, on Compuserve we paid so much in Australia that we used special tools to download threads, reply/comment offline and then upload them in a batch. But we were part of global conversations that were simply not possible before for any but some very privileged people, or very savvy techies. And then travelling and meeting face to face people, you had become friends with virtually, was something so amazing that friends and family who stayed determinedly offline simply did not get.
    We did “not very much”? Little does your Slate person know.

  8. By the way, that resource I put together, the arts policies of the political parties? Gone, not archived. I used to be such a fan/advocate of the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine, but sadly it's a shadow of the original dream.

  9. Singularly dumb, to rely on the Internet Archive and people who were “watching the Web closely back then”. “Watching”? Oh, like the people who “watch” social media now and declare it all meaningless?
    Your post prompted me to check back on a resource I put together in 1996 and posted. I wanted to be able to compare the arts policies of the parties in the Australian federal electoral sphere. I was amazed that from my home office in Sydney, at no cost other than the already paid connection cost, I was able to pull together a unique resource for anyone who wanted to compare the policies of the parties.
    The other bit the Slate writer doesn't get is the community aspect. Yes, on Compuserve we paid so much in Australia that we used special tools to download threads, reply/comment offline and then upload them in a batch. But we were part of global conversations that were simply not possible before for any but some very privileged people, or very savvy techies. And then travelling and meeting face to face people, you had become friends with virtually, was something so amazing that friends and family who stayed determinedly offline simply did not get.
    We did “not very much”? Little does your Slate person know.

  10. By the way, that resource I put together, the arts policies of the political parties? Gone, not archived. I used to be such a fan/advocate of the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine, but sadly it's a shadow of the original dream.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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