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 was founded in 1995. I remember vividly listening in (I believe on, 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.