Blogging since 1998. By David Wertheimer

The Internet you didn’t know

Jurassic Web in Slate, subtitle: “The Internet of 1996 is almost unrecognizable compared with what we have today.”

What did people do online back when Slate launched? 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.

To which I say: bullshit.

The World Wide Web was an invigorating, compelling and, frankly, amazing place in 1996. Innovations were fast, furious and quickly adopted. Clever people did clever things and pretty much everyone noticed, because “everyone” was a rather small and curious community.

I know. I was there. Not “watching,” like the folks Slate’s reporter Farhad Manjoo spoke to, but creating. Designing. Exploring. Sharing. And, pretty much daily, blown away.

The Internet of 1996 was certainly nothing like today’s experience. But to suggest there wasn’t much to do is to ignore everything that was being done.

There was no iTunes; but there were MP3s, and .wav files, and sharing was just as exciting (and covert). There was no glut of information, not yet; but there were unbelievably good reads and finds, large and small, like Suck and HotWired and 0sil8. Tools for online creation were primitive, but that didn’t stop people like me from hand-coding HTML and slicing together animated GIFs frame by frame and putting amazing works online.

No Yahoo Mail? So what? I was sending email with Eudora over high-speed connections back in 1991. And I first used instant messaging in 1992, on an old Mac running OS 7, when young Farhad was still in middle school. Which is not to be a grumpy old man, but to make the point he misses: the Internet wasn’t hamstrung back then. It was just different.

I dare say 1996 was, in certain ways, more interesting online than 2009. The Web was still the great unknown. People didn’t know what to make of it, but they knew it was radical and fascinating. It was the future, happening in real time.

Today the Internet is a mature medium that has become more sophisticated almost non-stop since the early days of its commercialization. But to call its initial era boring is to miss the real story. The Internet has never been boring. Those of us who were there in 1996, shaping what so many people now consider normal, know the truth.


  1. His article clearly comes from the standpoint of someone who wasn’t there.
    As a youth who spent hours upon hours a day online in 1996 (at the mere age of 13) I can definitely say that the internet wasn’t boring. You just had to know where to look.

  2. I second all that. In 1996 it was amazing participating int he leaps and bounds being made, and the daily discovery of the web by so many “normal people”. Another huge social network for those online then was USENET. I’m amazed Manjoo called out AOL as the main destination when even back then it was a joke for those who had been online for some time.

  3. From my perspective, the Internet of 1996 was in almost all ways more interesting than the Internet in 2009. For example, Usenet was pretty vibrant at that point, and I don’t think web message boards have come close to matching it in entertainment and educational value (though they’ve vastly eclipsed it in volume). By most measures, today’s websites are “better” than the ones we had in 1996, but they don’t feel as exciting or innovative.
    In a way 1996’s Internet was much more innocent, and because of that it couldn’t last forever. There was much less of a profit motive behind most services. Ads were few and far between. E-commerce was still pretty new. As the Internet grew, and more people and companies came to use it, business models had to follow. But they also make the whole thing a lot less interesting to me…

  4. Shall I get off your lawn before you shake your walking stick at me, gramps? Of course those technologies existed since god knows when, the point is that real people never used them! Saying that the internet was more interesting back then is just the nostalgia talking. There’s much more going on now, I assure you. Just take a look around!

  5. Jay: intrigue is not eliminated for lack of scale.

  6. Manjoo is a pretty mediocre journalist, but at least he is consistent: consistently wrong. He fits in quite well at Slate.

  7. Indeed! The most interesting thing I did on the Web in 1996 was a web site called Dorm-on-Wheels, where a buddy of mine and his friend decided to try and live for an entire college semester in a Winnebago. There was even a blog-like reverse-chronological listing of updates from them.
    You must remember that this was in the era of HotWired and The Spot (which predated reality TV by a few years).
    I also remember downloading audio files of popular music from gopher servers as early as 1993.
    How can you forget David Siegel’s High Five site, Cool Site of the Day, and The Scout. In many ways, these early pioneering sites set the stage for the popular social media tools of today: Digg, Reddit, Stumbleupon, etc.

  8. Well, but I think you’re misreading what I wrote. I didn’t say there wasn’t much to to do on the Internet or that it wasn’t an invigorating place. I wasn’t looking at what was on the Web — I was looking at what people did on the Internet. (See the bit you excerpted: “*What did people do* online back when Slate launched?”)
    I was after typicality, not universality. And if people were on the Web for 30 minutes a month, on average, they weren’t doing that much.

  9. Farhad–what does that statistic reflect, really? A lack of long-term immersion created by video downloads and widespread community sites, I suppose. But the lack of Mob Wars’ existence on Facebook doesn’t mean there was “not much” to do. Plenty of people, including me, were online for eight or more hours a day, doing all sorts of things that in their era were incredible experiences.
    I’ll repeat myself here for emphasis: intrigue is not eliminated for lack of scale.

  10. Farhad: due respect, but you’re talking past David, and David’s talking past you. There weren’t that many people on the ‘Net, but those that were there, were there in a heavy way. I was in high school & college during the ’90s, when all this stuff was getting started, and I remember those days as being full of wonder & excitement.
    I was more excited about surfing the Internet in the ’90s than I am today, even though I’m creating more content now that I was back then.
    Because everything was shiny & new. You could easily get lost in USENET, or checking out new web sites, or meeting new people (I met my first serious girlfriend that way, through PINE chat, of all things).
    Farhad: you can’t summarize what life online was like based on what Mom & Dad were doing in 1996. Assuming they were online at all (and that’s a big if), they were hanging out on AOL/Compuserve/Prodigy/Delphi, all of which were utterly different from being on the Internet itself. You’re talking about comparing walled gardens to open prairies — not the same thing at all.

  11. I got my first crappy AOL connection in 1993 when I was 14 years old, so three years before the time Manjoo discusses, and even then, the Internet was fascinating, particularly as I was gay and living in a small town in New Mexico. After a couple years on AOL, I was on a local ISP reading everything I could on the web, chatting with queers thousands of miles away, and frankly, downloading an awful lot of porn from newsgroups.
    I suppose 30 minutes a month might make sense if you don’t do any sort of age breakdown. In 1996, when I started college, every one of my classmates was spending a minimum of 30 minutes a day on e-mail alone, using either Eudora or PINE. By that time, I was still spending hours a day, only the online interaction led to a lot of real life interaction (ah, college. Good times, good times, especially when you’re young and cute), and I was reading more and more as more content came online.
    I didn’t know anyone under 30 who wasn’t constantly on the web. Give me some cross tabs on age and geography before imparting significance to that stat.

  12. Farhad – you’re making a rookie mistake with that average; without a variance figure, it’s meaningless.
    Deep and narrow immersion has a radically different substance to broad and shallow, even though they may give the same average. And I can guarantee you, from personal experience, the web of that time was indeed absorbing and addictive.
    In the same way that the past always looks less comfortable to those living in the present, trying to judge the subjective experience of the web of the time by examining archives is missing the point of almost all history.

  13. Well, in 1997, I unknowingly introduced the Executive Officers of my company to the wonderful world of online porn.. I’m a woman… I thought I was being educational – in a way, I was… PORN was big, so was BUNDYLAND (from Married with Children) so was every University putting as much as possible online ALL AT ONCE! There were actually purple books and yellow books who attempted to inform. Unfortunately, there was no Google, etc. We were all addicted. Everyone had a site.

  14. The unrecognizable Internet of 1996?

    In The unrecognizable Internet of 1996, Farhad Manjoo of Slate Magazine gives his impressions of the Web of 1996, although he admittedly wasn’t there. This is amusing in the same way as hearing a modern high-school student talk about the music an…

  15. I was there and I thought it was boring. I know it’s nice to think it wasn’t. “Look at us old timers. We were there then it started and it was awesome.” But it wasn’t. It dead friggin dull and dead friggin slow. Someone would notice that Coca Cola had finally put up a ridiculously terrible site and it was news back then. NASA weather images would take a whole minute to load. It was god awful and I’m glad we don’t have to deal with anymore.
    Exciting potential? Yes. Most of us saw that. But it sucked.

  16. Old Time must’ve been looking forward to the current internet-as-nothing-more-than-a-fancy-tv bullshit that permeates the web these days.
    The mid-90s were unquestionably the golden age of the web for finding interesting, offbeat, weird, unique WRITING and opinion and ideas on anything under the sun. Was there Google Books? No, but there was the library so bfd. What there *was*, was a whole lot of people sounding off in a way that was free-form and non-commercial.
    As opposed to now, when everything has been sliced and diced into web forums populated only by people who have a common interest and all take one of two predictable views on every issue, and argue it interminably.
    To think things are better now is to wear some corporate rose-colored glasses.

  17. right on

  18. I was 10 in 1996, and we had a 14.4k modem and used the hell out of it. I remember how vast and democratic the internet seemed, and, more importantly, how small the bridge was between content reader and content creator.
    Back then, kids were teaching themselves HTML and making whole websites at a time. Now, what do they do? Fill out forms to have a profile on some corporation’s social network? Give me 1996 back, please. Even GeoCities was better than this.

  19. If anything, this is a testament to how the mid-90s web is preserved for the most in people’s memories of using it. (Or, in my case, in old bookmarks files.)
    As memories blur and fade, that social history is disappearing fast, and it’s painful to think that people in a decade’s time are going to look blindly at the Internet Archive, draw false conclusions on the early web, and call it archaeology.
    Suck and Stim and Urban Desires and Word and Maxi, and Fray combining design innovation with personal storytelling. Philip Greenspun’s Travels with Samantha. And Justin frigging Hall doing his thing.
    I remember when Slate launched. I remember the weird attempt to replicate print in its “page” format. I remember its dumb attempt to charge people. I remember it being a pale imitation of the webzines that existed at the time.
    Manjoo is an ass. He might as well argue that the number of extant early printed books means that the small group of people who could read weren’t reading much of interest.

  20. the net back in those days can be compared to the feeling one gets when dating a new person and getting to explore all their idiosyncrasies. The internet today is like the girl you’ve been dating for 3 years. All the things you used to think were cute now drive you absolutely insane and you can’t figure out why the hell you are with her, but you knocked her up so you’re in it for the long haul.

  21. I got online in in 1995. sites we’re much more unique back then. there was lot of ugly pages, but the content was fascinating. lots of experimentation. people write without fear, people tried out all sorts of crazy ideas to make money (or lose it), but the greatest thing was how connected it made you feel. email and usenet we’re probably used 2 very big and slightly devalued technologies these days that were huge back then.
    I loved it, there was a reason people stayed up all night online, it was fascinating.
    the sharing of music and band websites was for me a very cool thing – especially when band members started posting tour diaries or studio updates.

  22. I was also there, and I agree the web in ’96 was boring. Much like Twitter today, I don’t think most people knew what it was for, so there was lots of random, stupid stuff, and early, terribly-done commercial exploitation. I had a website in 1995, and even trying my damnedest (as a graphic artist) to make it not ugly and stupid, it was boring (and semi-pointless) also.
    Key factor: Much of Farhad’s article is on the web. As pointed out by all complainers, the /internet/ as a whole had other stuff and of course had been around for a while that was interesting, sure. But it was (is) mostly scary to everyday folks, so hardly anyone used it.
    I, for one, spent a lot of time online searching for books (and the few all-online research assets) and doing similar work that had effects on my life in the real world. It was okay that it was boring, because it was just another tool; even now I am not sure why I have to be excited about the media or technology, as long as I get my key tasks accomplished.

  23. And none of you mugs even mention the BBS explosion, which supported communities who gave each other tips on what was good on the ‘net.
    For shame.

  24. One amazing thing from 1996 was that people were finding others with obscure common interests for the first time, perhaps, in their young adult lives. I started a Rolling Stones mailing list and for people who were “fans” and I don’t mean “liked their music” it was an awesome experience to find someone else who truly got that in the same way you did. We saw people find each other for the first time and just absolutely geek out together and reflect on the novelty and joy in that experience. I think the emergence of online fandom was one of the most incredible things that 1996-era Internet brought.

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