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.