The unrecognizable Internet of 1996.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 24 2009 5:33 PM

Jurassic Web

The Internet of 1996 is almost unrecognizable compared with what we have today.

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Yahoo, which Media Metrix ranked No. 4, just after Netscape, was one of the few sites in the Top 10 that wasn't affiliated with an ISP or a browser. Its main feature was its directory, a constantly updated listing of thousands of sites online. To produce the directory, Yahoo employees—actual human beings—reviewed new sites and cataloged them according to a strict hierarchical taxonomy. When you typed in what you were looking for—say, "new magazine," "sexy site," or "advice on taxes"—Yahoo would search its directory and return sites that it had already reviewed. This produced pretty good results—when you searched for "White House Web site," you could be sure you'd get to the right page because someone had actually looked up the official site. Obviously, though, such a model was unable to keep pace with the growth of the Web. In retrospect, it's telling that anyone in 1996 thought this was a sustainable way to catalog the Web. (In 2003, after acquiring the search companies Inktomi and Overture, Yahoo launched its own machine-produced search engine; now, the human-edited Yahoo Directory isn't even listed on the site's front page.)

Some of Yahoo's 1996-era front pages have been saved in the Internet Archive. What's interesting about them is what they lack. First, no e-mail: The first webmail site, Hotmail, launched in July of 1996. There was no instant-messaging software; the first big IM client, ICQ, hit the Web early in 1997. The MP3 file format was invented in the early 1990s, but very few people traded music in 1996—the files were too big to cram down modems, and Winamp, the first popular MP3 player app, was published in 1997. All these innovations hit the Web suddenly, defying prediction, and each completely altered how we'd spend our time online.

Still, some mid-'90s trends do prefigure our current Web obsessions. In Media Metrix's first listing, Geocities.com, a site that let you build your own home page, was the 16th most visited site. Over the next year, it grew significantly, Coffey says, eventually breaking the top 10. "And, of course, that was a precursor to blockbusters like MySpace and Facebook—it was the first we saw of user-generated content, which drives the Web today," Coffey says.

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There's a similar trend in blogging. The term wasn't coined until sometime in 1999, but several seminal blogs were already online by 1996, says Scott Rosenberg, one of the co-founders of Salon and the author of Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters, which will be published in July. Rosenberg points out that Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist credited with inventing the Web, and Marc Andreessen, the coder who founded Netscape, had both set up frequently updated, reverse-chronological Web pages by the mid-1990s. In 1994, a Swarthmore College student named Justin Hall began links.net, one of the very first personal Web sites. * Eventually, he decided that he should be writing much more frequently—what we'd call blogging today. "I think I'm gonna have a little somethin' new at the top of www.links.net every day," he wrote in his first daily post, dated Jan. 10, 1996. Hall's site—unlike so much else that was on the Web back then—lives on today.

If the Web was so completely different just a decade ago, what will become of it in the next decade? When we look back, will we laugh at how taken we were with YouTube—ooh, you can watch everyone's home movies!—and puzzle over how Google missed the rise of the Web-searching technology that suddenly sprang up to vanquish it? Maybe. On the other hand, some parts of the Web have become so deeply ingrained in the culture that it's hard to imagine any force killing them outright. In 2020, we'll get the Internet over electronic ink scrolls powered by algae or something—but we'll probably still be spending a lot of time reading Wikipedia.

Correction, Feb. 27, 2009: This piece originally implied that links.net began in 1996. It began in 1994, while daily updates began in 1996. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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