It's 1996, and you're bored. What do you do? If you're one of the lucky people with an AOL account, you probably do the same thing you'd do in 2009: Go online. Crank up your modem, wait 20 seconds as you log in, and there you are—"Welcome." You check your mail, then spend a few minutes chatting with your AOL buddies about which of you has the funniest screen name (you win, pimpodayear94).
Then you load up Internet Explorer, AOL's default Web browser. Now what? There's no YouTube, Digg, Huffington Post, or Gawker. There's no Google, Twitter, Facebook, or Wikipedia. A few newspapers and magazines have begun to put their articles online—you can visit the New York Times or Time—and there are a handful of new Web-only publications, including Feed, HotWired, Salon, Suck, Urban Desires, Word, and, launched in June, Slate. But these sites aren't very big, and they don't hold your interest for long. People still refer to the new medium by its full name—the World Wide Web—and 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—after all, a new episode of Seinfeld is on.
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.
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. In 1996, just 20 million American adults had access to the Internet, about as many as subscribe to satellite radio today. The dot-com boom had already begun on Wall Street—Netscape went public in 1995—but what's striking about the old Web is how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for. Small innovations drove us wild: Look at those animated dancing cats! Hey, you can get the weather right from your computer! In an article ranking the best sites of '96, Time gushed that Amazon.com let you search for books "by author, subject or title" and "read reviews written by other Amazon readers and even write your own." Whoopee. The very fact that Time had to publish a list of top sites suggests lots of people were mystified by the Web. What was this place? What should you do here? Time recommended that in addition to buying books from Amazon, "cybernauts" should read Salon, search for recipes on Epicurious, visit the Library of Congress, and play the Kevin Bacon game.
In 1996, Americans with Internet access spent fewer than 30 minutes a month surfing the Web, according to Steve Coffey, who's now the chief research officer of the market research firm the NPD Group. (Today, we spend about 27 hours a month online, according to Nielsen.) In the mid-'90s, Coffey was working in the R&D department at NPD. He and his colleagues had long ago perfected ways to estimate audience sizes on TV and in print, and they wondered if they could port their ideas to the Web. They came up with something called PC Meter: A focus group of a few thousand people installed an application that would silently track everything they did online, and then Coffey and his colleagues would analyze the data. (Traffic ranking firms still use essentially the same methodology.) The NPD Group spun off Coffey's work into a new company called Media Metrix. In January 1996, the firm published what seems to be the first independent ranking of the top sites online.
The biggest site, by far, was AOL.com; 41 percent of people online checked it regularly. Many didn't do so on purpose: With 5 million subscribers, AOL was the world's largest ISP, and when members loaded up the Web, they went to the company's site by default. For similar reasons, AOL's search engine, WebCrawler.com, was the second most popular page. Netscape, the Web's most popular browser, and Compuserve and Prodigy, the nation's other big ISPs, also had top pages.