Home Internet The Internet Was Better When It Was Terrible

The Internet Was Better When It Was Terrible

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“Was the internet really this bad?” I wondered to myself as I read the September 1995 issue of The Atlantic. I was reading the issue in digital form, displayed on Netscape Navigator 3 on a mid-’90s Macintosh. Or, at least, on a software version of the browser and Mac provided on the website OldWeb.Today. The site houses an emulator that connects to the Internet Archive’s record of websites, providing a full computing experience of the World Wide Web of three decades ago.

That experience was the badness I was pondering. Not the magazine itself—which began publishing online with this issue, whose cover story asked “How Lincoln Might Have Dealt With Abortion”—but the way I was reading it. The article page looked awful: The nameplate was strangely positioned, and the text was hard to read. Resizing the browser window fixed the layout, but my eyes and brain still struggled to process the words. I was alive and online that fall 29 years ago, but in my memory the web was magical, like a portal into a new way of life—not a clunky mess like this. Now, having had the chance to travel back in time, I wonder if the clunkiness wasn’t in its way a midwife to that wonder.

Sometime in late 1994, a friend of mine opened a program called Mosaic in the basement computer lab at the university library. “You’ve got to see this,” he said as he started typing in akebono.stanford.edu. A gray page loaded with “Yahoo” printed at the top of a bullet list of blue links. Nothing special, but I was impressed: The World Wide Web was still new, and finding anything of use was difficult. This new, playfully named website offered a directory of sites by category—computers, politics, entertainment, and so forth.

Now, using the OldWeb emulator, I’d been transported back into this era: 1995 to 1996. I didn’t know where to go on the web back then—Google wouldn’t arrive for another few years—so I returned to primeval Yahoo for help. Poking through this directory anew, I visited a website on film and television careers, where I took in an interview with the prop master David Touster (the most exciting part of his job: “the pleasure of creating a vision with creative people”). I visited a webzine about gender equality, illustrated with loosely rendered, line-drawing figures that, I recalled, were a bit of an aesthetic at the time. I visited a site called WebEthics.com to see how the early internet thought about online dangers. The biggest one turned out to be money. Commercial websites should disclose their purpose, Web Ethics said. There was a list of websites that failed to do this, called the Dirty Dozen. The top entry, a site called All Business Network, was accused of being a stealth infomercial. No. 2 read “Coming soon,” and the other 10 slots were blank.

This is how the internet felt back then: promising but empty. Nobody says surfing the web anymore, but at the time the phrase made sense as a description of the lugubrious, often frustrating task of finding entertainment. A visitor online felt like a beach bum waiting to catch a wave. (Channel surfing described a similar vibe one got from watching television.) A lot would change in the years that followed. For one thing, much to the chagrin of the operators of WebEthics.com, the internet quickly commercialized. But even then, “content,” as we call it today, was rare. You might read an article or visit a brochure-ware website for a car or a vacuum, or even purchase a book at Amazon. What you wouldn’t do was spend your whole day online.

Connectivity was one reason. The library computer lab was connected via high-speed ethernet, but home use still monopolized the phone line as bits were eked out slowly from a modem. Wi-Fi wasn’t yet widely available, and a computer was a place you had to go in the house. Using the OldWeb emulator on my laptop, I recalled how much we used to rely on the status bar at the bottom of the window (now mostly retired) for updates on the process of loading a webpage, and on the little browsing animation—Netscape’s was a view of shooting stars—for distraction while we waited. Online life was mostly waiting.

Because every click brought more delay, one clicked more deliberately. Browsers displayed visited links in a different color (purple by default, instead of blue). They still do this, but nobody cares anymore; using the OldWeb browser reminded me that those purple links helped you navigate a strange and arduous terrain. Yes, that’s where I meant to go, or Nope, already been there.

Once you reached your destination, you’d be confronted with a series of distractions. Screens were small back then, with low-resolution text and graphics. On The Atlantic’s old website, the type was small and pixelated. Italics were not truly semicursive, with curved letterforms, but slanted versions of roman. Lines of text ran most of the way across the screen without a break. In order to read an entire article using Netscape in Macintosh System 7, I had to interrupt myself repeatedly to click the scroll-bar button. These minor glitches may have worn away our capacity to focus. But we had no idea how much worse that problem could become.

Much has been made of the ways in which social-media sites made internet life compulsive and all-consuming. Web search and shopping, too, have turned people’s data into ads, leading them to spend ever-greater quantities of time and money online. But my OldWeb visit revealed to me that the manufacturers of computer devices and their basic software made this transformation possible. Instagram or Google would have been compelling on the old internet, but they’re surely more so now, seen on bright displays with the pixel density of a printed magazine. Before the web was good—before PCs were good—one had trouble spending hours just in Word or Excel. That may have been a blessing.

It’s easy to portray the websites and browsers on OldWeb.Today as primitive, early steps along an evolutionary path. But at least some of what hadn’t yet been figured out about the web simply wasn’t worth pursuing. The World Wide Web of the 1990s was a place you went into for a little while until it spat you out. As an activity, it had an end—which came when someone needed the phone, when your eye strain overcame your interest, when the virtual ocean failed to spawn a wave worth surfing. Now the internet goes on forever.



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