My history with computers, part 4: The early internet

Context

In my previous post I talked about how the realm of what was possible expanded when we got a better, faster computer … but it took a whole other leap with the first “on-line” experiences.

Quaint rumors

I think the first way of knowing anything about this was Internet for Dummies (probably this). Having literally no other point of reference, I read and re-read this.

It was wild.

Part of it was about the various “walled gardens” that were the most popular options: Compuserve, *America Online * (or so the dummies book told me, we had to start with what was available at the time, a “text” connection with a national telecom provider).

Part of it was gobbledygook about setting up PPPoE settings with an ISP (as an aside, folks who actually ventured into all this without a technical background in those days must’ve been effing brave. There was a lot of stuff to configure back then, none of this “oh is the WiFi on?”, no)

But all of it was about how cool it was to interact with people online.

First contact

I have a vague memory of this, but there was some sort of an “internet course” I signed up for (or rather my dad signed me up for). It was supposed to be a few days of an hour each, and was a bit dry, but in the end there was, yes, some time with an actual browser.

I’m sure there are millions who experienced it the first time this way: Netscape Navigator, the coarse-grained meteor logo with its brilliant flash … and then the page loads … what is this thing?!

If this sounds lame, well, I was lame, but this was also a genuinely rare experience at the time.

On-ramp to the information superhighway


The way magazines talked about this new thing was pretty funny too, in retrospect (and given where we’ve ended up, painfully idyllic). The world-wide web, the information superhighway, all kinds of phrases trying to describe what people thought about it, all of it optimistic.

Well, nearly all: I watched a talk by Neil Postman towards the end of the 90s, it was a devastating critique of the impact of television, it sounds like an early warning today (if you like that sort of thing, byte-sized versions: 1, 2)

“Cyber cafes” sprung up like weeds, offering 30-minute slots to be online. Just imagine that, having your entire web presence — not just your laptop or desktop, not just your smartphone or smart tv, everything! — being limited to this tiny slot of time, not just per day, but per week! This was, for many people, the only chance to catch up on emails, chat, whatever.

I used to go for a sort of computer class … think of it as a sort of after-school activity … and there was time at the end when I was waiting here, when I opened the browser (the wars were swiftly over by now, Internet Explorer had already won, though I kept trying out new releases of Netscape Navigator (later Communicator) on our home computer) and just randomly go places.

My early web

I wish I could remember more, but I don’t, so here are a few initial forays that come to mind.

WWF (now the WWE)

(Where would I be without the Wayback machine, to remind me how things used to look?)

I wouldn’t watch a minute of this today, but back then I was about-to-stop-being-a-fan. So I printed out a t-shirt design and my mom (yep, I had a great family) actually copied it onto a real t-shirt with fabric dyes. Totally lame, but it felt epic.

X-files

I was a legit fan (maybe I still am, at some level … more on that later). So the official X-files website was the first one I devoured in depth-first fashion.

Then discovered fansites. Then discovered the shipping sites. And now you know more about me than you want to. Okay.

Geocities

Ooh, Geocities, such a 90s thing. A utopian take on having different tribes and communities(there was already such a diverse bunch) have clusters of home pages.

Obviously, I hung out at “Area 51”.

Someone tried re-inventing this recently with “Neocities”, but … you know, you can’t repeat the past.

(Update: someone made a mirror of the old site)

Hotmail

My first email. Probably one of the first “email-as-a-service” offerings. At this point it might be possible to guess my first password.

Yes, for a long time, this was the only password I had: there were no other places to “log in” to, and the computer at home was single-user!

(It was a whole six years before I switched to Gmail, but I shouldn’t jump ahead)

Web-rings

There weren’t blogs as yet, just stand-alone websites (this was when people actually wrote html! Think about that! People are capable of so much more, and yet …)

Non-web bits

Every online activity wasn’t directly related to “surfing the web”. There were a bunch of things like downloading themes and desktop backgrounds that happened because it was easier to do them.

Messaging

Yahoo Messenger!

MSN Messenger!
AOL Messenger! (yes, the one part of America Online that survived longest)

ICQ! (what a weird name, now that I think about it … and having to memorize numerical userIDs … sheesh)

I forget which came first, but I ended up using all of these extensively, and (naturally) all of these chats and contacts are now lost.

There is definitely some tradeoff between keeping records and throwing them away. While I’m apprehensive about having everything I do recorded these days, I also like coming across at least a few key images or emails etc from the past.

Gopher

I didn’t really use a lot of this, only knew about it from the Dummies book in fact, and … really one of those “alternative routes” that never really got taken because “the internet” and “the web” became synonymous, and that was before “the web” became “2.0”.

Napster

Hoo boy, Napster. The way people got music — and also the way music really became globally available and accessible, in the days before Youtube/iTunes/Spotify/whatever.

Run software. Search. See results. Download. Wait

I didn’t even have a fast internet connection (it was measured in kbps), in the beginning, so I waited a whole day to download one measly MP3.

I’ll tell you, it felt wonderful to listen to that one little MP3 over and over.

Yes, I know. It sounds … pathetic, now. No real takeaway, except perhaps that we value whatever we put in effort for, heh.

Transition

Time to stop, and hit publish, or this’ll never be done.

Next time? Dunno, maybe my first (and now that I think about it, also the last!) “personal desktop”.

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