The World Wide Web
Pretty much everything about the web has changed; from the way we communicate over it, to the way we access it, and even the speed at which information travels over it (and wirelessly too, no less). Then of course there's the way that we all panic about who can see the stuff we publicly post on Facebook, the way that pop-up advertising has proliferated like a cancerous disease, and how no matter how hard I try to focus on writing an article about the Internet, I can't help but be distracted by the Internet.
Of course it wasn't always like this. For a start, it wasn't even always-on. Before we could access the wealth of human knowledge or the low-quality JPEGs of The Spice Girls that we knew the Internet would bestow upon us, we had to sit patiently and wait for a couple of minutes/years whilst the modulator-demodulator sang the song of its people.
That's right Internauts*, today we're gonna be talking about the Internet of the 90s.
It wasn't until 1996 that we were able to get the Internet at home. I still remember my father introducing me to the fabled World Wide Web, courtesy of a free disc/coaster provided by AOL. He had strict rules about how long I could be on for though, because not only were we paying a monthly subscription for the Internet, we were also paying by-the-minute for the phone line too.
Today I found one of my old school diaries and my father's email address is still written in there; email@example.com. I have no idea what exactly those four numbers were supposed to represent, but I wouldn't have been surprised if it was related to the total cost of our first internet bill.
Also, according to my school diary, on September 9th 1997 I apparently had to write a 400 word essay on time travel and there was a random reference to the X-Files for some reason. On December 15th, I appeared to struggle to spell the word "library" whilst noting down a reminder for me to get a good book from there to read (a dictionary may have been a good choice). I also made a note to "Bring in [Team 17's] Worms game" for my I.T. class. I very much doubt that this was for academic reasons.
I also wrote the word "potassium" in the back of the diary. This was no doubt after my chemistry lesson on how potassium reacts with water and me wanting to ensure that I wouldn't forget what it was called. That was a very exciting discovery for me and I desperately wanted to find the largest quantity of potassium I could get my hands on and dunk it in my bath (this never happened though, sadly). YouTube didn't exist until 2005, so there wasn't a multitude of videos available to watch on the subject like there is now. Mmmmm... sweet exothermic reactions, Batman!
AOL started bumping up their prices so we switched to CompuServe, which by that time had become a poor man's AOL service. Both providers used software as a portal/directory to common websites, back when there were far fewer websites than there are today.
In 1998, paying for the internet changed in the UK. Freeserve was the first service to offer completely free internet, leaving you with only the phone bill to pay for. And we jumped on that. There was no software portal like with AOL and CompuServe; it was just you and your web browser. But as a service, we were pretty darned happy with it.
Websites were so incredibly different back in the 90s. Links were blue, visited links were always purple, and the default background colour for websites when coding HTML was grey unless you told it otherwise. Graphics and general imagery also had a very different style, and everything was pixelated.
There are certain design decisions which no longer exist on modern websites. Back then, during the days when Yahoo! Geocities was inexplicably king, websites would often tell you which resolution they looked best at, background midi music that auto-played when you visited a page was a terrible sin, and there were a multitude of animated gifs proudly displaying "Under Construction" signs on webpages to let you know that they weren't finished yet.
One good thing though, is that online advertising was not as bad as it is today. Nor was online journalism, some of which now relies on click-bait articles to generate revenue through pay-per-click advertising.
There are still some 90s websites that exist today. WebTekRocks was a website that was designed to spoof similar web design companies using Yahoo! Geocities to build their client's sites (which was always a terrible idea). I remember discovering WebTekRocks back in the 90s and I'm so glad it still exists today. It shows off some of the worst things about websites at the time, and has always been the absolute perfect example of what not to do when designing a website. And then of course, there's the official Space Jam website, which still exists in all its original 90s glory.
There were plenty of different chat mediums back in the day. Some still exist, though aren't used as frequently due to the rise of apps and integrated messaging services on mobile devices, and, let's be honest, Facebook.
I can't speak on behalf of the rest of the world, but in the UK the most popular messaging client tended to be MSN Messenger, closely followed by Yahoo! Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM, as it was often known). Some of us also used ICQ Instant Messenger, which had a huge variety of features including being able to see people typing in real-time, but it became heavily ad-supported and bloated which I personally feel made it less welcoming to people. And if 90s email addresses weren't confusing enough (and we've all had that one embarrassing email address we later regretted using), ICQ used a string of numbers for the username instead.
Then there were chat services, most notably Yahoo! Chat and IRC (Internet Relay Chat, the most popular client being mIRC). Yahoo! Chat was an interesting beast. It was where I discovered my first Internet troll. It also supported voice chat and I recall speaking over it once with my British accent and shortly afterwards having my computer freeze up because of the amount of private messages I was receiving from American girls. I would have been happy with the attention if my computer wasn't so underwhelmingly pants and crapped out on me. Yahoo! Chat was eventually shutdown however because of the disturbing amount of pedophilia that was going on which they were unable to control. I remember being in Star Trek chat rooms and seeing elderly men join and start asking young girls to do things which I'd rather not dwell on. Ugh. IRC on the other hand was a wonderful service run over a multitude of servers, each with hundreds of channels. I still pop by a couple of them from time to time for nostalgic reasons, but it's sadly not the vibrant community it once was.
A couple of other short-lived chat services revolved around the use of avatars. The two that I remember using were Microsoft Comic Chat and CompuServe's WorldsAway. They both offered a far more graphical method of chatting. WorldsAway focussed mostly on being a 2D virtual world where you would choose an avatar, and Comic Chat was similar but took the form of a black and white comic strip. They were pretty novel back in the day, and whilst it's right that such services no longer exist given that they're an inefficient method of communication, I can't help but feel a sense of loss over the amount of fun I recall having with them at the time.
Those little things
I touched on dial-up internet access at the beginning of this article and the wondrous sounds that a modem would make to signal a night of unbridled internet access. What I find most surprising though is that according to a report by Fortune, in this age of broadband, fibre and wireless networking, AOL still has 2.3 million active dial-up customers. That's 2.3 million people who can't watch YouTube or Netflix and have to wait over 5 minutes for a single photo of Emma Stone to download!
When I met my friend Mitch's father here in Canada, he was telling me how there are some areas of Newfoundland where you can't get any form of internet access other than via a mobile phone. Madness!
We all remember the pain, the struggle of downloading things that would take hours to complete. And yet, even though it would take that long, when we were riding a solid speed of 46 kbps we felt unstoppable. Oh how we laughed.
Back at high school, our school computer suite consisted of 15 computers, and the teachers chose to hook up 5 of them with Internet access, with all 5 sharing access to the same 56k modem. We always knew that when the Internet started to grind to a halt, it was likely because someone [usually me] was downloading South Park wav files.
I also remember having to fight my sister for access to the internet. We later both got a modem in our rooms along with our computers, but only one of us could be online at any time. There were often a few moments when she would still be on beyond her time limit and eating into mine. But I figured out that if you pick up the phone and made sounds like a modem, eventually it would corrupt the stream and drop the connection. The best part of that though was that her computer wouldn't realize the connection had dropped until after I'd dialled-up. The Internet was my birthright and I was adamant that I would take it using whatever means necessary!
Alastair 1 - Sister 0.
And then of course, the Internet of the 90s all came to an end with the fear of the Millennium Bug - a devastating computer glitch that was destined to stop traffic lights from working, bring planes down, plunge the world into chaos, allow for a machine uprising that would wipe out humanity, and usher in a new dawn without unlimited access to photos of cats.
Of course, January 1st 2000 rolled around without a hitch, and it was all a little bit anti-climactic. But we still had funny cat pictures and we also had MySpace and the Anna Kournikova virus to look forward to a few years later, so it was all okay.
If you'd like to read a detailed account of the history and formation of the World Wide Web, check out this article on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_World_Wide_Web
And if you're still thirsty for more 90s internet, check out these cringeworthy videos below.
* Yes, there was indeed a time when people foolishly tried to coin the term "Internaut" as a way to describe users of the Internet. Thankfully there's a reason my spell-check doesn't think it's a word. Because it isn't. Because it's stupid.
Dear 1995 – You're bad, and you should feel bad. Love, Alastair.