In The unrecognizable Internet of 1996, Farhad Manjoo of Slate Magazine gives his impressions of the Web of 1996, although he admittedly wasn’t there. This is amusing in the same way as hearing a modern high-school student talk about the music and fashion of the 1970s, but I thought I should correct some of his misconceptions.
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.
David Wertheimer says that’s bullshit, and I agree. In 1996 the web was already so busy that a single person couldn’t keep track of the whole thing, or hope to read everything online. My quotations site was two years old by then, and even in the narrow field of sites about famous quotations it was one of about 200. I couldn’t keep track of all of them. By contrast, when I launched the site in 1994, it was the only one in the category. In early 1995 it was one of three sites in the category, and I regularly talked with the owners of the other two.
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.
But webmail is not email. People were emailing each other long before Hotmail, using desktop clients like Pegasus and Eudora. They looked pretty much exactly like today’s desktop email clients, except for one thing: there was no spam.
In 1994, a Swarthmore College student named Justin Hall began links.net, one of the very first personal Web sites.
This seems wrong – I set up a personal site in 1994, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t “one of the very first”. I doubt I was one of the first 500.
I’m sure I could find a few other mistakes in this shoddy article, but my point is this: 1996 was when the Web really started to get big. Real media companies like Time Magazine and the New York Times were seeing its potential for the first time, regular people who weren’t computer-obsessed were beginning to outnumber the geeks, and businesses like Amazon.com were just starting to make money online. The dot-com boom had begun, and advertising-powered sites like Slate were starting to make real money. Saying this was “not very much” going on online is like saying that, since there was no TV, no SUVs, and no Wal-mart, there wasn’t much going on during the industrial revolution.