Revisiting Internet Relics, Part One
Oh, 1996. The year when every other woman had “The Rachel” haircut, big overalls and tiny backpacks were in fashion, and The Wallflowers kept reminding us that we could drive it home with “One Headlight.”
Well, a lot can change in 20 years. For example, ladies have moved on to styling their hair in “The Monica” (okay, just kidding). But while big overalls and tiny backpacks bewilderingly seem to be back in rotation, everything else about our modern culture is different — and maybe nothing more so than the Internet.
Consider these facts:
In 1996 Americans spent an average of 30 minutes per month online. In 2016, we can easily spend six hours or more per day connected to the internet. In 1996, there were around 100,000 websites in existence. In 2016, there are over one billion and counting (literally). In 1996, the size of a web page typically topped out around 15KB. In 2016, the average web page “weighs” about 2.3MB — that’s a lot of data usage.
And that’s just for starters.
As you might know, we at Dowitcher Designs recently celebrated our 10-year birthday. That means we’re about half as old as the World Wide Web — well, since it first became popular in the mid-90s, that is. The web has shaped so much of what we do, from the office to our homes. So in honor of just how far we’ve come, let’s don our flannel shirts, click to open our mental browsers, and take a little trip down virtual memory lane, shall we?
Part One: From Kbps to IMs
Do you remember how websites looked in the 1990s? Images, if any, consisted of tiny, pixelated thumbnails and paragraphs of text set against a repeating background pattern. Even so, they took f o r e v e r to load. Me, I’d deal with it by clicking a link and getting up to go to something else, like make a sandwich. By the time I got back, the page had finally loaded. Mostly. Sometimes.
We were able to put up with a lot more back then — from waiting patiently for simple pages to load to having to “hang up” our precious internet connection when someone else wanted to use the phone. Really put a cramp in my X-Files fanfic-reading style, I tell you.
(Incidentally, did you notice The X-Files came back with a mini-season of all-new episodes earlier this year? I tried watching but it felt like attending an awkward 20-year high school reunion — sorry, Mulder and Scully).
Imagine having to load today’s graphics-heavy web page at yesterday’s dial-up speed of 28.8 to 33.6 kilobytes per second. You could eat a lot of sandwiches in that time.
I don’t miss those days. But I do kind of miss this sound:
Searching in the pre-Google era
Ask someone to name the most-used search engines today, and the list would be short. Let’s see, there’s Google, there’s Bing, there’s Yahoo, there’s… uh… well, that’s about it. And of those top three, Google totally dominates the other two — easily collecting four times the number of estimated unique monthly visitors compared to its closest English-language competitor, Bing.
But there was a time when Google wasn’t #1 in everything. In fact, there was a time when Google didn’t even exist. Hard to believe, but in the years leading up to Google’s release in 1998, there were tons of other search engines available. We could take our pick from Infoseek, AltaVista, WebCrawler, Lycos, LookSmart, Ask Jeeves, HotBot, Dogpile, or Excite, for example — any of these ring a bell? I remember HotBot was one of my favorites, maybe because it featured one of the most, er, retina-burning home pages:
Ouch. That’ll make you want to get your vision checked.
The funny thing is? A lot of these search engines still exist. Sure, HotBot is run by Lycos, Altavista.com redirects to Yahoo, Ask Jeeves has simply become Ask.com, and Infoseek is totally shuttered. But all the other ones? They’re still bravely limping along, even if most of the world has forgotten them.
(I’m especially looking at you, Excite. I know things haven’t quite been the same since Google came to town but it’s still a little weird that your design hasn’t changed much between 1997 and now.)
That’s a lot of text links.
Let’s pause to pour out a little Crystal Pepsi out in honor of all the web browsers who served us so well in those early days. Wait, Crystal Pepsi’s back too? Ugh, come on, guys. Not everything from the ’90s deserves a comeback.
America Online was part of an array of online services that cropped up between the late 1980s and early 1990s — Prodigy, Earthlink, and Compuserve might sound familiar, too. But for a time, America Online ruled them all. In January 1996, Media Metrix published its first list of the most-visited websites and America Online was #1. Of course, the service automatically loaded its own home page by default whenever subscribers logged in, so it was hard not to be #1 under those circumstances.
Still, with millions of subscribers, America Online commanded a large share of the market — and our hearts. For many of us, it was our first entry into the world wide web. It gave us our first browsing experience, our first online user handles (think fly_gurl182, wonderwall95, or ska8trd00d), our first chat rooms, and of course, our first electronic mail:
America Online would stay at the very top of Media Metrix’s popularity rankings until 2003, when it was taken over by Time Warner and began its gradual slide into obscurity. It still lives on today as AOL, of course, but the company has struggled a bit more than its fellow ’90s Internet relics. And yet somehow, even today, AOL retains over 2 million dial-up subscribers — some of them, perhaps, folks who mistakenly believe that if they cancel the service, they’ll lose their original America Online accounts.
Now that’s loyalty.
While we’re on the subject of AOL, I’d be remiss not to mention AIM. The AOL-based instant messaging service was insanely popular from the late 1990s through the early 2000s. I should know because I spent a lot of time on it in college, putting off writing papers to chat just a little longer with friends.
Maybe a lot longer.
AIM was one of the very first instant messaging services with a graphical user interface (meaning it didn’t look like lines of code). Most importantly, though, it was cleverly tuned for maximum user engagement. Sounds were a huge part of the experience and they kept people hanging around their computers, anxiously waiting to hear the sound of a door opening when another buddy came online.
If all your buddies happened to be offline, you didn’t have to stop IMing — you could instead chat with bots like StudyBuddy and SmarterChild. If that got tiresome you could play games from inside the app, look for new emoticons (or “expressions”), or work on customizing your profile.
Back then you could spend hours earnestly tweaking your AIM profile, choosing and changing just the right chat icons, fonts, colors, links, and personal quotes that suited you best. You could pour more care and thought into crafting the perfect away messages than Beethoven did writing Symphony No. 5, if Symphony No. 5 was revamped into an angst-ridden pop song from which you’d plucked a series of vague-yet-meaningful lyrics.
It sounds silly — and no doubt it is — but back then, discovering and expressing personality in computer-based systems was still new. As Joe Schober, chief architect at AOL, pointed out in an interview with The Daily Beast:
“Before, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Internet felt like what it was: a multiuser computer system that you were logged into. It was all very technical. But on AOL, it was like you were in a place, moving from room to room and running into friends. The technology was not all that different. But the perception changed.”
It was these changing perceptions that kept us addicted to the internet back then — and arguably, even now. But our trip down memory lane doesn’t stop here. We still have a lot to revisit, so stay logged in for Part Two.