There From the Start
Twenty-three years ago, I spent my days and nights avoiding the drudgery of sitting in my college classes, but becoming educated nonetheless. Sitting in my room on the seventh floor of Willham Hall South at Oklahoma State University, I discovered the commercial web at the dawn of its existence. It just so happened two months into the start of my sophomore year, Netscape was released and the computing world would never be the same.
To be sure, I had already spent thousands of hours in the “online” world, just nothing like what the web brought to the table. Earlier in the 1990s, my room at home filled with virtual visitors from the two bulletin board systems (BBS’s) I ran from a hand-built 286 PC. While most high schoolers were excited to get a separate phone line for chatting with friends, mine was occupied 24/7 by anonymous Okies dialing in to The Slaughterhouse over our 9600bps modem.
By 1994, I was ensconced at OSU and we had what was considered “high-speed” internet access at the time. I can’t remember what the performance was, but it was certainly much better than anything available at home. Having given up on the Windows PC by this point, I helped three fellow dorm residents find used Macs – all compact black and white models, all we could afford – and get connected to the school network.
Access to the internet at this crucial juncture of both its life and mine had a profound impact. Attending class was no longer as important to me, because there was so much more to learn online. From Gopher to IRC chat, learning HTML to operating system theory and development, I enveloped myself fully in the dawning ‘net. It was here that I learned how TCP/IP worked, the structure of the web and how to create pages, and so much more. I experimented for a time with Newton OS programming on the side, because I had a hunch that connected mobile devices were going to be a pretty big deal™.
Everything about online culture had a major effect on my career and my outlook on the future itself. The web had a very “DIY” culture, and its emphasis on freely sharing ideas and autodidacticism fit perfectly with my own tinkering mindset.
Idealists and Renegades
The possibilities of the early web seemed endless. Even the rapidly growing commercialization of the medium (the first online ads appeared in 1993, right in line with the key change in the NSF’s Internet use policy, which finally allowed commercial use of the Web) did little to damper the utopian feel of the time. The fact that businesses were joining us in the fray was viewed as positive, and friction between business and personal online presented an opportunity to stake out the turf and show who was really in charge of this format. For example, remember who first owned Walmart.com?
With a vast untouched “territory” to explore and create, the WWW was much like other episodes in American history, from westward expansion and manifest destiny to the 1849 gold rush and the 1889 land run in my own adopted state of Oklahoma. Keep in mind that discovery on the early web wasn’t nearly as search friendly as today, and it really was an adventure out there.
Gone, Baby, Gone
But where is the culture of the early web today? It has mostly disappeared. Googling “culture of the early web” or “1990s web culture” brings up plenty of stories about the founding of the web, but how many timelines about CERN and Tim Berners-Lee do we really need? Where are all the posts about Radiskull and Devil Doll, Fucked Company and Red Herring, the Cool Site of the Day, and Suck.com?
The loss of early technology has gotten so bad it has been declared an impending humanitarian disaster. I’m grateful to Archive.org for preserving thousands of old sites. They’re working on earlier tech history too, digitizing copies of BYTE magazine – how I first learned to code.
A foundation in the U.K. has gone as far as creating an interactive exhibit featuring sites from 1991-2005 using the contemporary hardware of the time. Now you can again experience the “dancing baby” meme on an original iMac.
Technological history is now completely intertwined with our history as humanity. We must find ways to preserve as much as possible of the content created over the past decades and going forward. If we don’t, we will truly lose pieces of our shared identity.