We knew what the future was, but it was largely a secret. We learned Unix from library books and honed skills on hacked accounts, without any ethical issue because we honestly felt we were preparing ourselves and others for a future where this kind of thing should be available to everyone.
We just didn't foresee it being wirelessly available at McDonalds, for free. That part still surprises me.
Product life cycles seem to be more fickle. You used to be able to find a year or two older model for cheaper. Now, new models effectively replace old models. Actually, online stores feel very concentrated.
I used to work for the UK tymnet system (80:BTG174) and Logging on from home via a 110 baud text portable terminal to kick off a map reduce billing run on all the Telecom Gold (tymnet) 15 or 16 Primes was interesting.
Sorry about that.
Then we use it the admin people look at the charge so low and ask why this international fax is so cheap. In any case they said please ask your supervisor to authorise each connection in writing by filling form no xyZ! Have to explain and fight a bit. The case is really settled down only because it is so cheap. Not because they understand it. Or us.
But it doesn't have to be that way. The re-decentralization movement is slowly gaining mindshare. What happens in 2040 depends 100% on how we act now. The great utopian sharing mindspace that we wrote about endlessly in Mondo 2000 (or Computer Lib / Machine Dreams) can still happen if we want.
I think it's easy to lose site of the fact that the "old" internet is still there, there's just so many new layers of people and layers of things on top of it that it's hard to remember that you can still setup a /~bane/ website pretty trivially...lots of other services could still exist but nobody wants to foot the bill.
I think one of the best representations of the old internet is how the demoscene operates. Free, volunteer, information rich, a bit quirky and communal.
Decentralization can only happen by meeting some prerequisites that we as a society are not even comfortable talking about.
I don’t want this and insist it’s not coming from defeatism. I say it because I desperately want to change it. I just have yet to be presented with a way out that makes a lick of sense.
I come from the advertising industry. The mindless assertion that private industry can be trusted in moral pursuit is breaking our society, and the modern web browser has accelerated that.
Decentralization is not a path. It’s a goal. There are two general paths:
One is through public regulation of the corporations that broke the internet in the first place and approach something resembling economic justice, making room in the public consciousness for decentralization to proliferate.
The other path, a shorter path, is to consider the internet as a public plaza. Equal access, free speech, defended by democracy instead of by capitalists. The public provides an ethical base set of internet services and regulates hiring and privacy practices in such a way that citizens can use these to pursue their livelihoods. Decentralization can proliferate from these spaces of unmitigated discussion, which are not reliant on the ruthless advertising economy.
These are each still well outside the realm of the public’s imagination, because people simply have no clue about the advertising regime that governs their lives.
I chose my house because of the walking trail behind it. One of my neighbors really loves the walking trail too, but he hates the fact that the city took it over and made it a public park. He hates the fact that it is improved and there is parking because now other people use it too (See also Eternal September).
My neighbor also hates the stores that came in on the edge of the park and cleared the brush between the park and the roads. Plenty of people drive on those roads, and visit those stores and never know that the park is there.
I feel like the internet is very similar: The old part is still there, but most people use the stores, roads, and gathering places next to it instead of visiting it.
People used to have personal pages, not just blogs, often trying to share their knowledge and notes on different topics. I miss that. Plus casual IRC.
It hasn't changed much for 20 years :-)
In terms of treating bacterial infections, the early years of penicillin were also better than our own era because the pathogens hadn't evolved resistance yet. Early Google was great because the Web's pathogens hadn't evolved resistance yet.
Looking at quite a few modern social networks, like Instagram, "success" and engagement on many of these platforms seems to follow many of the same rules people use for SEO in regular websites.
From an outside perspective much of the difference between many influencer or aggregation accounts and a bot with nice imagery escapes me. (Although I realize much of that is just me being old and grumpy and the difference is likely the community around those figures that I am simply not a part of)
What's it matter?
Here is the full post:
Now there is a ski resort, with cable car going to the summit. Every day thousands of people of all stripes enjoy the wonderful view, have fun in the good and well groomed snow on the marked pistes - with the convenience of a heated shop for snacks & souvenirs...
Cue Dire Strait's Telegraph Road...
I had thought the cable cars have all been there for a lifetime by now, and of course it seems like every great mountain has some ancient town or another at it's base. Where in the Alps was this?
You can definitely recreate the feeling of exclusivity today on the internet.
When I post something on tildes.net I see there are a lot of upvotes that come in over a few days so I know people are reading but when I post something on twitter I don't think anyone ever reads that unless they log in at the second I post it.
tildes.net - similar to reddit but with a heavy focus on no memes/fluff posts
RED - great music and general forum with next to no bait/troll posts.
There are lots more but those are the ones I personally enjoy.
From Wilby's about page:
"Search engines like Google are indispensable, able to find answers to all of your technical questions; but along the way, the fun of web surfing was lost. In the early days of the web, pages were made primarily by hobbyists, academics, and computer savvy people about subjects they were interested in. Later on, the web became saturated with commercial pages that overcrowded everything else. All the personalized websites are hidden among a pile of commercial pages. Google isn't great at finding those gems, its focus is on finding answers to technical questions, and it works well; but finding things you didn't know you wanted to know, which was the real joy of web surfing, no longer happens. In addition, many pages today are created using bloated scripts that add slick cosmetic features in order to mask the lack of content available on them. Those pages contribute to the blandness of today's web.
The Wiby search engine is building a web of pages as it was in the earlier days of the internet. In addition, Wiby helps vintage computers to continue browsing the web, as page results are more suitable for their performance."
EDIT: See also this reddit thread for additional references:
(with e.g. sheldonbrown.com being my object of fascination in circa 2005 -- a remarkable encyclopedia for bicycle maintainers).
The corporate web is an "improvement" on the decentralized web only in the way ice-cream is an improvement on vegetables.
A better analogy is Henry Ford's hyper tidy and closely monitored neighborhoods built for his workers. Some didn't like it.
And to an extent, I wish the world was not trying to give everything to everyone. I think it's more beautiful for things to be small and wild and only those who really connect to it live there.
What I remember most about internet pre Facebook in particular and maybe Pre-smart phones. It was mostly a place for geeks. Geeks wrote blogs or had personal websites. Non geek stuff was more limited. It felt like a place where the geeks that were semi socially outcast kind of ran the place.
Today the internet feels like the real world where the popular people in the real world are the most popular people online. Where all the things that I felt like I escaped from on the net before I can no longer avoid.
I'm not saying that's bad. I think it's awesome that my non tech friends and family can connect and or share their lives and thoughts easily where as before there was a barrier to entry. I'm only pointing out that, at least for me, it changed. It was a place I liked or felt connected to or something, maybe like I was "in the know" or I can't put my finger on it. To now where I have no such feelings.
Maybe it's the same feeling as liking something before it's popular and it loses that feeling of specialness once everyone else is into it. (which is probably a bad feeling to begin with)
I remember in my early days online, I was learning electronics design as a hobby. I posted a rather silly question to sci.electronics (silly in the sense that even a first-year student would have known the answer). A couple of hours later, a professor at an Ivy League university and a professional electronics designer had not only answered the question, but suggested some things I should learn and brush up on, and some books to do it. All very polite.
These days, it feels like the only answer you're likely to get is "lol git gud". The questions I come across sound almost like "I'm paying my ISP, I deserve an answer". The politeness and respect seems to have been lost over time.
That's not saying it's gone from everywhere -- StackExchange seems to get the balance right, with people willing to help newcomers to get involved. It's just that nice places like that are becoming fewer and further between, and I think that's sad.
There was also optimism. The internet seemed impenetrable to the concentrating effects of society - but now we’ve got about 5 companies that run anything you’re looking to do online or with a computer. Even things like movies or shows are dominated with dystopian plots. They’ve even killed Star Trek, a hallmark of scifi eutopias.
Information you found was generally published or organized by a passionate individual, for instance if you wanted to know about Star Trek you could find a star trek website that had factoids assembled manually by a few people. So you can imagine that the information was probably pretty reliable, delivered without commercial intent, but the breadth of availability was limited to what individual people felt like publishing.
In the beginning, I remember borrowing books on the internet from the local public library which had a CDROM that had basic software like mosaic to browse the web, and many would provide IP addresses and port numbers for public FTP servers containing things like freeware games and open source software. I was about 11, I'm not sure how adults at the time got online but it's probably not that far different.
Basically, imagine the entire content of the internet being like open source -- if someone was passionate about something and wanted to share it it was there. If not, it wasn't. Servers were often located in people's homes, I remember many times services just not responding because the hosts home internet was down.
Woa, I'm not old enough to have experienced that period of the internet, but this perfectly describes what I do. My servers are at home, I have lots of little tools in a folder that I'm happy for people to use ('connect to'), I used to run a lot more services but with my email hosted on it that is quite a security risk (maybe I'll start doing it again on the new system that I'm setting up, which is much more compartmentalized), my websites do not have ads and only one has visitor counting (using StatCounter, installed when I was 16 and curious how people used my first site). In the early days, I collected facts, links, and flash games about BMXing because I thought that sport was epic. I also shamelessly hacked those games' online highscores, if they had one, and that's how I ended up where I am today (security consultant) :-)
Back then it was harder to share your own content, either by learning HTML or hosting your own server and no real monetary rewards for doing so, and no social status indicators except for maybe 'hit counters'. Because of this it was passion for the topic that motivated people to share with far less focus on how it looked or the way it was presented.
Now with advertising, upvoting and platform biases people are more judgemental while reading others work. The motivation to create traffic and increase social outreach changed the nature of sharing itself.
Proto-WWW, 1993: Happened across O'Reilly & Associates at a network conference, and joined up with their Global Network Navigator project, the first commercial web publication (my first gig there was the first ad). Even so, every last one of us at GNN was passionate and excited about this medium exploding before our eyes. Everything was new, untried. There was no breaking things because so little was formed. There was a fluidity of expression (even within its constraints), a vast potential that was almost tangible, a sense that the web itself was a creative material to be molded. In this short time between the web's inception (~1993) and platforms like Geocities (~1995), we played in the raw muck of the primal web: HTTP + HTML + GIF + you.
Sure, there's definite improvements. More people have access, more of the time, and that's brought in interesting & creative people and projects. (As well as the obvious opposite.) It's easier to publish graphics, sound, video -- anything beyond text was difficult before. For a while, discovery was much improved, although I actually think that's gotten worse lately.
What gets to me the most, though, are three things:
1. The loss of interoperability. When the internet started, there was a clear, strong value placed on interconnection. First it was through low-level protocols like NCP or TCP/IP, then through application protocols like FTP, SMTP/POP/IMAP, Gopher, HTTP. This effort seemed to peak with network APIs (RESTful or not) and other standards like RSS/Atom. The protocols changed, but the idea remained: we, the users, should be able to build our own view of the internet, each according to our needs. This whole trajectory seems to have been greatly devalued in modern times. I understand that it's due to economics -- advertising wins over community -- but it's depressing as hell.
2. Centralization of services. We talk about this a lot on Hacker News; I don't need to elaborate. But take it from an old net.geezer that it feels extremely uncomfortable that most people only use a literal handful of sites -- and more and more people seem to question the idea of independent websites at all.
I read an HN poster the other day saying they ONLY use news aggregator sites because they are afraid of venturing on the web now. A little part of me died inside because the hidden corners of the web where you learn something new are the best virtue of the internet to me.
I've written about this before: https://johnrockefeller.net/you-know-what-i-miss-the-unlimit...
There were quite a few instances where people from chat rooms on Yahoo and otherwise became real friends separated by distance only, talking on the telephone nightly.
I mean seriously, we are talking about time when people were hiding "rm -rf" into newbie advice and such or would try to hack you if they did not liked you.
I spent many months making good friendships with people like that before being comfortable with coming out as trans.
It was good not being tracked and traced.
 The most famous being anon.penet.fi.
Getting back on topic, this brings up a weird thing to me: While not raised with the internet, it has been around for a good portion of my life, chat rooms and message boards, channels and newsgroups were my daily fodder. I've met numerous friends I've gamed with in person, had meetups with others, and traveled with some.
But having tried it across a few sites, and even tried some of the paid experiences, online dating-even as a guy-absolutely REPULSES me.
Being in the generation that birthed it, you'd think the exact opposite. It's a weird phenomenon to me.
I would say nothing has changed and everything has changed. Community-wise, you could find a niche and talk about hobbies and interests (Compuserve chat rooms!) and all that, but all the world's information wasn't indexed yet, so anyone speaking authoritatively would be infallible since no was able to prove them wrong or right unless they cracked open an Encyclopedia Britannica. Or maybe had a CD-ROM and Encarta.
Now, literally everyone is "online" in some form. Instead of turning to one of the 3 or 5 trusted news sources that report across their home country, they are now just gathering their info from other users like themselves.
If anything the "corporations" have put us more in touch with each other, and people tend to trust an individual more than a corporation, which leads to individuals and corporations attempting to game the system.
I gotta say, I like it all better now. I do miss how quaint it all used to feel. The concept of using the internet was special in itself.
But it was super hard to find communities that weren't centered around sci-fi or people trying to cyber or people who were obsessed with "computing" in general. I'm a programmer now but my heart has always been in the arts and music, and those art-nerd types didn't start "logging on" until the late 00s imo. Perhaps that's partially due to bandwidth constraints.
Best place to find interesting new music and bands. Also miss some of the funny quirky spots like alt.religion.kibology
First and foremost, a lot of IRC. Also, a lot of Counter-Strike & HLTV. RFI (Remote File Injection -- r57 / c99 anyone? :P) and SQL exploitation in the wild. Enjoying being a part of actual forum communities with proper moderators and clearly defined subject matters. DDoS'ing other IRC networks that were talking shit. Manipulating Google search results for AdSense revenue and otherwise -- I jumped on this too late, unfortunately. Going to Russian hacker forums to read up on the latest exploits. Learning Perl and Visual Basic to build shitty programs and scripts.
Indeed, the word pure feels appropriate. Sure, in my circles a lot of people were no-lifers (including myself), but I learned a lot and I also got to work on my English skills over the years. It was crazy to look at my writing when I started in comparison to 3-4 years later... astonishing, even!
My first modem was 300 baud and looked like the one in War Games, with the rubber cups . Upgraded to 1200 bps, then saved and got a 2400 bps so I could run my own BBS, called Digital Mind with ASCII art I made of a brain made of 1s and 0s. Everyone had a handle. I was Quince. Dunno why now.
Had a program for my Apple IIgs that dialed random numbers and recorded any that answered with a modem. Then later I'd dial up and try to get in.
My buddy, The Wabbit, had money and I remember in 1989 or so he started hosting an email node. I was so jelly I turned green.
Then I graduated HS, decided to major in art, ended up travelling a few years and missed a few milestones. Made my first HTML site in 1996 and got paid $1500. Man I thought I was the shit. Then 4 years later I get a gig for a drum company and encounter PHP for the first time. Whoa. This ain't like Pascal, baby! Haha.
During our first session I asked my friend if he thinks anyone will ever make money off this thing. We both answered with a "naaah" and kept on "surfing".
I think today is better in many ways (and less so in some), but it would take a lot to impress old me now, while back then it was all just gobsmacking awesome.
Also when traveling finding a Internet cafe or a hotel with a connection was an important event because you could check in.
One thing lost (maybe I am projecting here) is a sense of optimism... and the power of the individual (once upon a time L0pht declared they could take down the Internet in 30 mins) I once thought the information age would have
a profound impact on democratic institutions, but this hasn't really panned out.
Now the new frontier is being conquered by the State, hard censorship in China, soft censorship in the West (what if my employer reads this? will this get me banned from youtube / patreon / ...)
Specifically, Quakeworld and games coming after that.
I still remember fondly how small the circles were, especially with Quakeworld. You could play on a server, and there were not that many, and actually see the same people there night after night, getting to know them and feel respect when you saw the more veteran ones entering the server.
And actually talk to those same people in IRC afterwards. Nowadays, there are so many players everywhere that it's very difficult to have a sense of connection to the people, as most times you might never see the same players again or connect with them in any way.
There was just so much more fun stuff happening there, when games were not nerfed to death and designed for everyone. I mean, nowadays when you play a online game, it's just so goddamn balanced and researched and overdesigned in many ways in modern games, and don't me let even start on the loot boxes and experience and all the crap around the core game logic that is not even relevant.
Sometimes I miss those days where everything was smaller and not everyone was on the internet.
Its not just that theres so many players. The big issue there is lack of server lists and player-run dedicated servers. Matchmaking largely kills that 'close-knit' sense of community where you play with and against the same rotation of players and get to know them. The only way to accomplish something similar is to find a community on discord, make a party together, etc. Its far simpler for everyone already owning and in the game to just click "Bob's great Quake CTF server" and know they'll be with whoever is normally on that server.
Since the rise of Minecraft the games themselves have also gradually shifted towards being long-term platforms for streamer content, vs simply providing a fixed experience. Free-to-play economics likewise aim towards maximizing total lifetime value of each user(with a built in expectation of user turnover) instead of marketing towards the initial purchase.
This is still such a very strange thing for me. Truly one of the first things that has made me (as someone in my mid-30s) feel disconnected from the next generation.
Why would I want to watch someone else play video games? If I had the time to do that, why wouldn't I just play the games myself? Where's the joy in it? The commentary? If I wanted commentary to listen to, wouldn't it make more sense for it to be about something real?
I guess I'll just tie that onion onto my belt and call it a day.
I have fond memories from playing QW not online but also go to these small LANs in the middle of nowhere and meeting some of the top players in the world in person and getting to each other IRL.
I'm still friends with some of the players from that time.
Similar archives exist for Gopherspace and FTP binary collections. But as far as I know, there isn't really a great web frontend, indexed and searchable, to individual documents dated before 1994.
As an example, original mosaic http browser post from Marc Andreessen ;)
"Here is is, World!"
Also common was dialling-in to download e-mail and Usenet and then going offline again to read them and compile responses which were cached until the next dial-in. Communication was much more async back then.
I never really got into IRC as that required 'wasting phone time', in the UK we were charged by the minute just like a local phone call. So you made a plan, connected and went as fast as possible. This was assisted with printed Web Directory books which had URLs and summaries of the websites' contents!
I created my first website in 1998 simply because I had an idea I wanted to share and it went semi-viral. It wasn't about money or fame or anything else. 10 pages, Front Page 2.0, largest page 3K, $29.95/month hosting. Of course, if you count the 7K logo graphic (gif) the pages were really 10K!
In my adult life only a few things have given me that same feeling of unbounded childhood excitement and freedom. Perhaps that's why I can't give up yet on the "promise" of the web even though corporate control and government surveillance seem to increasing daily.
Usenet was a slow-moving discussion board consisting mostly of college students where you could argue about computers or Star Trek or whatever. The most popular group by far was "alt.sex". Most people posted with their real names, but when my friend posted with a female name, she quickly acquired a stalker. (Who was dealt with by being banned from the Internet by his college's sysadmins.)
By the time Wired magazine was a thing and I wanted to start using the World Wide Web, Netscape 0.9 had come out and I guess corporations had already gotten their hands on it.
I still have a printout of "Zen and the Art of the Internet" . Check it out if you want to get an idea of what using the pre-commercial internet was like.
Because of its distributed and assumed trust nature there were no built in safeguards to combat spam. Over time spam increased, a tolerable amount at first. But, the problem grew until it killed the utility of the service.
The closest analogy to usenet today is Reddit. Where we've normalized spam into a tolerable number of advertisements. Where we've traded off distributed systems to a single corporate control. The distributed nature meant you had multiple competing clients, corporate control today means you access through whatever mechanism the company authorizes.
I miss usenet.
Also the environment was completely different. When people talk about Linus Torvalds being mean, there were a lot of people back then who had the mentality "I'm going to flame this moron off the Internet." I like the more friendly confines of HN.
My take is Usenet was not so much killed by spam, but the lack of moderation. Eventually the unchecked kooks, flamers, stalkers, and etc made it uninhabitable.
In university, I also remember we had informal protocols for upgrading a conversation from email or newsgroup to more real time via shared systems on campus. We would use "talk" and "ytalk" to have something more instant than instant messaging... you would see each letter as the other party typed, rather than only seeing one chunk of text per enter key. One student group also used the MOTD on a shared system as a communal bulletin board, hosting elaborate chats a bit like graffiti tags answering each other.
Simpler joys for a simpler time.
Sure, folks set up trades and conducted private sales via Usenet and whatnot. I think it was kind of frowned upon in many places, though. But, overall, it's weird to think that at one point, the whole net was basically non-profit.
I think it was around 1993 that NSF started bringing in commercial network providers. By 1998, the core pieces of the net had gone private.
OTOH, the main applications were mostly the same: search, forums, groups, chat, packaged in different forms and in many small gardens instead of behind huge walled gardens.
You really noticed image-loading. Each image gradually rendered into view, and sites still knew how to use them judiciously. And yet, since we’d never seen anything quite like it, we patiently waited to load every time. It was too cool to be a bother.
The most mind-blowing thing was that you didn’t really need to know much to connect. I didn’t need network numbers or other weird stuff. I could simply guess a dot-com for something, and there it was! It wasn’t material printed in a book or mailed to me, it was just there, right when I asked, like a personal butler. At the time it was astounding.
- Search engines: There was more variety in search engines (including country-specific search engines). Examples: Alta Vista, Lycos, Yahoo, Excite, meta-search engines like Dogpile.
- Serendipity: The earlier web felt more serendipitous - free web hosting sites encouraged people to put up personal sites on any topic that led you down a rabbit-hole of discovery. You may say: isn't that the case now? Maybe. It doesn't feel that way - but maybe that's perception rather than reality?
- Designing web sites: CSS was full of crippling layout limitations in the early days. But there were also dozens of desktop website builders. They may have spit out horrible code, but they were far more accessible and usable to non-technical users compared to the dozens of static site generators loved only by developers today.
- Complexity: Developers love complexity, and they simply cannot recognise it. What's striking today is how ludicrously complicated it is to deploy and host your site or app on a server. Who would have thought in 2019 that only WordPress would offer users a simply one-click install on the server. Meanwhile, developers stuck in their own little command-line bubble, remain baffled that anyone would struggle to self-host using a docker image or via cloudron ("What do you mean it's complicated?")
- How reliable was information in the past? I don't think it was any more or less reliable in the past. There are reliable sources now that didn't exist in the early days of the internet (e.g. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/). But there also plenty of unreliable sources.
A lot less useful, a lot less developed, but like the Wild West it was a place where you got to have fun, experiment, go wild and bend the rules. And unless you went too far, you would always be welcome back into the saloon once you’ve paid your penance.
Everyone involved was passionate in what they did.
Right now it looks like a country forever lost.
I just realised this is a terrible metaphor because you're probably too young to get this metaphor. Actually I'm arguably too young, but I tend to like physical releases.
Also, the special treat of getting to go to the parent's lab from time to time and using this new fangled Netscape Navigator Beta on a blazing fast Macintosh II CI with more than 8 bit color! The fish cam was still one of the featured links on the browser homepage, and browsing NASA's site and being blown away at being able to see monitor-filling celestial objects in seconds.
At that time, the main tools were newsgroups (for information sharing) and xarchie (to find ftp mirrors of free programs). I have used also gopher to find CERT list of vulnerabilities. I have found how to exploit one of them. I have notified the administrator. A couple of weeks latter, this was not fixed, I have setup a permanent root backdoor that was still working one year after my departure.
There were "site" you could connect using telnet. For example igs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Go_server). I remember also a site in australia that was used to find email adress of people from their name and their approximative location.
Using the ping delay, you could know if your communication was going throw a satelite or not.
However, now that the internet has gotten popular, more people seem to just assume everything they see is real, which gives advertisers, trolls,corporations, pranksters, assholes, political propaganda, and crazies the platforms they need to spew their nonsense and get the feedback and responses they were looking for, reinforcing views and beliefs in that crazy shit no matter how obscure or unusual.
Whatever happened to Serdar Argic?!
Well, the FAQs under the comp.sci usenet newsgroup hierarchy were a truly awesome resource when I was a C++ dev in the early '90s.
In the mid-nineties if you wanted to talk about your favorite band, you'd cobble together a site in something like tripod, geocities, or even expages. Then link to other slapdash fan pages. Today you go to a subreddit or setup a medium blog. Want to chat? Then you'd go onto IRC, ICQ (remember that?) or a random website running a Java Applet. Today its slack.
Economies of scale always win. We lose something beautiful in the process, gaining only nostalgia for something we'll never get back.
I actually write about this a bit in a book I'm slowly writing, Wanking in Hostels, https://pastebin.com/u/drifterzero
There was never a "purest form" of the WWW. Corporations had their hand in that almost from the very beginning. Netscape was founded to make money, and today's Internet would not exist but for that motivation.
One the other hand, the "purest form" of the Internet still exists today. That consists of someone writing some code that opens a TCP or UDP socket and starts sending bytes. That resulted in things like FTP, NNTP (i.e. usenet), gopher, and even HTTP (for a very short period of time before Netscape came along). Since then that same motivation and dynamic has produced TOR, bitcoin, Skype, Signal, and dozens of other applications, most of which languish in well deserved obscurity. The main difference between today's dynamic and the pre-netscape dynamic is 1) the net is much, much faster and universally accessible today and 2) the vast majority of people on the net today are non-technical, whereas in the good old days the net was populated almost exclusively by science and engineering academics.
The quality of the information available on the net is both better and worse today than it was in the early days. Wikipedia is a modern miracle. There has never been anything like it in the history of human civilization. Before 1990 if you wanted access to the kind of information that you can get on Wikipedia you had to go to a university library.
One the down side, all that good information is often drowned out by bad information put out by people who are poorly informed or who have political agendas. But it's not too hard to build yourself a pretty effective bullshit detector. That's a useful life skill to have both on-line and IRL.
I remember reading the descriptions of user areas on their MUD when I was a teenager in the 00s and feeling like it was a portal back in time (to the early 90s, admittedly) when the internet was more about creation and communication rather than media consumption. It was incredible to feel the continuity in this beautiful, fragile and very very idealistic but which was able to be true to those ideals as well.
The area I refer to is still there in the MUD, by the way, it is called Swanbrook. If you ever play, look behind the altar and you get to read a message from the area's creator, signed off as Snowbird. That message actually introduced me to the rolling stones. Not bad for something written thirty years ago on a very obscure bit of the internet.
Ended up finding some lists where you could e-penpal with random people around the world. Chatted with some people in Australia (I was in Los Angeles), when their internet was working (the connection would go down or be slow for them quite a bit).
I ran an internet BBS called 'Dolphin Cove BBS'  which had people randomly chatting about stuff I don't even remember.
I setup a CU-SeeMe server (early video chat room software) and found out from some other people that it had been used for... oh gawd... porn!, over the weekend while I was gone.
I remember when it was frowned upon to advertise for business purposes on places like usenet. I setup a gopher and ftp server and put information about my school on it. That didn't last long because Mosiac came out not too long after that.
finger was a big thing to share information and snoop on people.
The green terminals were so slow that you could read the letters as they formed words on the screen.
There used to be a lot of well maintained FAQ's hosted on usenet. The information there was quite good and informative. The early days were filled with the smart people who were focused on building the early internet, so I think the information was a lot more trusted.
A lot of CD's in the mail from ISP's and AOL, we'd try a new one out periodically that offered free internet access. For a while we used Juno's free internet tier. It had a permanent pop-up you couldn't remove from your desktop, but it was free internet so we kept it for a long time.
There were also weird local ways of getting online. Our small town had a school supplied ISP type thing. It loaded up a local town bulletin board, and I don't think you could access other sites. Within a few years it was phased out.
The content was sparse, but always engaging. Before there were blogs, people just had sites and the sites had interesting content. As I recall it went far beyond nerd/sci-fi stuff. I remember finding a site that had images of scans of things people put up their rectum, it was wild. I remember going to my local gas station to get a money order to pay for a Japanese Sega Saturn game I bought on Ebay with a money order. I mailed the money order and got the game.
Nothing was openly monetized, but ads were ever present, and by the late 90's pretty hard to avoid. It was hard to imagine the ads would wind up as openly malevolent as they are now, but I guess young kids don't have that type of imagination. I'm sure many saw the writing on the wall.
I miss that internet. That internet immediately reminds me of home. It's an internet that is largely gone, but not because it's destroyed, but because we moved on. We could all still spin up sites in html/css, but we don't. That's ok, time changes and folks move on.
Information sharing in “the good old days” was often via Usenet, IRC, BBS or email. The networks that were important were the people you knew, and membership of an IRC channel was a privilege not a right. If you stepped out of line you would be warned and banned. Large groups were still easily moderated because the peak level of “firehose” traffic was still humanly consumable. There were career-affecting repercussions from misbehaving in, say, Scary Devil Monastery. You would lose access to your support base and have to fend for yourself.
Information was mostly reliable, mostly because the level of expertise was high, the signal to noise ratio was high, and the chances were if you gave some advice there would be someone testing your claims and reporting back.
The “denvercoder9” problem was always there of course. Stack Overflow and Quora have neither invented that problem nor solved it.
Ultimately my rose-coloured nostalgia of the original Internet is that the level of expertise and interpersonal support was quite high, simply because non-academic access to the Internet was not easily available.
The ethos at the time was that you had to learn things the hard way, RTFM, and not spoon feed others who hadn't put in the work.
If there's one thing I'm glad about on the new Internet, it's that there's a lot more effort given to reader friendly documentation.
All of this is to say, kids these days have it easy!
I was pretty big into anime fanfic so anipike was the web directory I went to. The fan sites via xoom, geocities, tripod, angelfire are linked via web ring. Web ring is like a circle of website with similar interest and individual anime website would have a web ring to help find other similar website within the web ring. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webring
The ads weren't bad it was banners and it blinks or slide across like marquee html tag. The majority of the web ads felt like print paper ads less scientific like today. Today ads they got metric, funnel, and trying to get more eyeballs on it, very gamey to get your attention which I believe leads to addiction and click bait stuff.
The user involvement was less, social aspect seems to be around hobbies. Now a day you can try to catch up with your friends via facebook, snapchat, etc.. it seems like everybody is trying to get approval by online friends by having that awesome picture while traveling and doing stuff.
There was a famous newsletter I follow for my fanfiction too (rec.arts.anime.creative).
No current results page with 73,345,507 entries will come close to finding a directory with bitmaps of planets/moons there for the asking deep in jpl or some place.
>The ads weren't bad it was banners and it blinks or slide across like marquee html tag.
I can definitely remember ads getting worse and worse. At first they weren't bad but by 1999 or so it was pretty horrendous popup ads were massively prevalent. I can remember needing to run a separate pop up blocker app before browsers started building blockers in.
HTML blink tags were definitely a thing there were some eye bleeding websites using blink.
Trying to use search engines for researching high school projects was a pain you'd need to use 5 or 6 different search engines - Lycos, Infoseek, Metacrawler, Yahoo etc and each search would give you different results you'd be lucky if 30% of results were relevant to your topic. Dial up was so slow as well (at least at my school) it often wasn't worth the time to try using internet for researching assignments. It wasn't until I started university and found out about online journals that it really became a useful research tool.
Plugins used to be a big thing stuff like Real Player, Shockwave, java applets etc I'm pretty sure at some point Flash basically killed all these but for a while it was kind of a wildwest. Video online was almost never worth it. It would take forever to download half the time you wouldn't have the right codec to play it and quality was generally so terrible it was borderline unwatchable - everything looked like one giant pixel.
I can remember being introduced to Slashdot it was the site for a while I was a pretty late comer and it was huge in the late 90's I used to check it multiple times a day.
There was Veronica in the Gopher days. It was always busy, but it was nice that it came from educational institutions (UNR's is what I used locally). I don't think anyone at UNR remembers they ran it.
Oh, and Archie.
webrings were fun, but I really have nostalgia for Archie and MUDs.
The corporations were not really the first one to monetise and usher in e-commerce/www, it was porn, this ushered in lots of new tech.
The internet switched from active participation to passive consumption, and now we have both except now everything is monetised, monitored, and moderated.
It was the wild west.
The first time I was able to log in to one of the BBSs in the other city by dialing my local terminal server, hopping over decnet to Morgantown and then dialing out to a BBS with no long distance charges, I thought I would die of joy. Closest thing to magic I ever experienced I think, despite how low tech it sees now.
But smartphones drove a huge push towards centralization. Ten years ago, when the Internet was mostly on desktops and laptops, you might have a few sites you regularly visited and would pop open in different browser tabs when you sat down at your computer. Once smartphones became dominant, people started spending a lot more time on a handful of big sites and apps: Facebook, Twitter and friends.
It's harder to build a site that works reasonably well on smartphones than on desktops, so companies with big IT budgets to develop a nice cross-device UI suddenly had a huge leg up on attracting visitors and getting them to come back. It's also harder to type on a phone, which meant people spent less time searching and typing in memorized URLs and more time scrolling through newsfeeds.
It was like being in a little village in the far west. Very few sources of information. Not very sophisticated. Everyone saw the potential and was super optimistic about it. Like all new things it was a very special feeling.
Now it's like being in a huge megalopolis. There's information and people everywhere, a lot of noise. Civilization is here with its good and bad things.
I'm not sure I preferred it before. Connections were super slow which meant no Youtube, no Netflix, no online gaming (other than slow Yahoo games), no Wifi, etc.
 It's really hard to convey this but because the community was so much smaller back then bad behavior could and would get you banned from the few key service providers, servers available and/or shunned by other users. So if you wanted to be online you generally behaved semi-decently or you were gone. It was not uncommon for complete a-holes to be killfile-d by many on Usenet effectively rendering them invisible. Spamming people's email would get you filtered (sometimes at the server level) and, again, rendered you invisible. If none of that worked, complaints would pile up with your service provider (while you could be anonymous, your provider often wasn't in the form of mail/Usenet headers) and depending on how bad it was they (often your school or employer for most) would have no problem terminating your access. The rise of AOL really marked the beginning of the end of these norms... (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_September)
Sadly demon as a brand has been killed by it's current owners https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/01/11/vodafone_to_shutter... .
I think I got on the internet properly a year or so later, although I had access via various means early than that.
Early websites.. I remember reading Dr. Fun which was pretty similar to Far Side and all online. Church of the Subgenius had some really excellent subversive humor online, lots of fun as a young subversive teenager to read it and imagine what the authors were like. I think that just hearing about that kind of culture was a big escape for me as a teen in a rural area.
Searching was terrible especially in the early days before the web. There was a tool called Archie to search for filenames on FTP servers, and it took hours to generate results. Yahoo made it easier to find good resources, Lycos, Hotbot, and eventually Altavista were rudimentary web search engines that were pretty low quality. Site admins linked their websites to other like-minded sites in "webrings" to help find similar content.
I think that the lack of discoverability, fragmentation, and ephemerality (because hosting space WAS expensive so things DID get deleted) led to a greater sense of freedom of expression. I remember the old saying "on the internet nobody knows that you're a dog." (I just looked that up and it's a New Yorker cartoon from 1993 - very apropos for the time). I feel like that's the biggest change over the last ~30 years I have been online, the fact that most popular forums either use your real identity or are barely pseudononymous, and the understanding that today everything you do online is tracked, stored forever, and analyzed by multiple government and commercial entities.
So yeah, it was pretty great when it was like the wild west, but it's a lot more "useful" today.
To answer the question, I remember using IRC and newsgroups. I spent nights trying to find interesting content on the web (mostly personal webpages, before blogging was a thing). There was no wikipedia, no youtube, search engines sucked. Besides, there wasn't that much content in my language and I didn't speak so much English at the time.
I also remember when Youtube started. I naively wondered how personal videos could ever be interesting!
As for the websites themselves, it was pure HTML. It generally wasn't pretty, but loaded as fast as it does now due to the lack of JS and CSS imports, ads, analytics, etc. One of my favorite sites to browse to this day is reminiscent of how most pages of that time looked - http://www.thekeyboard.org.uk.
Don't be fooled into thinking it was more innocent, though. But it sure was a fun time, and felt a lot more wild west, in a good way, than it does today.
Sites were generally labors of love regardless of accuracy or credibility. There were cold hard facts and hard science. There was also a substantial amount of wild theorizing about UFOs, parapolitics, or bigfoot, but almost all of it was presented in this basically honest way. It was just people putting up information that interested them.
There were political sites but they were mostly straightforward and honest, even the extreme ones. If a site or forum was for Nazis or Leninists, it said so.
Ads and other clutter were more minimal. This was before the dynamic web so documents were just hypertext except for a few forms and little basic widgets.
A condensed description of the early net would be: uncluttered and mostly honest.
IMHO three things killed this information (relative) paradise: spam, gamification, and manipulative propaganda techniques.
These are listed roughly in order.
Spam came first and killed all the open federated systems like usenet, free blog comments, trackbacks, etc. Anything not gated became deluged by spam. Email almost died too but in the end was too valuable to abandon, but it was "saved" largely by being taken over by a small number of providers with the resources to fight spam. To this day running your own mail server is a big PITA.
The next blow was gamified social media and the algorithmic timeline. Social media started to eat the open web quickly, but social media itself was still mostly neutral until social feeds started to be driven by engagement maximizing algorithms and popularity started to be gamified. Humans started getting trained to optimize the content they create for the algorithm, and since that is optimizing for engagement that means divisive, sensational, or click bait content wins. The algorithms have basically nudge theory trained us all to be tabloid copy writers.
Last came firms like Cambridge Analytica and their ilk that view the net as a way to do con artistry at scale. Now you can't even trust that the content is real at all or that the "people" posting it are honest or are real people. I also call this "spam 2.0". Spam 1.0 was the same message blasted everywhere. Spam 2.0 is spam personalized by AI and content mills.
I think it was actually called "how to meet women", but it's impossible to find today.
In all seriousness, even though 1996 is not "early" internet, I still look back on when it still seemed like a frontier. I hope there's another innovation that gives everyone the same sense of exploration and being on the bleeding edge - I've no doubt there will be, but I'll be damned if I know what it is.
probably biology, or brain-machine stuff
These sites had usually a dark theme, the hilarious feature of blocking right click (usually followed by a JS alert saying something like "Copyright - create your own content") and several script kiddies tutorial. There even were some phreaking articles!
It wasn't that long ago, maybe around 2005, same period I started using computers. I wonder, do websites like these still exist?
When I finished college in 1989 I moved to Silicon Valley and found work. I sorely missed the Internet access I had enjoyed at the University. About a year later I heard about a dial up system called Netcom and immediately signed up. They offered email, internet news (NNTP), and even command line access. Wonderful!
One story I can recall:
The system grew until netcom consisted of 15 or 20 Sun OS 4.x servers.
One night a user wrote a shell script to poll all the servers, locate the server with the lightest load, and then log into that system. They shared the script and within hours many users were running the script in their login file. Since there was no check to see if the script was already in use in that session, long chains of user logins bounced around the systems resulting in an early DDOS shutdown.
Good times, until about 2000 when the buyers of Netcom eventually shut down shell account service 
Anyone else remember netcom.com?
When that was killed, I moved to accesscom.com to keep full access, including shell... until that went away as well.
In those days, you knew the topology of USENET, so if you wanted to send mail to a person outside of your system, you described the route that reached this person. It wasn't as hard as it sounds, because there were certain systems that had an immense number of connections.
I had done lots of BBSing before that, and I treated the Internet the same way - a bunch of different tools to get the same sort of social experience.
Email w/ pine. BBS message boards became Usenet w/ trn. Gopher. Finding random people with finger, and chatting with ytalk. Once talked with a random girl named Thuy in Perth, which blew my mind at the time. Some shlub in the US sending messages live to Australia. Downloading all sorts of freeware from wuarchive.wustl.edu.
It felt smaller then, and something inviting (to me at least). You'd recognize email addresses from one corner popping into a new one, and it gave the whole Internet a sense of continuity. It was a place I wanted to interact with.
Usenet, in particular, was usually a pretty good source of information. As a matter of course, people attached their email address to each posting. And they usually only had one - HoTMaiL and its ilk wouldn't come around until '96 or so. If you saw an email address you recognized, you'd have an idea of trustability.
Today, I really don't contribute much. I don't surf r/new or whatever, so somebody else has usually said anything I want to say. C'est la vie.
It has something like 30 systems on it.
Email sort of worked between compatible systems, and telnet - or something like telnet, more or less - was the primary way of getting around.
Sometime around 1983 I had an IRC conversation with someone at a big US consultancy who couldn't believe that I was in another country and not trolling him from a nearby room.
I rejoined in 1994 when The Real Internet was just getting started. Technical setup with a TCP stack and 9600 modem on Windows was a nightmare, and dial-up costs were charged per minute, so usage soon got expensive.
Demon, then the UK's only-ish ISP, didn't have enough lines, so it was usual to have to attempt ten or more calls before getting a slot.
The web was appallingly slow, with grainy low-res imagery and shitty stock fonts. MP3s file took minutes to download. Video might as well have been science fiction, although a lot of both were distributed on Usenet in parts - sometimes hundreds of parts, which had to be stitched together before the file could be played.
But the culture was cool. Very weird and oddball. And HTML 1.0 was so simple almost anyone could make a page. Most ISPs included some web hosting, so a lot of people did. (I had friends who knew very little about computing who made simple pages with a text editor.)
The corporates moved in a few years later. Quirk still exists in odd little corners, but the Internet is much more of a relentless money machine now.
IRC didn’t exist then. So it was some other chat or you mistyped the date
It is how I got my first rude internet experience.
Some brat started writing weird cursing things at someone they did not even know! I reported them to the sysops so I'm sure they received a sternly worded reprimand with a warning they could be banned and certainly they would see the error of their ways and never do anything like that again ...
I should have seen this comming
I used FTP, Usenet and Gopher a lot to get information, and while its nothing compared today, in those days it was magic. Instead on being entirely reliant on books and magazines to give you information, you suddenly could start consuming a whole bunch of info for free. It's hard to describe how amazing that felt, it unlocked information for the information starved.
The ability to download software was also amazing. I used to get magazines with disks on their covers with cool things to play with, but now, I could get LOTS of software. ( Also used BBS's for this )
IRC was in the early days when I first went on ( only a few hundred users at any given time on EFnet, the only network at the time) and I made friends all around the world ( including some of the very first IRC users ). At that stage, everyone was equally awed by how you could talk live with people all around the world. Also you got live updates on world events by people who were there. No waiting to hear about things on the news or in the newspaper. Amazing.
Then within a few years, people started making some big money from the internet, and things quickly started to change, peaking with the dot.com boom and bust.
I met many long term long distance friends on early bulletin boards. My favourite of which was the unmod board at ocremix. Thanks djpretzel!
I remember the first time I saw a video clip, the first time I saw a gif, the first time I saw a still image on a website.
I remember having to redial multiple times to get connected during high demand times.
I remember IRC (still use it daily).
I remember MUDs (still play one weekly, that I played starting in 97 or 98 and it still has 10-15 people on whenever I log on).
I remember the dial-up handshake, in fact I recorded it and it has been my ringtone since 2004.
When I got my first cable modem around 2000 you could scan local network segment for open smb ports and map other users drives, usually rw. Saw some interesting stuff doing that. Was pretty cool to access the many open ftp servers too. I think the original version of the audiogalaxy music finder app was just a front end to search those.
"What I miss is how mysterious the internet could be and how gullible we were. The Internet felt like this strange underbelly of obscure information.
First you're growing up in some little town and only know about Star Wars and Green Day. Then suddenly you're finding niche websites and reading about obscure movies and bands and movies you definitely won't find on the radio or in the video store. Youd find dedicated fan sites that had deleted scenes from Alien that you'd never even heard of!
You'd find bizarre paranormal websites that every story felt so real and believable. Every low res UFO and ghost picture could be real. Every story was accepted as real. I read the Ted the Caver geocities page back then at 2 in the morning and was totally convinced it was real. Nowadays we're skeptical of every story and some photoshop guy will dissect any picture and reveal how the shadows dont fall right or something.
If you could find the right program and file, you could download pretty much any Nintendo game ever! Your tiny world and library of just Mario and Ninja Gaiden completely exploded with potential. I was now able to play this holy grail Chrono Trigger I'd always heard of. Or I would go through great lengths to find a good English patch of this Japanese only game called Front Mission. And you'd convince yourself that you weren't stealing because Nintendo hadn't sold these games for years, they were unobtainable! You felt like a hacker and a pirate doing that stuff.
The internet back then made you feel like an explorer on the fringe. The mysterious frontier just waiting for you to engage its endless opportunity. Man I miss that shit."
There were plenty of apps for different things.
At least for music/file sharing, there were: Napster, Soulseek, eMule and many others. Then, chat clients: AIM, ICQ, IRC.
I was also using chess clients, and it was perfectly normal to have 5-6 different apps running, all of them being clients to different web services.
Around 1993 it started to move to the world after film can sell internet bandwidth (and in fact mine come from a firm under a U). As mac user at home, has to wait until the mac internet guide before dialup modem work.
As commentary before it is very exploratory. Zen and the Art, gopher, mosaic comes along.
And email group. And you can pay internet Go server even then using ascii client.
Still remember answer a question what and where is Vulcan? The usual answers pop up but my answer that it is the planet sit between mercury and the sun is a big surprise in those days without wiki. Even for Trekkie. Just nice days.
During college years, first we got Mosaic then Netscape, and more and more one went on-line to look for non-academic information, e.g., I remmeber when NYT on-line started. My first summer job in college, at the MIT Media Lab, was in a group where people were talking about building a mainframe, digitize movies, and serve (this was before "stream" became mainstream) them to people at home. I remember thinking: "Who'd pay for that?"
but for me, the heyday, was the mid90s to early 2000s. it was a magical place full of "Under Construction" webpages (static hand coded HTML webpages), and user run linking networks called "Web Rings." Web rings, basically if someone linked to you, you linked back to them, and to someone else, typically there would also be a link to an index of all in the ring, a random button, and generally some sort of image related to the ring, they generally followed some sort of theme, star trek fans, college alumni, mudds/fantasy games, etc...
The browser wars where still a thing, and the look and feel of the internet wasn't settled, browsers where implementing there own features, that were wildly divergent from each other, and sometimes the same functionality, that required completely different code to perform it. Java Applets, where the bees knees, and mostly pointless, but pretty features to the web (water ripple effects on images...)
Gif or any animated image format was still a heavily contested copyright issue. And droves of people from all over the world were pouring "online."
Highschool and colleges, trying to come up with a way to "cite" webpages like book authors. (url, author, publish date.)
The organization of the net, was very much akin to the wild west, small clusters of interlinked sites serving as frontier towns, universities played a huge role, as they often had the students who had the brains, time, and inclination, to create sites, and generally small of enough to maintain a "sitemap" of all of their pages.
No real way to search all of the net, no "social networks", chatrooms and IRC were hot beds of communications, and because of the loose coupling, it was much easier to meet people, and actually become friends with them.
I'd say it wasn't until pop-ups started showing up everywhere and people started buying goods online, did the web shift its direction.
And though I tech is amazing today, I still feel we aren't the better for it.
So with the current internet you get access to those RFCs, much usenet and mailing list content from early days, and videos of people from that era reliably recounting how the network operated. Plus all the benefits of things like Stackoverflow, Wikipedia, and others that give more context than you could get solely from the early internet.
However, the edges of the network weren't weaponized as they are today. So there was probably less likelihood of an early internet user coming away as an anti-vaxxer/flat-earther.
I missed Usenet at one point, but I've come to find HN/Reddit/Twitter/web forums have filled that gap, from my point of view at least. HN/Reddit/web forums are quite similar in many respects, and while the UX is quite different, over time I've come not to mind, and in some ways to even prefer it.
(Twitter? - well, it is not really much like Usenet at all, is it? But it is a place where I've found myself finding out about new stuff, and found myself amused by seeing people write performatively, and it reminds me of Usenet on that basis.)
I was too young to think about what it might mean in the long run, but it hinted that perhaps it wouldn't just stay a nerd's playground forever. It felt like a form of validation, that this internet thing would now become mainstream, and it definitely did in the lead-up to 2000 and all that happened.
That last is what I miss the most.
Example from : "User barbox!user would generally publish their UUCP email address in a form such as …!bigsite!foovax!barbox!user."
You had to learn how machines were connected, and which were high capacity. Otherwise, delivery might take days, or fail.
I still have the disk drive, but no way to read it anymore.
Telnet, academic connectivity, military networks, international intrigue and espionage, UC Berkeley hippy/nerd culture -- it's a fun read.
Anyways, here's a backup with 3,573,022 sites
I still miss that Internet which was not manipulated by Algorithms and where even Ads were not irritating.
One thing that hasn't been mentioned in the eye watering cost of getting online.
In 1988 Compuserve was charging $11 per hour - about $22 per hour today.
That is - it was filled with people who were excited about it and dedicated their time for free to help other enthusiasts and grow the community. It was filled with character and personal content.
It was also hard to use for people who aren't part of a dedicated group and it's utility was limited to the needs those group had and could provide for to others.
It's still alive today, to get a feel check out sci.electronics.design (which is a still active newsgroup - Winfield Hill still posts to it):
People created websites without any specific goals.
Today, I became very cynical about the state of Internet. The big $$ companies took it over. people use it as a way to market themselves.
It went as a fun technology for geeks that the masses made fun of. The arrival of the masses changed everything.
There's a magic I can't describe well. Part of it is surely nostalgia. But there was something magical about staying up in the wee hours of the night while the world around you was asleep and exploring the web. Finding new people, new ideas, new Java applet games.
The social aspect was different. Only a few people had an online presence, but the engagement felt more real.
Frequented BBSs as a teenager, then heard about the internet. Joined local ISP in 1993 or so.
Usenet was huge and the content had a much better signal to noise ratio. Lots of academics and students online, so generally intelligent discourse.
That got shut down pretty fast, but I still remember it fondly as a thing from before the net became all about monetization.
IIRC it does a wonderful job of capturing the cyberpunk feel of growing up with it.
Not everything was better then.
Before, you went to stuff. Now stuff comes to you.
I started off in the BBS world in the early 90's, with Internet being something available to universities and sometimes high schools. As it turns out, I lived in a university town at one point.
The BBS world had a higher bar of entry, so it tended to attract people of higher IQ, miscreants, or tech nerds. I was the writing tech nerd (which hasn't changed, as I type here unironically). The intermediate between the Internet and the BBS messaging world was something like FIDONet, where your BBS would dial up and bulk import and export messages. Those of us who didn't have access (or know about) Usenet early on.
The WWW killed the BBS.
Prodigy and CompuServe and Sierra Online among others were something like hybrids, since they offered glorious (at the time) online worlds before they started weaving in the Internet like Prodigy did (my first e-mail experience). For example, you'd log in and read the news or play games, before the Internet connected itself to Prodigy.
The early commercialized WWW was flat HTML, with flashy purple and popup-y things of a dubious nature all over the place. You had to be careful that your parents didn't click on something mean that installed something horrific on their Windows 98 PC's. On the other hand, You Went To Stuff. So while things like Yahoo and Webcrawler (was that the name of the browser) were nothing compared to Google, we didn't have a corruption of advertising manipulating search results on a grand scale (pay to play).
Today, we live increasingly in a world where Stuff Comes To You. For example, there's a tightening of the screws of not just Google, but also sites (and especially, especially Apps) like YouTube, Amazon and others that try to use magic to 'guess' what you will like algorithmically.
Let's stop for a second: is it in your interests for them (the corporations) to guess what you want, or is it in the interest of profit-motivated interests? And if they ALWAYS 'guess what you want' at what point does 'what you want' become self-referential? And what someone else wants you to want? How long are they guessing what you want before what you want isn't being expressed by you anymore very much? And what about your young kids, how in the world can kids even want stuff from scratch without being manipulated by the 'what do they want'-type offerings provided by algorithms?
I deeply miss being able to "Go To Stuff" without corrupted and manipulated search results, and I think a lot of younger people don't realize how much Stuff Goes to Them. Sure, Facebook and Instagram are obviously doing it, but there's something about the re-training of the human mind going on, here.
I will stop before conspiracy theories get out of hand and I need a drink.
1993-1995: Mostly scientific & technical papers & discussions. Deeply intellectual, with almost everyone on the Internet having a professional background and many being top experts in their fields. The WWW was a relatively minor protocol on the Internet; much discussion still happened over E-mail, Usenet, and Gopher, and Telnet and FTP had as many sites up as the WWW. (Although fact-checking my memory, apparently AOL opened up Internet access in September 1993 and that was the beginning of an influx of kids - like myself - onto the Internet, which is what started degrading the Internet.)
1995-1998: AOL's Internet access was in full swing, Yahoo and Geocities were founded, the trivial "fun" usages of the Internet started to overshadow the scientific & technical ones. This was the era of WebRings, Geocities pages, <blink> tags, garish colors, and sites that looked like they were made by a 12-year-old because they probably were. Lot of band pages, fan pages, joke sites, and trivial pop culture. First Internet advertisements started to appear.
1998-2000: Dot-com boom heyday. Peak gold rush. The dot-com boom is normally dated from 1995-2000, but it massively accelerated in 1998 after the Amazon & E-bay IPOs, resolution of the Asian Financial Crisis, and drop in interest rates. This was the era when VCs were throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at ideas on napkins and then taking them public 3 months later. Most activity was centered around E-commerce, where the belief was that an online version of every retail sector would take over and dominate (which turned out to be true, but happened 20 years later with Amazon).
2001-2004: Dot-com bust. Many pundits declared the Internet over, though anyone looking around could see that wasn't the case. Most of the big VC-funded companies founded in 1998-2000 went bankrupt, thousands of people lost their jobs, many people get out of the field entirely. People talk about how all software engineering jobs will be outsourced to India. Microsoft "wins" the browser wars with IE6, and also has heavy adoption in the server (NT Server + IIS), database (SQL Server), and programming framework (ASP.NET) areas. Enterprises start moving their software to the browser. Consumer attention is largely focused on P2P filesharing (Napster, Kazaa, Gnutella, Audiogalaxy, etc.) and on early proto-social-networks (Xanga, LiveJournal, EZBoards, 4chan, Friendster, MySpace).
2004-2008: Social networking boom and return of Web 2.0. Facebook kicks it off in 2004, along with the acquisitions of Blogger, Flickr, and Del.icio.us (all of which had been steadily building throughout the bust) and then in rapid succession we get Digg, Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter. At this point the corporation names start getting recognizable, so I'll stop there.
I snagged a badge that said I was a venture capitalist. I was probably 17 looking like a 14 year old. People pitched me before realizing I probably wasn't VC. They saw the badge first. It was a great time to see the absurdity before the crash.
Hell I was able to get a million dollar license to some security software there. Which I promptly uploaded to IRC.
That era was epic.
A lot of firsts are memorable.. The first time using cable modem instead of dialup, the first time using wifi on a laptop and it seeming like magic.. "usable" GPRS mobile data.
One thing that felt different was there seemed to be far more creation than there is today vs consuming. In some ways, the only way to participate was creating because there was far less to consume.
Another memory and remaining gift today is the feeling of what authentic community and social interaction felt like online. Despite social media being ubiquitous today, there seemed a deeper community during the late 90's / early 2000's.. pre Facebook. I'd say reddit is the closest experience to the feeling today, but Reddit is more awesome with the sheer amount of people on it.
I still have a few friendships formed from irc as teenagers and we still remain in touch nearly 15-20 years later. Maybe not as often, but the depth and respect often remains. It's not uncommon to get a random call or long email during a major life event to reconnect for a few weeks to support each other along until the next thing.
I don't think the 90s internet generations' minds were as skewed by anxiety because they used technology to create, and connect.. not consume what others are up to, and as mainstream society has picked up the internet the consumption (gaming included) mindset has arrived in much greater numbers. The big shift from irc to instant messengers was one wave of disconnection, but when social networks started replacing words with photos.. The substance became visual instead of learning to use your words. I got to create games, music, web, mobile apps, video and web apps.
In a way, all my friends who joined the internet 10-15 years after me are 10-15 years behind and catching up on topics like privacy, managing distractions, paying attention to how much value tech actually provides me.
They are also going thru internet and technology addiction on a curve after I did. But we're starting to come out of the addiction cycle of building humanities weakest online social bonds of showing off, being phony, jealousy and the resulting anxiety for something far more positive: becoming creators.
There's an interesting overlap between the group who grew up online before the world discovered the internet and saw the world arrive, and the current group that knew no life without the internet.
I still have faith thoough.. Any young minded and open minded ppl (armed with today's possibilities have some pretty incredible opportunities if they can focus on what they're doing and not what, or how others are doing.
But the barriers to entry were high, as well. A state-of-the-art build consistently ran in the $2000 range - you could go cheaper but it often meant being several years in the past at a moment when Moore's Law was steamrolling every assumption in 18 month cycles, and software that kept pace with more and more features. Games in particular heavily targeted the enthusiasts. Many people got into PCs upon experiencing Doom for the first time. And running a server - well, most people were on dial-up lines, and in the early part of the decade, shell accounts, not the PPP connections that gave you full TCP/IP connectivity. If you ran a server, it was most likely part of a school or business connection. And then you had to maintain all of it yourself. The onset of free hosting - first with Geocities style static HTML, and then webpage builders and even PHP scripting, was a kind of early example of Internet commercialization. It allowed lots of folks to make their own web site for the first time, which they promptly filled up with "about me: i am 13 years old and have two dogs. sorry ill finish this later"
There were no real expectations around early Web content, after all. It was whatever you thought you needed to put there, and a consumer-branding mindset hadn't sunk in yet among Web surfers. You explored Web sites because there were no places with upvotes and newsfeeds, just pages you bookmarked and checked regularly in hopes of an update. If you wanted the drip feed of news, mailing lists and Usenet worked better. But gradually publishing and aggregation came into play on the Web, with both traditional news players and the likes of Slashdot, and web forums took up the baton from Usenet of allowing you to engage in topical discussion, except that over time all web forums turned into meta-communities defined by their off-topic discussion.
Then as now, the single most useful thing you could do in most circumstances was to send someone an email.
I had internet access starting about 26 or 27 years ago, but it became much more important to me when I was living in the middle of nowhere and began homeschooling. Then it became much more central to my life.
I was on some email lists to support my homeschooling effort. At the time, they were hosted for free by a university. The founder was an IT professional. You kind of had to be. There wasn't anything plug-and-play, like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups.
I had access to some excellent homeschooling stuff for free via internet, but there wasn't anything like Patreon or tip jars, so they had no way to monetize it.
One handwriting site eventually pulled it's free materials off the internet and began charging consulting fees or something. Some excellent math resource disappeared altogether. The best explanation for faceblindness that I've ever seen is now only available via The Wayback Machine aka The Internet Archive (last I checked).
I did a free homeschooling and parenting site for a bit, but hand coding everything when I'm not a professional programmer was a huge burden and impeded updates. I eventually moved to Word Press and, later, BlogSpot. I post a great deal more content using BlogSpot.
I'm mostly okay with the commercialization of the internet. If you want good content, it takes time, effort and expertise to put that out there. It isn't realistic to expect talented people to provide such for free forever. If you want such, you should be willing to allow them to somehow make money from it.
I still try to provide free resources available to the public while trying to monetize it with tips and patrons. Ads aren't doing so well on the internet generally and seem to be an especially poor fit for much of my writing. I haven't yet figured out how to get adequate income from my own websites, but some people do successfully monetize their work while providing cool stuff available for free to anyone.
I recently had a piece do well on HN in terms of traffic and comments: more than 600 upvotes, more than 300 comments and more than 60k page views.
I'm pleased with that aspect of it, but it didn't result in any money whatsoever for me and I'm on track to be broke by the end of the day tomorrow. HN members complain bitterly about ads and are aggressive about using ad blockers. My experience has been you don't make much ad money from hitting the front page of HN and I would rather get tips and patrons anyway.
I don't know if I did something wrong or if it is a case of "sexism is alive and well, so the world expects me to work for free even if I'm literally starving and they know it" or just what.
People who imagine the internet was better back then or would be better if we could get rid of the corporate influence are people who literally expect everything to somehow magically be high quality, completely and totally free and also be reliably available and trustworthy with no hidden gotcha.
I don't know if I will ever succeed in what I want to do, but it's clear to me that patronage, tips and other forms of monetization make it possible for independent creatives to pursue high minded endeavors without compromising their vision in order to pay the bills. I think that's exactly what folks imagine the internet used to be and maybe was to some degree, minus the implicit expectation of basically slave labor making it happen.
And those things are possible thanks to commercialization of the internet. They would work better if more folks felt like it mattered to pay the people providing high quality independent content instead of bad-mouthing commercialization as if it were the root of all evil.
My first ever connection to the Internet came from a local, but large, Bulletin Board System that prided itself in lots of dial-in numbers, large file and message board collection and good FidoNet service. You could dial-in for 20 or 30 minutes a day for free and a couple hours if you paid something like $10 or $15 a month.
At some point they thought it would be cool to provide an internet email gateway for a couple dollars more which I excitedly paid until I realized I knew literally nobody else I could possible message with.
It's hard for modern users who didn't see the emergence of the Internet as basically the Web and highspeed always on connections. Before that time it was expensive, slow, and highly geared towards universities and whatever people could personally offer. Most of the university stuff I knew about were sites run by enthusiastic faculty or students who had found an unmonitored corner of a server somewhere on their university network and put up various interesting collections of things they had pulled together.
Maybe around '91 or so my friend's father got a very limited usage dial-up shell account from a local ISP that dropped you into a shell for 30 minutes a day. You could use various text-only tools to send and receive email (we never did since it was a corporate account), and a couple megabytes of diskspace we could use to stage files we ftp'd down from other sites. Then we'd login over the next couple days and use most of his account time to download whatever random thing we had found somewhere.
Gopher was also a common tool that made getting around and finding things faster, if and only if you could find a well maintained gopher site. For those not familiar with gopher, it was a bit like an easy to navigate text-only hypertext system that predated the WWW.
I think it was in '92 that I was selected by my county to participate in a special sponsored program that would give a few students at each school a dial-up internet account on the local mainframe with 30 minutes of time per day. They had no idea at all what we'd do with it and had rigged the accounts to first drop into a school-system gopher screen. It took a few days to figure out how to kill the gopher client and get back to a shell. I think telnet and ftp were also installed and I was able to connect to various sites I knew about (and kept a little notebook with information about).
One thing I remember distinctly, having been a heavy BBS user was not really understanding that I could connect to remote servers and it was using a different information network than the phone system to do it. What this meant was that if I dialed into a BBS in a different state or country I'd get a huge phone bill. But if I dialed into my local ISP, and then telneted to a server in a different state or country it didn't matter. That first month waiting to see if we'd get a bill for all the time I spent connecting to servers all over the world was terrifying (as was the relief when the bill didn't arrive!)
It's important to remember that at this exact same time BBS usage was at its peak and there were several very large and competitive BBS services around: America Online (did not provide Internet Access originally), Prodigy, GEnie, CompuServe and a handful of more local offerings (like I mentioned above). We never really had the money for these services, but a few of my friends did and they were interesting in different ways, often trying to figure out how to get around the very low dial-up rates of the time (typically 1200 or 2400 baud). For example, Prodigy offered a vector-based graphical interface with nice splash screens for various games and services. It took a while to load each screen, but they charged you by the minute so they didn't care.
At some point, the hobbyist BBS scene also tried to provide graphical interfaces. There was a handful of various client/server software setups available, often with a text-only fallback. I remember a the names of a few pieces of software, Excalibur, there was an interesting Macintosh only system I think called FirstClass that had a special transport layer protocol and so on. The reason I bring this up is that when the WWW first really started appearing it wasn't really understood that this could become "the interface to the global supernetwork" and it was just assumed that some kind of graphical interface to local systems was a natural technological evolution of BBSs and that they would continue to compliment if not dominate internet access.
I think around '94 or '95 it started to become pretty common that you could just find an ISP in the phone book, call them up and get some kind of "getting started" software kit or a dial-up shell account. The getting started kits usually had some kind of dialing software, a TCP/IP stack (OSs didn't ship with them in general at the time), Mosaic and some kind of Email client...all on a couple of floppies! Usually with some large number of minutes of time per day your account would connect for (or a per minute charge after). People used to keep usage logs in notebooks to make sure they wouldn't blow their connection cap and either run out of internet or end up with huge monthly bills.
The transition away from BBSs and onto the web happened very quickly after that and I think coincided neatly with the transition of MS-DOS users to Windows '95 (which didn't ship with a TCP/IP stack!). You could kind of feel BBS's start to decay right around this time as users just started moving wholesale onto the web.
For a long time, personal web pages were sort of the equivalent of what BBSs used to offer, but very decentralized. IRC took over for BBS Chat, ftp sites took over for local BBS file offerings and email took over for BBS mail and FidoNet -- Usenet was suddenly introduced to an entire generation of users. Except instead of whoever was the local user community of your local BBS it was some slice of technically minded people all over the planet. Most ISPs gave you a few MB to put up your own page and a few pointers on basic HTML, how to ftp, and off you went!
There really weren't any "corporate" sites or big centralized sites at the time. So people came up with all kinds of ways to try to connect. The earliest was just people putting up links to favorite sites on their personal pages. Soon larger indexes of sites were started (and suddenly Yahoo! appeared). The other was to connect similarly themed personal sites via a "web ring".
It still wasn't entirely obvious that the WWW would be "it" though. Many many services were started pushing their own protocol and systems to fill major technical gaps that existed at the time. Streaming video for example was pushed very heavily by RealPlayer. There was a number of experiments for "push" news clients for example.
Oddly, I don't really remember any credible attempts at another technology that was more or less like the WWW but with unique spins or tech approaches. It seems that the core approach was so good that everybody just tried to grab it and bastardize it to their own ways early on.
Many many small and local ISPs were started to service the growing dial-up business and the competition was awesome. I ended up work for an ISP from '96 to maybe '99. It wasn't long before unlimited dial-up became a thing. By the late 90s you could even get "free" dial-up if you used special dial-up software that filled a portion of your screen with ads. At some point I think I got a second phone line and just dialed-in 100% of the time. Always on internet was...amazing. Suddenly download managers started appearing to handle broken connections and redials and to help manage bandwidth over then 28.8kbps connections (kilo BITS per second).
There was a huge industry change up near the end of the 90s with the advent of 56k modems. Suddenly POTs phone lines had to be of very high quality, higher than most people had. It was very common to buy a brand new 56k modem and never get the maximum of something like 53kbps (it wasn't really possible to ever get 56kbps connections for various reasons. Most people would get 40k or so, but of course it was always the mom & pop ISPs fault for not getting the giant telecom to have clean lines :/
The desire for more speed, and the low quality of service most small ISPs could offer over 56k meant very rapid consolidation and investment in more expensive connection technologies like ISDN. When ADSL was finally announced, it was clear that the industry was going to move to a model with the phone company being the ISP and inside of a year or two almost every ISP who couldn't got out of the business.
During all this, AOL started offering more and more internet services, but resisted just becoming an ISP. This resulted in years of eternal septembers on various message boards and other services as millions of AOL users, newly introduced to some part of the internet for the first time ever engaged in typical eternal september behaviors. Among the more technically inclined users, an @aol.com email address wasn't even worth responding to.
At some point, maybe in the mind to late 90s, there was a concerted effort by a few pioneers to try to do business on the WWW. The technology wasn't really there for a while, and many of the efforts were weirdly skeuomorphic "online malls" and such. Very clumsy, but the technology was clumsy and web pages couldn't really be all the sophisticated. Amazon stuck it through, first as a bookstore and then they started to add more and more things. Another retailer, ThinkGeek was started in the late 90s and is still around. Most of the rest are long dead. It's interesting that both of those early "e-commerce" companies is now experimenting with brick-and-mortar stores.
It's worth it for somebody interested to lookup old videos and screenshots (and web captures) of the just pre-internet to early internet interfaces and tools. There's at least one effort I know of that's trying to revive the Prodigy Vector Art graphics as well as a couple of the smaller graphical BBS artworks.
My view of the internet was very skeuomorphic. Websites were like "places" and by riding the web-rings I felt like I was surfing through cyberspace. When I would come across new information I would store it in my bookmarks which I thought of as a sort of inventory. If I came across a small tribe on some random internet forum somewhere I might share some of my best links with them to win them over. If I found a guest book I would sign it as a way of planting my flag.
I viewed anyone who actually "owned" a website to be something like a God, a MASTER of the web. I also viewed hackers as very dangerous people, where if they wanted to, they could blow up my computer in my face.