A few weeks ago, Szczezuja asked the GeminiSpace community: How you were using the Internet in 1991-1995 and 1995-2005?
This may be a bit longer than asked for, and I thought about breaking it into smaller pieces, but I decided it would be more appropriate for a Gemini post to be one single unit.
By 1990 my family had moved on from Atari’s home computer line to what was then known as an “IBM Compatible” PC. I missed out on the BBS era, except for one time we had to download a software patch. My first taste of being online came through walled gardens during my last year of high school:
Prodigy, which I seem to remember having a GUI frame around a mostly text interface (except for banner ads in the frame). I think it even ran under DOS. I remember looking at some message boards about theater, but that’s about it.
AOL, which at the time was much friendlier to use, ran on Windows, and had its own system of message boards, email, etc. But again I don’t remember much about what I did with it until later on.
Then I got to college and discovered “Mosaic” at the computer labs. This web thing was really cool! There was a database of movies that I could search, I could find all kinds of sites on this collection of categorized links called Yahoo!, and people were posting things like fan pages collecting all of the Animaniacs cultural references!
There was a campus-wide Unix network that you could connect to through a dial-up terminal app, or the WYSE terminals scattered around campus. Windows and/or Mac computer labs at major departments. The engineering, computer science, etc. labs also had bullpens full of graphical UNIX terminals (I think they were the classic Sparc “pizza boxes” running SunOS and later Solaris), which was how I first encountered Mosaic and Netscape.
Back at my dorm, though, I had to dial up to a terminal. I could use text-based applications like Lynx for web browsing, or PINE for email. Sometimes I’d check my email (a string of auto-generated letters and numbers based on my major at a fourth-level domain based on the department that handled student email) at a text-based terminal in one of the computer labs or scattered around campus.
Speaking of email, I remember being super-impressed that I could email someone on the other side of the planet and they could read it and reply within hours! At first, though, I mostly used it to write to friends who’d gone to other schools.
Gopher was still around but fading fast. I remember looking things up occasionally, mostly using Netscape or Lynx. I’m half-convinced that I used a gopher-specific client once or twice in one of the labs, and there was one on the floppy full of internet utilities, but I can’t remember anything specific about it. The school had a gopher space, but it may have only been official documents like course catalogs. If they had student space available, I never set up on it.
Otherwise the main thing I remember about it is that there were search engines named Archie and Veronica.
The text-based newsgroup readers at the time were kind of a pain to use, but I got onto some fandom groups through AOL.
But I set up a “home page” on the school’s student server. It wasn’t much, just a collection of links to a few interesting pages elsewhere online. But it was my first presence on the web.
1995-2000: Web Explosion
Game-changers: Dial-up networking and Netscape
The school handed out floppy disks with internet software for Windows and Mac. My home and dorm internet access were still slow, but it was graphical now! And I could use Netscape or Eudora or another email program to save my emails on my computer so I didn’t have to tie up the phone line (more about that later). By this time Netscape had added a mail-and-news component, which Thunderbird can trace its lineage back to.
And the school simplified their email assignments. Instead of something like firstname.lastname@example.org (not my actual address back then), it could be email@example.com. Much easier to remember, write, or tell people!
At first the academic websites were mostly administrative info like directories. Sometimes info about upcoming events.
Over the next few years, more and more classes started using email to communicate with students. Some started making class materials available on the web. Essays were still usually expected on paper, but digital projects might be turned in by FTP or using a write-only file share on the campus network. I turned in a lot of programming assignments to Buttercup from the Guilder and Florin networks.
And I started hand-writing HTML and putting ACTUAL STUFF on my school and AOL websites! (Being able to use FTP from my own computer helped with that!) A Les Misérables fan site that cross-referenced the lyrics in multiple languages. A Flash fan site that covered the histories of various comic-book speedsters. A page full of the MIDI sequences that I had put together to practice for choir and musical theater. Some short stories and poems I’d written.
I got onto some fandom newsgroups and mailing lists, mostly comics and musical theater. And MIDI. I was really into MIDI for a while in the pre-MP3 era. I got in touch with other Flash and Titans fans and helped out with some of their fan sites. Other Les Mis fans sent me lyrics in different languages, or helped with literal translations back into English when the official versions differed significantly. (Also translations of the original French into English. The show was completely retooled between the French concept album and the London premiere.)
We did webrings. Pages were under construction, and clunky animated graphics (and auto-playing MIDI soundtracks) were all the rage. And frames.
There was still a sense of optimism, that this new thing would make a difference.
I never really got into IRC, but some of my friends played RPGs over chat on a weekly basis for several years. And toward the end of the decade I got onto ICQ for instant messaging, but mostly while I was still at school.
Overall it was still mostly academic, fandom, or socializing with friends who were also in college.
Spam was virtually nonexistent at first, and malware spread through email was literally impossible. It was a joke about people’s fear of new technology. Remember the “Goodtimes Virus” hoax?
Of course, by the end of the decade spam was bad and getting worse, and there were Word macro viruses, vulnerabilities in mail clients and web browsers, and of course the Ping of Death.
Tying up the phone line was a major issue. No one could use the phone because the computer was monopolizing it, and only one computer could dial in at a time. There was a lot of negotiation between family members when I was at home, and roommates when I was at school.
And downloading large files? That was something you could only do overnight, when no one else wanted to use the phone, and it would take hours. Even on a 56K modem, I remember estimating it would take about 1 minute per megabyte to download something. MP3s took about as long to download as to play. A CD-ROM image for installing Linux could easily take the entire night.
After a while my parents installed a second, data-only line and ran cables to the living room and bedrooms. But only one computer could be online at a time. Eventually we managed to network the computers together. I think it was my brother who found a dial-up router program that could be controlled from any computer on the network. We built a frankenputer, stuck Linux on it, and from then on, the home dial-up connection could be shared!
Wired for LAN
When I moved into a dorm that was wired for ethernet for my last year of college, I was really reluctant to hook up my Windows 95 computer directly to the network, because by then I’d seen what could happen with all the Windows NT systems at the computer lab where I worked. I’d started dual-booting Linux by then, and that year I ran Linux more often than Windows just out of paranoia! More on that experience, written up only a few years afterward.
Aside from the pranks, in the wired dorms we mostly used the internet the same as anywhere else, just faster, and we could share files over the network.
Plus we could play LAN games! Doom, Quake, Half-Life and Starcraft were the big ones.
There was also a program that would search for public Windows file shares and let you download files from them. If you were directly on the Internet, and you weren’t on a domain, your Windows 95 file shares were public. Everywhere. It was convenient peer-to-peer sharing, but a security nightmare, which goes back to what I was saying earlier about why I ran Linux most of that year.
For the second half of college I had a job at one of the school computer labs. It was a mix of IT, tech support and web development for the student lab and the School of the Arts faculty and staff.
Most of the students who came in were just doing web access and email, but we also had digital arts students who were using the computers for anything from Photoshop to Director, carrying their work-in-progress around on a 100 MB Zip or a 1GB Jaz drive and then using the lab’s one CD writer for the finished projects. (Incidentally: CD writers were slow and unreliable back then. You could wait an hour only to discover you’d just made a coaster.)
There was a summer job where I learned Perl writing CGI for some stock news website that’s probably long since defunct, another where I learned ColdFusion while building an intranet site, and another IT/support/webdev like the school job, working for a small dial-up ISP, webhost and web development shop.
So by the time I graduated (and had been learning Java and C++ and software design patterns on top of the basics of computer science), I had a decent grounding in IT, programming, and web development.
Also, believe it or not: ethics. Back in the late 1990s, we had a “Social Impacts of Computing” class that got into things like the privacy implications of credit scores and targeted marketing, responsibility for software-instigated disasters like the Therac-25 incidents, and so on.
This was the period of rapid commercialization, the dot-com gold rush. The first time I bought something online, a classmate commented on how risky it was. By the end of the decade, it was…maybe not common, but at least not unusual.
I remember buying licenses for software, some books from Amazon when that’s all they sold, things like that. And buying and selling comics on eBay. That made a huge difference in my attempts to track down old comics from the 60s and 70s.
Things were kind of free-wheeling for a while. Netscape and Internet Explorer were constantly one-upping each other. Hobbyists were experimenting, idealists were building. I wasn’t involved in the hacker culture at the time, but I was adjacent to it just by virtue of trying to use Linux back then. (And boy, did we all hate Microsoft!)
At the lab we got a handful of SGI workstations for the digital arts program.
People kept pushing the tech to do more: Streaming audio and video were invented, but they had to wait until bandwidth and processors could handle them.
Hotmail (or rather, HoTMaiL) set the stage for a major transformation in how people used programs. Email went from a thin terminal client running PINE on a server to a fat client like Eudora or Netscape Mail running on the local desktop, to a thin(ish) web client connecting to Hotmail running on the server.
Of course, not everything panned out. I remember seeing some early experiments with a 3D internet using VRML that mostly made it clear why you shouldn’t try to structure your shopping site or image gallery like a physical store or museum.
Meanwhile, existing businesses were rushing to stake their virtual claims without having much idea what to do with them. New businesses were rushing to use the new medium without having much idea how to finance it long-term.
For a while it seemed like everyone wanted to become a “portal” and put EVERYTHING on the first page you’d see when launching your browser. It got really, really cluttered, and even if it was just text and static images and not all the moving banners and overlays and subscribe-to-our-newsletter and so on, it was still really slow on 90s hardware and dial-up lines. That was actually part of Google’s early success: In addition to better search results than AltaVista, it was just a logo, a search box, and a button. It loaded fast.
And then all the investors realized that nobody actually knew how to make money on the internet, and the dot-com crash hit.
2000-2005: Slow Rebuild
The web was starting to resemble what we have today, though the ads were both more annoying (Pop-ups! Auto-play sound! “Punch the Monkey!”) and less creepy (because they hadn’t quite gotten good at following you yet.)
We all still hated Microsoft, even worse because they both stopped improving IE when they won out over Netscape, and because Windows security was riddled with holes. Apple had gone from something Windows users dismissed back in the 1990s to something that you either loved or hated.
Google was fantastic. DoubleClick was horrible. Then Google bought DoubleClick and adopted their business model and no one was quite sure what to think.
I’d moved out on my own by then, and gotten a DSL connection. Faster than dial-up! No more tying up the phone lines! No new cables! (Still slow by today’s standards.)
I bought a domain name and moved my website off of the school servers. Within a month I’d received a cease-and-desist letter over the lyrics I’d collected on the Les Mis fan site over the previous five years. I took them down. It was a clear-cut case. But it kind of put a damper on my enthusiasm for the show, and I didn’t feel much like going to see the next couple of tours that came through town.
After college I’d gotten a job at the small ISP where I’d worked one summer, doing much the same thing, but with more responsibility now. I was sysadmin for the mail servers, web servers, and news servers, got reasonably proficient at managing Sendmail despite its ridiculously complex configuration, and got involved in spam fighting. I put together our own custom spam solution mixing various open-source and/or Free projects like SpamAssassin and MIMEDefang, trading ideas and problems with other people on the mailing lists.
Socializing with friends was mostly either offline or by email. I had accounts on a couple of instant messaging servers, but didn’t use them much. I was still using a desktop email client for both personal and work email. Eudora at work and either Mozilla or Kmail at home. Hotmail existed, but Gmail didn’t, and none of the other web-based mail services seemed worth it to me.
Internet Explorer had won the browser war, but I refused to use it on principle except when absolutely necessary. I mostly used Mozilla (and later Firefox) and Opera, but I tried out every web browser I could find, just out of curiosity. And since I got involved in the communities around BOTH Firefox and Opera (along with standards-based web development), things got kind of weird.
I don’t remember using newsgroups much during that period, just maintaining a server that used a lot of data storage and bandwidth. Gopher was completely off my radar.
It was the golden age of blogs and web-based forums. I started following tech blogs and comics fandom blogs and random personal blogs, using an RSS reader to keep up with the ones I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss. There were a few forums I visited regularly, again mostly tech and comics fandom. My then-fiancee and I launched our own blog. We followed one group of IRL friends as they set up on LiveJournal, and found the fandom communities there.
K-Squared Ramblings: It’s still running! You’re reading it right now!
The experience was still very stationary. Use the desktop computer at work. Use the desktop computer at home. Use a desktop computer at an internet cafe while traveling. I wanted a smartphone so I could look things up when I thought of them, or write down the things I composed in my head when I was away from a computer, but, well, we all know how that worked out!
It was still there, but there was a growing cynicism too. There had always been an undercurrent of contempt in online culture, but it seemed to be rising to the surface more. Some forums were known for being super-toxic hellholes, while others maintained strong moderation policies but still descended into the occasional flame war.
There was a strong sense of trying to preserve the grassroots against top-down corporate media and software industries. We didn’t anticipate, or not enough of us did, that the corporations would co-opt the grassroots. Free Software was supposed to open up possibilities, not power the big tech companies. Letting anyone publish online was supposed to give more people a voice for what they wanted to say, not turn them into “influencers” chasing the ad dollars from the latest algorithm change. (Related: Free Software and Failed Ideals)
It had already been said that “The best thing about the internet is that anyone can publish. The worst thing about the internet is…that ANYONE can publish.” Cranks and hoaxsters were still small-scale, but flame wars, trolling, and dismissal of the mainstream were already well-established. The seeds were there. They just needed an environment that would let them go viral. And the combination of smartphones, push notifications, and social media with reposts were just around the corner.
Looking back at this, it’s interesting to see how some of the patterns from my early time online have shaped the way I still use the internet now.
- I vastly prefer text to video or audio. (There’s a usability factor here, too, since it’s easier to skim text looking for the section you need or jump back and forth.)
- I prefer asynchronous interactions like e-mail, blogging and posting over live interactions like instant messaging and audio/video calls. Even with online games, I’d rather play something that’s primarily solo and join the occasional multiplayer session than play something that’s always multiplayer.
- I still search using key words rather than asking a complete question (which is what the kid tends to do).
- I edit for punctuation, and sometimes have to remind myself when NOT to use it.
- I tend to be wordy. (You may have noticed.)
I’m definitely what linguist Gretchen McCulloch calls “Old Internet People” in her study of Internet language use! (I also highly recommend her book, Because Internet.)