February 24, 2009
The Last Fifteenish Years of WWW
In 1996, Americans with Internet access spent fewer than 30 minutes a month surfing the Web, according to Steve Coffey, who’s now the chief research officer of the market research firm the NPD Group. (Today, we spend about 27 hours a month online, according to Nielsen.)…
The biggest site, by far, was AOL.com; 41 percent of people online checked it regularly. Many didn’t do so on purpose: With 5 million subscribers, AOL was the world’s largest ISP, and when members loaded up the Web, they went to the company’s site by default. For similar reasons, AOL’s search engine, WebCrawler.com, was the second most popular page. Netscape, the Web’s most popular browser, and Compuserve and Prodigy, the nation’s other big ISPs, also had top pages.
Yahoo, which Media Metrix ranked No. 4, just after Netscape, was one of the few sites in the Top 10 that wasn’t affiliated with an ISP or a browser. Its main feature was its directory, a constantly updated listing of thousands of sites online. To produce the directory, Yahoo employees—actual human beings—reviewed new sites and cataloged them according to a strict hierarchical taxonomy. When you typed in what you were looking for—say, “new magazine,” “sexy site,” or “advice on taxes”—Yahoo would search its directory and return sites that it had already reviewed. This produced pretty good results—when you searched for “White House Web site,” you could be sure you’d get to the right page because someone had actually looked up the official site. Obviously, though, such a model was unable to keep pace with the growth of the Web. In retrospect, it’s telling that anyone in 1996 thought this was a sustainable way to catalog the Web…
Some of Yahoo’s 1996-era front pages have been saved in the Internet Archive. What’s interesting about them is what they lack. First, no e-mail: The first webmail site, Hotmail, launched in July of 1996. There was no instant-messaging software; the first big IM client, ICQ, hit the Web early in 1997. The MP3 file format was invented in the early 1990s, but very few people traded music in 1996—the files were too big to cram down modems, and Winamp, the first popular MP3 player app, was published in 1997. All these innovations hit the Web suddenly, defying prediction, and each completely altered how we’d spend our time online.
Some of the claims here are sketchy — Geocities as a precursor to blogging? Really? — and suffer from web-centrism. After all, the world wide web was one of the LEAST interesting or effective things on the internet to spend your time on in the mid-1990s; usenet and email, which was mostly done over PINE or ELM servers in terminal clients, were where it was at. (I had a proto-blog my freshman and sophomore years of college whose “subscribers” were people in my email address book — most of whom were friends-of-friends I didn’t know.) All the same, it’s worth reading and remembering a little of what it was all like.