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February 24, 2009

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The Last Fifteenish Years of WWW

Farhad Manjoo on the Web, c. 1996:

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; 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,, 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.

Posted February 24, 2009 at 3:50 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Media Galaxy


Pretty sure I remember Geocities from long before I knew what a "blog" was. Surely there were things that could look like a blog to modern eyes at just about any time in history, but no one called those things by that name. (And in his defense, Manjoo seems to make this point in his discussion of

To the Usenet point: the average AOL user, who Manjoo cites as his example, has never heard of it and probably thinks it's a disease. Even I, a relatively techno-savvy person, don't understand much about it (though perhaps I'm too young).

I do think, however, that email is a GREAT point. Most people signed up to AOL (or whatever) to get an email address. In the days of dial-up it was much more interesting than most of the World Wide Web. (Vaguely related: I love seeing email address still being given out by people other than my grandparents. For novelty, I kinda wish I had my own.)

And a technological point: if you cut off the # and everything after from the hyperlink, you'll not be sending clickers to the middle of the story. Perhaps you intended to leave it, but I thought I'd say something.

For me, IRC was a huge part of late-90's webdom, and it always surprises me that we've simultaneously evolved away from chat proper while heading back toward it via Twitter-type platforms.

I don't know, KB -- chat feels more universal than ever! You have chat baked into Google, Facebook, your OS... It's VERY interesting that we've basically developed a not-fully-synchronic chat -- like chat + messageboards + blogcomments combined...

For David, I'll just say that the biggest story for someone from 1996 isn't all the things that the internet now does -- the internet in all of its varieties could, slowly, do almost everything. It's really the fact that the whole rest of what a 1996 user would have recognized as "the internet" is gone, and all of these things are now done via hypertext/graphic interfaces on the web.

The positive feedback loop between the graphic, window-based OS and networked hypertext is just enormous. Look at the new Safari beta -- now browsing web sites via cover flow is almost EXACTLY like browsing for files in the Finder. That plus the speed breakthroughs have enabled these smaller social models, which already existed, to grow in scale, get more people involved, tackle more and more.

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