Memories from the Early Internet

Do you remember how things used to be?

A little while ago, Gizmodo ran an article about what it was like to be around for the early days of the Internet. I was growing up during the 90s when the Internet was really taking off, and I’ve seen it grow from a collection of static HTML pages into the nightmare that it is today. I missed the 80s BBS community, but I remember what it was like to have a personal web page, to be part of insular webrings and small communities, and when finding information was half the battle. I thought I’d give four of my own reasons why I sort of miss how things used to be.

It was less dangerous

People have been writing viruses for as long as personal computers have been around, but there’s been a marked shift between the kinds of viruses that predominated back then to what we have today. Danoct1’s Youtube¬†channel showcases viruses from the 90s and early 2000s, and you can see a remarkable change over the years. Most of those earlier viruses weren’t destructive – some of them were, but most of them were more about being annoying or displaying a message. “Hey, I’ve infected your computer – this is my handle, I’m going to mildly annoy you now.” Towards the end of the 90s though we crossed into destructive worms and trojans, and in the modern age we rarely use the term ‘virus’ anymore. We’ve invented a new term – malware – to cover a threat that’s deliberately malicious and often made to execute extortion attempts. “I’ve infected your computer by pretending to be an antivirus program. Pay us money or you’ll never be safe again!” There were keyloggers and such in the 90s, but nothing that we’d call ‘spyware’ today existed back then.

Back then in the 90s, by and large people just didn’t post infected files. Why would you? But as the 90s drew to a close, the 2000s opened up and the Internet became bigger, things became a lot more hazardous. Exploits were exploited just about every week, we had mass mailing worms, antivirus programs were essential, and life was hell for a bit. Then the threat swapped from worms and trojans to spyware. Today we’ve reached a state where operating systems are secure enough that most of us aren’t under that much threat, but I do miss those days when we didn’t have to worry too much about malicious programs.

It was all new and exciting

Being on the Internet back then felt like being an explorer, which links into my number one reason why I sort of miss the old days. Watching it develop over the years has been incredible. Back in 1998, streaming media was limited to a tiny little window (well, I guess it looked bigger at 800×600 back in the day) with mono sound and terrible quality. Fast forward to 2006 and Youtube was in full swing. The number of things you can do has expanded rapidly. Watching a movie online was bandied about in the early 2000s but it’s only become possible fairly recently. The thing is that with all of these new technologies, we’ve sort of reached the point where nothing is exciting anymore. It’s just sort of expected. But back then, the possibilities seemed endless. How far could we take things? Where were we going to end up? We didn’t know.

People were nicer

Maybe it’s my imagination, but people seemed to be a lot nicer back then too. The various IRC chat rooms, forums, and even random chat partners on ICQ (who remembers that?) seemed to be a lot more polite and generally calmer than they are today. People assumed good faith and were nicer to each other. Sure, there were flame wars, and people would be pricks towards each other at times, but nothing on the scale that we see it today. There were very few hate campaigns against people or groups – probably because the audience simply wasn’t there, but few people set out to actually provoke outrage. Trolls were few and far between. There was also a lot less in the way of “RTFM” and more in the way of people trying to be helpful. You were still expected to have some level of technical competence, but people would generally assume you were legitimately trying to help yourself but needed some extra assistance.

Today? You call people a fag and tell them to delete system32.

Finding things was an achievement

This is probably the biggest thing that I’m nostalgic for, even if it meant life was harder back then. Today, if you want to find something, you slam a vaguely coherent string into Google and check the results. If you don’t see what you’re looking for within the first 2 pages, you rearrange the keywords until you get what you want. Anything vaguely amusing can rocket to popularity by being shared on social media. Finding things is effortless. Even things that should be a little more challenging to find, so called ‘hidden knowledge’, is still childishly easy to look up. There’s just no hiding things. Even this blog, hidden away in a quiet corner of the Internet (assume we have corners on the Internet) still gets its fair share of traffic.

Back in the day though, finding things was¬†hard. There was no Google. You’d have four different search engines bookmarked, and each of them gave you different results. From memory, AltaVista was the best in the 90s, but you also had others to choose from like Hotbod, Excite, Webcrawler, Ask Jeeves (now, and Lycos. Some search engines were designed to search other engines and then combine the data (from memory, used to do this). Google today crawls the web and pretty much collects everything that ever was or ever will be, but back then you might have to manually submit your site to a search engine for it to be crawled and added to the database. It wasn’t uncommon to search through several pages of results until you found something like what you were after.

You might not find exactly what you were after though – you might have to follow a rabbit warren of links across personal webpages to find what you were looking for. Webrings were another feature of this era. Websites based around a particular topic (like a game for example) would submit themselves to a central website that maintained a list of all the sites along with a description of them. Each site would be placed in the list and would have a link on their site to the central webring page. They’d also sometimes have buttons to link you to the previous and next sites in the list (hence the ‘ring’ in ‘webring’). This would lead to hours of searching.

But when you did find what you were after, you’d actually accomplished something. It was like an epic quest. Of all the things I’m a bit nostalgic for is this challenge – to find something wasn’t trivial, and if you found something obscure, you felt like the effort wasn’t wasted. On the other hand though I don’t have the patience for this bullshit anymore, so I’m not exactly lamenting its loss.


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