Imagine going back 25 years in a time machine to meet the you of 1989. The you that was watching the Berlin Wall fall, the you that saw Jim and Tammy Baker come back to TV, the you that was probably peripherally aware of something called the Friday The 13th Virus. Now imagine telling this past version of yourself about the World Wide Web.
What could you say? That it’s pervasive, now, like oxygen? It’s a constantly changing medium, a system that reinvents itself every second as the energy of a million minds is focused, laser-like, on one meme after the other? Will you tell that old you about how you don’t go to stores anymore but expect everything – from diapers to food – to be brought to you with the click of a button? Do you tell that you about the demise of the book, of the death of the postal service, of the implosion of the record industry, the shuttering of the great newspapers?
What do you tell that you, the innocent you of green screens and .plan files? Do you talk about an idea that birthed an invisible empire, about the way a NeXT computer began serving up simple documents to scientists and then exploded? about the way a young man in Finland built an operating system that is the backbone of a modern railroad, silver lines of code replacing the steel and spikes of the first connector? Or do you talk about the dates you’ve been on with people you met on the Internet, about the fun you’ve had, about the things you’ve learned, about the things you carry now that act as a literal lifeline to the life of the mind? Do you tell that you that things aren’t better now, but are far different? Do you tell that you about how quaint it is to see movies feature paper files stacked a mile high on some drudge’s desk? Do you talk about how you worry that somehow all of this is making you sick? Or giving you cancer? Or alienating you?
But we don’t have a time machine and the you of 1989 couldn’t have known where we’d end up. No one had a clue. Some prescient writers saw the barest hints of what it would mean to be connected. “Cyberspace,” wrote William Gibson in 1984. “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system.” But even Gibson sold the ubiquity of Cyberspace short. His characters had to move in meatspace far too often. Today’s technothriller involves a someone with security clearance sticking a USB stick into a port and blowing up the NSA.
It’s the birthday of the web, the protocol that burns down dictators, agitates the downtrodden, and pacifies the well-fed. It’s where we get our pleasure, where we experience pain by proxy, where outrage bubbles like a mad stew. It’s the home to horrors, beauty, and endless scrap. It is the trash heap of the human mind, a vast field of knowledge that wastes our days and enriches our lives.
What will you tell the you of 2039? What will that version of you tell you about their day online? Of one thing you can be sure: the web will be a constant. You may not recognize it, but one of the greatest inventions of the modern age won’t go away.
To celebrate the web’s birthday we asked some of our Internet friends to talk about their first experiences online. Depending on their age, they told us about everything – from telnet to AOL disks.
Scott Merrill, Skippy.net
Greg Barto, TechCrunch
Josh Constine, TechCrunchThe first time I went online a friend took me to my University’s computer lab and, although I enjoyed the experience, I dismissed the Internet as ‘like CB radio but with a directory’ (Yahoo was a directory of web links back then). The second time I saw the light upon discovering the Long Tail (before anybody had coined the phrase) by searching for MIDI patches for a sound module I owned. Shortly afterward I learned of an Internet radio station and online community called InterFACE radio, started webcasting, and built a website for the band I played in. This led to my temporarily abandoning a career in media while a friend and I hired ourselves out as web developers before the Dot Com bubble burst.
Steve O’Hear, TechCrunch
I got my parents to buy me a modem for my PC in the early 90s and then figured out how to get into BBS systems. There was a project in Amsterdam at the time that gave you a Telnet connection and from there, I somehow found The Well. Later I got Mosaic somehow and managed to get on the web through some long-forgotten ISP. I probably bought one of those printed web directories, too…
Frederic Lardinois, TechCrunch
My first experience with the ‘Internet’ was going to a friend’s house and watching him log on to a local BBS on a modem and download Shareware. I eventually ‘borrowed’ his old 2400 baud modem and connected to a few myself. Later I upgraded to a 9600 baud modem and started connecting to other BBSes, chatting with folks there, playing games and eventually connecting to a bunch of w4r3z sites. One month I ran up $150 in long distance charges connecting to a multi-line 0-day w4r3z site in Toronto (I think) to download either Rise Of The Triad or Primal Rage. Maybe both. I once stayed home sick to play ROTT, actually feeling ill. I think I realized after a time that I felt nauseous either due to the jerky gameplay on my 486 or the blood and extreme violence of exploding soldiers. It was only later that I connected to AOL and learned about webpages, and eventually the real ‘Internet’ in college.
Ryan Lawler, TechCrunch
I was in middle school, still living in Russia in the end of 90s. My first experience was in downloading software and short movie clips using Reget, making hideous web pages in PHP with flashy buttons and colorful backgrounds, and of course ICQ!
It was the mid-90s. I was in one of my early jobs in journalism writing about newspapers and Mosaic came out. We figured the magazine should have a web site so we asked our Quark designer to come up with a design. After working out how to upload the HTML files we waited as the creakingly-slow modem downloaded our site, complete with large red buttons. Eventually I bought a modem myself for home and started surfing around using applications like Veronica and Gopher. I also bought a (fairly basic) book about getting online by a guy called… Keith Teare.
Mike Butcher, TechCrunch
A whirl and a series of rasping beeps accompanied an excitable 12-year-old me with dreams of downloading Counter Strike (14hrs) and Blink 182 tracks (25mins). The vast expanse of the internet presented the cumulative knowledge of thousands of years of recorded human history, experiences and philosophies at my very trembling fingertips. I went straight to Yahoo! chat.
We had computer class for the first time in fourth grade and everyone thought it was the coolest class because we’d get to play educational games and learn how things like Netscape Explorer and Ask Jeeves worked. My mom had no clue how the Internet worked and freaked out one month when I was in middle school and my brother and I racked up a huge phone bill using dial up internet to chat with our friends on AIM. My brother and I quickly figured out how Limewire and other similar services worked and we’d download episodes of Family Guy. I remember thinking it was incredible that we could watch TV at whatever time we wanted and without commercials.
Billy Gallagher, TechCrunch
It was 1997 the first time I got on the Internet or even had a home computer. I was 13 and I had never used one at school for longer than a half hour, but one day my dad came home with a new machine and broadband. He immediately set up email addresses for our whole family. Dad was sitting in front of our new HP 8180 and called me over. “I made your email email@example.com, what do you want me to set the password as?” That made no sense. “Why can’t the email address be tconnor? Why did you use my middle initial?” My dad, also named Tom, didn’t look up from the computer. “Because I took tconnor, you can’t have it.” “Can’t you use tconnor1 for me?” My dad scoffed. “That’s dumb. We’re not doing that.” (oh, the irony). I really didn’t want to use my middle initial in my email, but dad pressed on without me. “Look I already registered the name, so you have to go with it. What do you want the password to be?” I had never picked out a password before, and I tried to think of something I’d remember. I chose “defiant,” the name of the most badass starship on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Dad typed it in and hit enter. “Alright, you’re done.” Armed with a handle that made no sense and a password pulled from a science fiction show, I was ready to be a power user.
My first time on the Internet came as a second grader in the spring of 1996. I grew up as an Army brat, and my family lived in Germany at the time. While the Internet might have been growing in popularity back in the US, as a child with only the Armed Forces Network and Cartoon Network for media consumption, I remained almost completely insulated from the concept. My mother subscribed to Family Fun magazine which had a feature along the lines of “good websites for children” so my mom decided we would go the library and visit a few. At that point, I think the library may have been the only public internet access on post so their tiny bay of computers with dial-up always had a line. Each user had an allotted ten minutes so we did not have to wait too long. We finally received our turn and loaded up the first page on the list: crayola.com. I think we only managed to load two or three pages within the site before our time ran up, but even now, I remember being hooked and immediately getting in the back of the line to surf again.
titties, line by line
Will it ever load?
so I can shoot mine
My science teacher introduced me to the wild, wonderful world of Alta Vista one day in class. All of this information was literally at my fingertips and I was blown away. No need to wait my turn at the library to use the microfiche machines — it was all there in a few keystrokes. This wasn’t my dad’s Internet of geeky Silicon Valley engineers exchanging information on bulletin boards. It was relevant to me and a pretty clever research tool. And I loved it.
Susan Hobbs, TechCrunch
First memory of the Internet was in the mid-90s when my father taught me what search engines were, suggested I use Alta Vista and explained why he liked that one better than the other engines out there. He also told me about Boolean terms. While I know I used it in between these times, my second clear memory of the Internet was my first online shopping experience when I was in college (circa 2000). I’m sure this is a shocking revelation to all.
Leslie Hitchcock, TechCrunch
Back in the early nineties phone lines in Poland could barely handle 1200 baud, local calls were expensive, and parents did not see a modem as anything worth buying. So, my very first experience with the Internet was in the hallway of the Center for Informatics at the University of Warsaw, or CIUW for short. Therein stood text-based terminals to some IBM mainframe (sight unseen, but I was told it was big). After a formal petition, rubber stamped and signed-off by the Secretariat of the Dean or some other important body, I was awarded username and password. The account came with an email address in the plearn.edu.pl domain, some disk space on the VMS operating system and a photocopied getting started instructions. The terminals were on the first come, first served basis, so sometimes you had to wait a solid hour or better. Turns out, some people were using them for long periods of time, apparently much to their enjoyment as evidenced by occasional giggles or facial expressions of normally associated with situations of grave danger. That’s how I too discovered Internet Relay Chat. I was hooked. Like an addict, I began using IRC more and more, eventually clocking 13 hours straight in front of that green-lettered screen, which did not even have a scrolling feature. Somebody must have brought me food that day. So, sending an email was probably the very first thing I did on the Internet, but IRC had me. Gopher was also available as were MUDs but I used them only marginally.
Victor Olex, VTEnterprise
My first experience with the internet was in college, but it was very geeky and manual back them. Some nerdier friends of mine were into it, trying to explain to me crazy things like how “Gopher” worked, but I didn’t spend much time online then – I was mostly working on schoolwork and papers. (There was this one chat session where some girlfriends and I accidentally ended up interacting with someone who had already discovered the internet was a great porn machine, but that’s probably not a good story. Well, it’s not an appropriate one for this venue.) My interest in computers and the web didn’t really take place until later in life, when I bought my first Windows computer. I remember connecting over dial-up, and the squeals of the modem connecting. I remember browsing the web through directories of links in the pre-Google days, and making horrible Geocities homepages with HTML code I taught myself from books. I remember reading these proto-blogs where people in cities far away from me detailed their lives, which made the world feel like a smaller place.
Sarah Perez, TechCrunch
I have two super-early Internet memories. When I was in fifth grade, our class somehow had a few minutes on a “modem” that allowed us to do… something. I’m honestly not sure what we were able to do with it. And the “minutes” were discussed as if they were gold. First real memory I have is using a black and white laptop and the first version of Netflix. When webpages, worked, they loaded so slow. And whenever I found something interesting, I would save it to a 3.5″ floppy disk. There was a feeling of vastness to the Web. This was new, primitive, and fascinating. Pages were chaotic and strung together without the years of design training that coach any modern site. I tried to enter a chat room, but having to reload every time I wanted to see a new message proved frustrating. I was curious.
Seth Porges, tech writer and cofounder of Cloth app
It was AOL dialup, and I remember there being this AOL interface that had a “Kids Section” or something. I played with this but got bored almost instantly. And I was a kid, so well done AOL. I remember search pre-Google was a fucking shitshow. Oh and porn on dial-up. Damn, we were patient back then.
Alex Wilhelm, TechCrunch
My high school friend Katherine T. was the first person I remember playing around on the Internet in 1990. She had a dial-up connection and an AOL account (I think) and would log in to chat rooms and talk and play text-based games while the rest of us were doing whatever else high school kids did (drinking I think). She told us all that this Internet thing was going to be huge, but we were too busy driving around aimlessly by the levee to listen to her (I grew up in Lynyrd Skynyrd song).
Jonathan Shieber, TechCrunch
I remember that day vividly. Picture it: Westchester NY, late August ’94. A new school year was about to begin in a week. There was a faint smell of technological change in the air all around. Over at my friend’s house that windy Wednesday, he showed me this thing called Compuserve and I was blown away. In a matter of just 2 minutes and a few keystrokes, some foreign sounds I’d never heard before magically connected his computer to this new revolutionary world he called “the net.” On that polished 256-color cathode-ray tube, I witnessed the future for the first time when with a click of a mouse, I was watching a video trailer for the upcoming movie “The Quick and the Dead.” Video was on something other than a TV! I knew then and there the world would never be the same. This was one of many seeds that were planted in my growing teen years that inspired me to eventually drop everything for the last 2 years and create a live video shopping destination.
Adam Davis, VidBid
My first experience with the internet was AOL AIM in high school. My chat name was Leaner10is. My parents were too cheap to pay for the internet so we used to get the AOL CDs from Blockbuster.
Leena Rao, TechCrunch
(I feel old) My first experience with the Internet was in college — my boyfriend had a computer made by his uncle (who worked at Bell) that linked to the outside world using one of those audio couplers. My own Mac was not “connected.” I used to go to the computer center and send messages to friends at other colleges over the VAX system (I think that’s what it was called. It was all super manual. Each university had a special route, Wesleyan’s was ‘eagle’, which was eventually part of your email address when they adopted those, and then finally just dropped altogether. We jokingly called it VAXing each other. I remember sitting in there with a lot of role-playing nerds, who had no idea why I was there.)
Ingrid Lunden, TechCrunch
I got my first computer (a Packard Bell PC… I know…) for Christmas of 1996, about two months before my 11th birthday. I don’t particularly remember the first website I visited (it was probably nintendo.com or something like that), but I do remember spending an inordinate amount of time that summer in the Nickelodeon chat rooms on AOL… a lot of A/S/Ls in those days! (This was when TV commercials would say, “Be sure to check us out on AOL keyword ,” kinda like how ads nowadays use hashtags all over the place.) AOL also had a kids’ trivia section where you’d compete for high scores. “Who was the third president of the U.S.?” That kind of thing. This was before Wikipedia, Siri, and Google Now, folks! More embarrassingly I do remember creating a couple of “fan” sites for Mario Kart and Mortal Kombat very early on using AOL Press, some WYSIWYG website builder for Windows. There was MIDI music and animated GIFs as far as the eye could see–kinda like this one. Now imagine 40 of those sprawled across your monitor. Just a complete zero I was (am).
It was 1994 in the tiny town of Oakhurst, CA. I was General Manager of Sierra Publishing, the largest division of pioneer game developer Sierra Online. I worked directly for Ken Williams, co-founder and CEO of Sierra (as we called it). He was the smartest boss I have ever had. He called me the night before and was all excited by this new product he had bought (I think at Egghead) called Internet In A Box. He sent me a copy via overnight mail and insisted I try it out first thing. I think I had a speedy 14.4Kbps modem to connect with and the Mosaic browser that came with Internet in a Box. I think I went to Yahoo, called Ken and told him I was on the Internet. There wasn’t a lot to do on the Internet at the time. I didn’t understand or appreciate the significance at the time but to his credit Ken called the ball in 1994. He said this would usher in an era of the dumb terminals connected to the “invisible mainframe”. Twenty years later we call it the “Cloud”.
Jerry Bowerman, SonarDesign
My dad got us connected to Telnet/Gopher stuff through his job at the university before it was widely available when I was a wee lad. I used to spend hours on MUDs and BBS’s, doing the nerdiest possible things you can imagine in completely text-based environments. What I’m saying is: The Internet ruined my life.
Darrel Etherington, TechCrunch
My brothers were more active on the internet than I was. My first internet experience was downloading music on Napster (yes, I’m part of that generation who grew up with Napster). After that, I became very active on a couple of nerdy forums. My dad used to read all my posts because I was really a kid. I learned a lot of stuff by reading forums. I learned English as well (a lot of reading, a lot of chatting, a lot of movie downloading…). It was better than school classes.
Romain Dillet, TechCrunch
My parents’ friend showed them Prodigy on his computer and we started subscribing that week. I joined a Sherlock Holmes fan club and started emailing with people who lived all around the world and were twice as old as me. When Geocities launched, I made a Web site (in /SoHo, of course, because I was a pretentious nincompoop) with lots and lots of information about where I lived, my school, and my extracurricular activities. To sum it up: I’m lucky I’m still alive.
Catherine Shu, TechCrunch
I used the Computer Merit Badge as a thinly veiled excuse to connect to the Internet for the first time. It was of course Aol. I think it was version 4.0 where the Internet was a series of colorful bars and sponsored keywords leading to different curated portals. I had to keep a log of my usage so I didn’t exceed the free hours offered by Aol. Eventually, I completed the requirements for the merit badge and by that time my family was hooked on the Internet and we moved onto a local ISP. I played a lot of Quake 2 multiplayer after that and eventually made a series of Quake 2 fan pages on Geocities filled with tiny gifs and random quotes.
Matt Burns, TechCrunch
A friend of mine left Cincinnati Computer Store to start an ISP in 1994. Over a second bottle of Merlot, we decided the world needed one site to find lottery results quickly. At the birth of the internet, the states were showing the results by displaying 60K GIF files for each ping pong ball number pulled from the lot. Remember that most people were enjoying 1200 or 9600 bps modem speeds and that would take 3-5 minutes to load a result. We designed a website that was mostly text based and you can find any lottery results from any state in 2 clicks (thanks to advice from Razorfish about design.) I created a program in Apple’s HyperCard to scrape the results from web and publish 576 different static pages with up to date results. We had to install 2 x 128MB ISDN lines to handle the traffic. By 2001, we were getting 1 million visits per month on lotteryusa.com. I sold the site to a Canadian company, and am involved in a onemorepallet.com — a web platform that reduces small business freight costs by matching customers with unused space on trucks.
A geeky friend game me a dial-up modem when I was a teenager. I used to hang out on IRC chatting with fellow European Atari nerds on #atariscne. The backstory to that is long and convoluted but I used to do graphics/pixel-painting for an Atari game-making group – my older brother was the programmer. I actually have a lot more memories about an early ‘proto’ Internet based on swapping floppy disks containing computer demos and other stuff like Diskzines. In the days when information wasn’t instantly connected, floppy disks containing new wares had to be posted manually out to your network.
Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch
I’m not sure what year I first went online, but it was when hardly anyone had the internet in their homes. It was a half hour session at an “Internet cafe” and I spent the whole time in chat rooms telling people I was older than I really was and learning what “ASL?” meant. So yeah, I wasn’t much of an early adopter, but that was my first experience.
Ramy Khuffash, Nowvia.com
I found the internet in middle school on my dad’s work computer through a painfully slow (and loud) dial-up connection. I didn’t know a world beyond Aol, and spent most of my time answering email questionnaires, talking on Aim with my friends, and (to be perfectly honest) checking out the “Romance” chat rooms. Looking back, it was pretty disgusting, but it’s also the beginning of how I realized I was gay. When the world opens up to you on a silver platter, it’s hard not to choose the most delicious item on the menu.
Jordan Crook, TechCrunch