In 1995, the internet was a far different place. Google wasn’t yet a word or a mega-corporation, social media was a decade away and Yahoo! was narrowly edging out Altavista as king of the search engine, a vital new development. Full text searching was introduced by Webcrawler in 1994, and although it has become far more advanced since, the basic tenets remained the same.
This leap into being able to quickly search via keywords, rather than through obtaining and entering a clunky long URL, is still the single biggest advancement online, although many may argue social media has resulted in far swifter cultural changes.
Searching was a lot easier, too, with only 100,000 sites to visit. In 1995, this seemed like an excessive amount, an endless trove.
In 1995, Newsweek wasn’t having any of it, though, and published a dismissive article titled "The Internet? Bah!", which reacted against the idea that this silly digital blip was going to infiltrate and replace elements of our everyday lives.
“The truth is, no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works,” author Clifford Stoll boldly declared in the piece.
He quoted the predictions of nameless "visionaries", almost all of which have come to be.
“Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.”
Sounds like 2017, doesn’t it?
“Baloney," argued Stoll.
He continued to slash through what have proved to be prescient comments, arguing flaws based on the net of '95, without ever stopping to consider the internet as an ever-evolving, therefore ever-improving beast.
“We’re promised instant catalogue shopping – just point and click for great deals," he wrote. “We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the internet – which there isn’t – the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.”
Gulp. For all Stoll’s naysaying, he does hit on some rather dystopian viewpoints that have since proved to be true.
“Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly," he argued. “The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”
A Today segment aired on NBC in 1995 showcased hosts equally baffled by the internet, spending a good 30 seconds discussing what the @ character means. “Does it bother you that these are all people you don’t know?” asks a host later, after having the joys of bulletin boards explained.
Comedian Marc Maron changed the entire trajectory of his career using the power of the internet when he started the WTF podcast. The intimate series of lengthy conversations propelled Maron to a higher level of celebrity than he had achieved in over two decades of stand-up. This was all made possible due to his early adoption of technology made possible by the internet.
Ironically, back in 1995, Maron wasn’t a fan of the internet, dismissing its potential during the stand-up set below. “It’s all hype. I’ve been on the internet, there’s 12 people on there," he yells. "Computers are toys, not tools.”
There were two major players in the mid-'90s internet: Netscape, whose Netscape Navigator was the frame within which users visited this strange new cyber community, and Microsoft, who introduced the Microsoft Network (MSN) series of internet tools. “Stock quotes, sports scores, news, weather, comics, movies, music web sites and lots more,” boasted the site in October 1996.
MSN was packaged with Microsoft’s futuristic new operating system, Windows 95, which introduced a stripped-back, user-friendly way to navigate computing without the (heavy) use of DOS commands. This new system came with a video tutorial starring two of the hottest commodities of the mid '90s: Friends stars Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry, who were guided through the new OS and the joys of getting online.
“Communicating online is the hot thing right now, and the Microsoft Network is your on-ramp to the information superhighway,” explained a computer boffin named "Chip" to the clearly blown away Aniston and Perry. “It offers everything from shopping to discussion with other people in areas like finance, sports, hobbies, books and movies."
“So it’s kinda like issue-specific party lines?” asked Aniston.
Next, Perry got abnormally excited at the prospect of sending “some email over the internet to my buddy Tim” and then they did just that.
Watch the video below from 17 minutes on, as Aniston and Perry guide millions of users through what would have been their maiden internet voyage. With Friends like these…
Spam was also a big scary deal in the early days of the internet, and while it is now a mere annoyance in between larger net-based annoyances, back then it was the subject of scare stories worthy of Today Tonight.
Pyramid schemes! Computer viruses! Fraud! Identity theft!
By the way a lot of early internet commentators were ranting, email was seemingly a trivial convenience best avoided if you didn’t want to be subject to washes of unscrupulous crooks trying to rid you of your life savings, steal your identity and give your shiny new Pentium 100 a virus in the process.
Bill Stewart authored Living Internet in 1996, a book he claims was the second book published on the topic of the net. Stewart became aware of the internet’s power to distribute information during the Tiananmen Square uprising in China in 1989, when he marvelled at the efficient communication systems developed between different Chinese groups around the world, who spread news of the rebellion through newsgroups and email chains, avoiding any governmental interference.
Stewart’s guide has been archived online since 2000, and sits as a reminder of the rigidity and fear surrounding the early internet.
The list of rules for emails seems sensible but quite alarmist given how freely we fling our email addresses around today:
“Never respond to an email that asks for personal information like a phone number or address, never send money to anyone who contacts you by email for any reason whatsoever, try to never open or preview any unsolicited email, and do not give your email address or anyone else’s to any website (news, greeting cards) unless absolutely required and worthwhile.”
By 1997, the internet was no longer a den for geeks, nor an unregulated Wild West of spam and sex, and the very real educational benefits for children were being explored and espoused. The devastating cheesy white bread Kids’ Guide To The Internet followed a typical American family as they discovered the joys of the internet.
They learned how to dissect a frog, check for concert tickets to see diet-grunge band Bush and send the most pointless email to the Clintons, showcasing that this web truly is worldwide. This was, of course, before the terms "Clinton" and "emails" were buzzwords in an international scandal.
The film’s promotional material explains the joys of the net: “Kids will love all the magazines, TV reviews and learning sites. They will be entertained for hours while learning! Also: games, family travel tips, etc. You'll make new friends with similar interests, work on homework together, play games and let your imagination soar! Find a special interest from among the thousands of internet newsgroups.”
Still, the dangers of the internet weren’t forgotten. For all the mockery of Stoll’s Newsweek article earlier, he does make a point which has continued to remain true, even as — especially as — the net becomes more and more integrated into our lives.
“Computers and networks isolate us from one another,” Stoll warned. “A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.”
Explore the technological revolution on this week's episode of The Nineties on Sunday 5 November at 8:30pm on SBS. You can check out last week's episodes exploring 90s television at SBS On Demand: