Reflections on the Internet of the 90s
Oh how I miss the old internet!
If you were born before the 90s, you may remember how “surfing the web” required dialing up a connection via your telephone line to an internet service provider. My parents and I would collect the free AOL trial CDs that would appear in mailboxes, grocery aisles, office supply stores, and just about every place imaginable. Unless you had access to an internet café, the only way to access the internet was to accrue the beautiful junk mail of AOL trial CDs. Back then, there were no cell phones. At times my home was filled with annoying arguments between my middle school self and my parents about when our single ground line could be used for the internet.
There were also too many times when my parents would accidentally disrupt the internet connection by picking up the phone. Our dinosaur of a computer then had to laboriously re-dial for a connection. Ah, those were beautiful, simple times. I remember taking some time to set up my first email account, and then putting in even more time helping my parents set up theirs. To this day I still remember my mom seriously asking: “How do I put the dancing baby in my email message?”
Beautiful, Ugly, Chaotic, and Deeply Personal
There was a sense of play and wonder in the internet back then, especially in GeoCities. For those who weren’t lucky to experience it, GeoCities was a web hosting service launched in 1994 where users could select a “city,” a “neighborhood,” or category from which they could launch their personal web pages. For the price of letting GeoCities have a static banner ad on your homepage (no pesky pop up ads back then), you could build webpages to your heart’s content. GeoCities introduced the average user to HTML and armed them with basic tags, animated gifs, and a visitor hit counter. People, on their own, created beautiful, ugly, chaotic, and deeply personal websites.
Behind the Screens
As personal as these webpages were, they connected and built communities. I spent far too much time perusing fan sites about Anime and Animorphs (Scholastic, please hurry up with the live-action movie!). Despite the numerous starry night backgrounds and questionable blinking graphics and fonts, you found kindred souls behind the screens.
Hopping from one GeoCities site to an Angelfire site and back again was the social networking of the day. Every website was unique. You found people who shared in your interests. You found people who were like you. These websites were full of soul and personality and it was a giant playground of collaboration, support, and creativity.
Today GeoCities is dead and every website looks the same. Yahoo acquired GeoCities in 1999 for $3.7 billion, but shut it down a decade later in 2009. As a result, 38 million webpages were lost. Yes, many ugly and garish webpages disappeared, and in their stead, we now have a web full of slick, beautiful, cookie-cutter websites. One reason for this: templates. Every time we build a new project at Flatiron School, we often utilize HTML or CSS templates, and, in particular, Bootstrap.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Bootstrap. As a student new to web development and software engineering, it is immensely helpful to “paint by numbers” in the use of templates. I also understand that websites must be functional, but to be honest, I miss the originality and expression from the days of internet’s past. Now, everything looks the same.
As the internet’s capabilities have grown, the visual conformity has tightened. Everything is streamlined, pared down, and generic minimalist text is centered on large background images. In the spirit of GeoCities, Myspace allowed users to customize their accounts. But similar to GeoCities, Myspace came and went. The social networks that now dominate our lives don’t actually allow for much expression. Customization and personalization have come to screeching halt, and the extent to which you can express individuality in this time of the pandemic is choosing what Zoom background to have behind you (starry night backgrounds will never go away!).
Coming from an art background, I understand that design and aesthetic sensibilities change over time, but everything seems to be conforming to a clean, flat, and cold style as companies transition to digital and mobile platforms. Instead of developing a brand to stand out, there is now a trend of branding to blend in called “Blanding.” It’s especially apparent now that many logos are starting to look like each other.
Top row: previous logos. Bottom row: current logos.
Save the Internet!
With the web becoming increasingly homogenous, I look back even more fondly at the at the internet of the 90s. I’m certainly not alone. There are many who want to preserve and celebrate the rich digital history of the early internet. When Yahoo announced the impending shutdown of GeoCities in 2009, a group of digital archivists called the Archive Team stepped in and downloaded as much of the GeoCities server as they could. How much memory was taken up when compressed into a single file? Only 1 terabyte.
On the one-year anniversary of the death of GeoCities, the Archive Team released the GeoCities server as a torrent. Olia Lialina, an artist, curator, professor, and archivist based in Germany, and her husband Dragan Espenschied, the Preservation Director of Rhizome, a non-profit organization that champions new-media art, downloaded that torrent file and have helped re-introduced GeoCities to a younger generation. Olia and Dragan created the One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age website and its corresponding Tumblr webpage. The idea of both blogs is “to highlight this culture…with an audience that has no recollection of the world before the internet.”
What’s old is new again?
Despite preservation efforts, more websites from the 1990s and early 2000s are lost every day, and current websites are at risk of being lost forever. Servers and domains can be neglected and technology is continually updated or replaced. Nothing online is permanent. What happened to GeoCities and Myspace can happen to any website.
As a user, I miss the days of the early internet when creativity and expression were celebrated every day. As a developer, I recognize that I have a role in shaping the future of the internet. We have the power to create and make the internet, and we have a responsibility to honor, preserve, and enrich its digital history. It is my hope that by doing this, we will ensure that its creative spirit can continue into the future.