How easy we've forgotten the days when “going online” was a deliberate action.
The question 20 something years ago wasn’t “What’s your email?” but rather, “Do you have email?” and for the majority of folks, the answer was “Huh, what's that?”
Concepts like online shopping, peer to peer selling, search engines, and web browsers were brand new, and within just a few short years (1994-1999) the foundation for the modern internet was built.
It was so mysterious and significant; people spelled Internet with a capital “I.” Some of your friends were starting to “get online.” And the people who were “dialed in” knew they were a part of something much larger. It couldn't be explained, only experienced.
The Internet wasn’t saturated with businesses, digital ads, and marketing.
Image via thefirstbannerad.com
To put this in perspective, the first web browser to display graphics inline - Mosaic - was officially launched just 11 months prior, and it's eventual predecessor Netscape Navigator, was launched only a month after - being heralded for it's revolutionary user-centric design:
"An important innovation that Netscape introduced in 1994 was the on-the-fly display of web pages, where text and graphics appeared on the screen as the web page downloaded. Earlier web browsers would not display a page until all graphics on it had been loaded over the network connection; this often made a user stare at a blank page for as long as several minutes.
With Netscape, people using dial-up connections could begin reading the text of a web page within seconds of entering a web address, even before the rest of the text and graphics had finished downloading. This made the web much more tolerable to the average user." - From Wikipedia
It was clear even then, people wanted things faster.
Everyday people were finding new ways to express themselves and connect with new people faster than ever before thanks to Geocities and chatrooms entering their golden age.
Yet, in 1995, only 14% of US adults had internet access, and just 2% of those people were using a “high speed” 28.8 kbps modem.
Of those internet users, 32% said they’d miss it “a lot” if they couldn’t go online anymore, with 20% of internet users going online every day (and everyone else using it less).
This newfound sense of personal expression was critical to the early days of mainstream internet adoption, because, for many early users, it was the first time they could connect with others with niche mutual interests without having to endure long travel times.
This, I believe more than anything, was the main reason people would endure painfully long dial-up times just to get online.
But we did it because we were onto something different.
Just as people were starting to showcase themselves online, so were various new forms of business.
Bill Gates knew it would be a big deal in ‘95, calling the internet "the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981."
He penned this letter to his staff outlining the new online direction for Microsoft, and in the following years ushered in new products like the MSN web portal and a freshly acquired Hotmail.
1995 alone saw the launch Amazon.com, Ebay (then known as AuctionWeb), Yahoo, as well as the revolutionary Internet Explorer web browser bundled in Windows 95. A new programming language - Java - would also allow for the programming of animation on websites, giving a new level of interactivity.
Fundamentally, these services weren’t doing anything new - after all, we’re talking about mail, bookstores, auctions, and information indexes - but what made them so revolutionary was that they were allowing people to get things faster.
Annie Sisk, an early chatroom user, recalls a conversation with her boss who insisted on buying her a book after listening to her vent about creative frustrations:
A week later, there's a box for me in the mailroom - it's Julia Cameron's "The Artist's Way." It's from this little company I'd never heard of called Amazon.
...I can not even describe what that was like.”
But remember in the mid-90s, nearly 86% of adults weren’t online yet. Not everyone saw the internet as unicorns and rainbows.
According to Pew, 42% of adults had never even heard of the internet, and 21% were vague on the concept. To most Americans, the internet was this strange thing they had heard about from media and movies like Sandra Bullock’s “The Net."
All of the newness and confusion opened up an industry for VHS internet training videos, among the most notorious being "The Kid's Guide to the Internet."
But in spite of efforts to quell fear, for the uninitiated, questions of decency and morality arose as it related to the internet because of the easy access to pornography, violence, and other depravity.
To give you a sense of the broader argument of the time, video games were also under severe scrutiny, with the media asking whether or not “realistic depictions of violence” were corrupting the nation’s youth.
This lead to the knee-jerk formation of The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (A.k.a The Great Internet Sex Panic) which would attempt to impose FCC-like regulations to limit indecency and obscenity in cyberspace.
It was the first of many major battles over the soul of the internet.
While the overall intention of the CDA was righteous, many free-speech advocates argued over the government was over-reaching on the definition of “obscenity”, and wanted to ensure people would still be granted their First-Amendment rights to free speech. Nobody wanted to become censored so quickly after finding a voice.
In response to the CDA, John Perry Barlow wrote “The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” which would become copied and distributed on nearly 40,000 websites in just nine months.
The fight helped evolve the bill into one that would protect minors from indecency, but would also lead to the creation of one of the internet’s most important pieces of legislation, CDA 230, which states:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Without CDA 230, a site like Youtube could be held liable for 'obscene" user-generated video, and services like AOL could be (and frequently were, though unsuccessfully) sued for failing to moderate users for posting defamatory comments to each other.
CDA 230 made it so online retailers would not need to censor the content they curate nor could they be held liable if "obscene" material fell into the wrong hands.
Because of CDA 230, the people now had a voice they could freely express online while new websites could launch without having to worry about editing or censoring their users.
This is one of the underlying reasons why adoption of the internet skyrocketed from 14% in 1995 to 46% in just five years.
Image via Pew
Of course, as more people could access the content and media they craved faster - most notably music MP3s via Napster and other filesharing sites from 1999 into the early 2000s - the demand for faster download speeds would become more intense.
This need fueled the wider adoption of 56k connections, and eventually, broadband, marking the beginning of what many would start calling Web 2.0 and the beginning of the "social media fad."
But we'll talk about that more next week.
About the AuthorMichelle Nickolaisen is a freelance writer and business owner based in Austin, TX.