We recently asked on Facebook what people missed most about the early days of the internet. Some people mentioned sites like MSN and Yahoo chat rooms. Others brought up greater privacy. But most of all, commenters were nostalgic for the modern dial-up screeches. Read the full thread on Facebook to see how people responded.
At the risk of sounding like old people yelling at clouds, there are aspects of the internet today that just don’t compare with the uncharted waters of yesteryear. The biggest difference is how decentralized everything used to be—in other words, there wasn’t a small network of giant companies that owned websites and their subsidiaries. There was more of a “wild west” feel to it and a greater sense of adventure.
So we thought we’d walk down memory lane with this post, using the answers on our Facebook post as inspiration. Fair warning, it leans heavily into a saccharine-soaked view of a bygone era. Join us for a retrospective on the pre-meme, dot-com boom, web 1.0-2.0 era of the internet. Nostalgia, here we come!
Read more: 7 technologies that ruin everything
Modem dial-up sounds
The most-missed feature of the early internet: The sweet sound of dial-up modems. We’ve got a recording right here for you to relive the wait to get on the internet:
Sounds good doesn’t it?
Whether it was a 14k, 28k, or 56k modem, these magic little boxes provided access to the information superhighway—very different from today’s always-connected world. Unlike routers, modems would generally allow only for a single computer to access the internet.
Because connecting to the internet required the use of a phone line, you would always have to decide between using the internet and calling your friends. Unless someone really needed to use the phone, this is where instant messengers came in handy.
Old-school instant messengers
Before Messenger and WhatsApp, there was a host of instant messengers that we used to stay in touch with friends outside of school or work. Among the most popular messaging programs were: MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, ICQ, and AIM. Prominent practices when using these programs were to use ASCII symbols to write your screen name, customizing your wallpapers, and displaying what songs you were listening to Windows Media Player or Winamp.
Let’s face it though, most of us used MSN or ICQ to chat with our crushes…
Early social networks
Remember Tom? Your first MySpace friend? Before Facebook became the behemoth that it is today, MySpace ruled the social network landscape. Founded in 2003 by Tom Anderson, MySpace became the world’s first social network to enjoy a truly global user base. In fact, at its height in mid 2006, MySpace briefly surpassed both Google and Yahoo! to become the most viewed website in the U.S.
What’s Anderson up to these days? Seems like he’s living a pretty sweet life as a travel photographer.
Other legacy social networks we all totally had profiles on include: Friendster, Hi5, Xanga, and Bebo. In contrast to contemporary social networks (we’re looking at you, Facebook) was the higher degree of customization provided to users for their profile pages. MySpace was known for its use of HTML code for its layouts.
Which leads us to…
Before platforms like WordPress, Squarespace, Wix, and Tumblr made it easy to create professional looking blogs and websites, users had to contend with learning basic HTML for creating DIY webpages.
Anyone who was anyone had their own free homepage (fan sites anyone?) back in the day and it was always hosted on either Yahoo! GeoCities (R.I.P.), Angelfire, and Tripod. GeoCities were grouped into “neighborhoods” that let users explore a wide variety of interests.
Sites from this era were highly distinctive and were replete with: Garish colors ✓ flashing text ✓endless GIFs ✓
A great living example of a ’90s website frozen in time is the official website for Space Jam (1996), which Warner Bros has kept alive to this very day. In 2019 when Disney and Marvel released Captain Marvel, a “retro” website was created to promote the film as it is set in the ’90s.
Webrings were also used to direct visitors to similar sites that covered the same subject matter. These were essentially a long list of links that you could lose hours of your life in.
Before Reddit, forums were the go-to place for online communities to discuss anything and everything from recipes, to Star Trek, to the paranormal. Forums were also a great way to learn new things and troubleshoot issues or ask advice. This, by the way, is not to say that forums no longer exist—they just seem to be less prevalent than they used to be. In many ways, Reddit communities, while great, just aren’t the same.
A stand-out example is the now defunct IMDb message boards which used to be an awesome place to discuss movies and shows.
Pre-Google search engines
Remember when Yahoo! reigned supreme? This writer does. In fact, before Google became what it is today, there were so many competitors in the space including: AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Lycos, Excite, HotBot, and Dogpile. This was, of course, long before search engines were filled with ads.
Each engine had its own specialty or method for producing search results but were eventually eclipsed by Google due to the latter’s ability to refine and return results that are faster and more accurate.
Legacy media players
Before Spotify, Pandora, and other music streaming services, users could rely on media players like Winamp and RealPlayer to stream broadcast radio or play local music files. Who didn’t love customizing their Winamp players with the latest skins?
Flash games + animations
Back when (Macromedia, later Adobe) Flash was still common and before YouTube really took off, Flash games and animations were extremely common. In fact, YouTube originally used Flash Player as the driving technology behind its player before switching to HTML5.
Sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate were great places to discover new content creators. Towards the end of its lifecycle, Flash began to exhibit glaring security flaws with industry leaders speaking out against the platform which eventually led to its demise.
The AOL CD-ROM
Strange as it seems, but there was a time when CDs were used to aid connection to the internet. Perhaps most well-known were the AOL free-trial CDs that seemed to be ubiquitous in everybody’s homes in the mid- to late ’90s. These CDs, sent unsolicited into people’s mailboxes, contained software that helped users connect to the internet and were so prevalent that at one time in history, 50% of the CDs produced worldwide had an AOL logo on it.
In the mid-’90s, Microsoft Internet Explorer was available for purchase in a box with a CD required to install the application on Windows 95. Mozilla also offered Firefox on CD back in the early 2000s.
What do you miss the most about the early days of the internet? Let us know below! If you use Facebook, give us a follow.