In 1995 (University of California Press, 2015), author W. Joseph Campbell describes the crucial moments of that year, marking that year as one of exceptional significance at the end of the twentieth century and claiming that its effects still echo in present day. This excerpt, which recalls the expansion and emergence of the online world and the World Wide Web, is from Chapter 1, “The Year of the Internet.”
The Transformation and Growth of the Internet Society
The novelty days of the World Wide Web tend to be recalled in sharply different ways. One way is to remember them wistfully, as an innocent time when browsing came into fashion, when the still-new Web offered serendipity, mystery, and the whiff of adventure. The prominent technology skeptic Evgeny Morozov gave expression to early-Web nostalgia in a lush essay a few years ago that lamented the passing of cyberflânerie, the pleasure of wandering leisurely online without knowing where one would go or what one might find. He wrote that those days of slowly loading Web pages and “the funky buzz of the modem” offered “their own weird poetics” and the promise of “opening new spaces for play and interpretation.”
Far more common than gauzy nostalgia is to look back at the early Web with bemusement and sarcasm, to liken the emergent online world of the mid-1990s to a primordial place, when the environment of the Web was mostly barren and boring, not a place to linger, not a place to do much at all. The “Jurassic Web,” Farhad Manjoo called it, in an essay posted at Slate.com. What’s “striking about the old Web,” he wrote, “is how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for.”
Fair enough. The Internet of 1995 was a place without Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia. Google was barely on the horizon: its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were graduate students who met in 1995 on the campus of Stanford University. Their mutual first reaction was that the other was pretty obnoxious. The Google of the early Web was the Alta Vista search engine, which claimed to be able to access eight billion words on sixteen million websites. Commercial online services such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy were prospering then, offering an online experience that mostly was segregated, circumscribed, and walled-off to nonsubscribers. By digital reckoning, 1995 was a long time ago—a time before Smartphones, social media, and ubiquitous wireless connections. Even enthusiasts acknowledged that navigating the Internet in 1995 demanded as much patience as knowhow. Surfing the Web then was likened to “a journey to a rugged, exotic destination—the pleasures are exquisite, but you need some stamina.”
But to look back and smirk at the primitive character of the online experience, to snicker at the “Jurassic Web,” is to miss the dynamism and to overlook the extraordinary developments that took place online in 1995. It was a time when the Internet and its World Wide Web showcase went, in the words of Vinton G. Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, “from near-invisibility to near-ubiquity.” “World Wide Web” was the word of the year, the American Dialect Society declared. Nineteen ninety-five was when the Internet and the World Wide Web moved from the obscure realm of technophiles and academic researchers to become a household word, the year when the Web went from vague and distant curiosity to a phenomenon that would change the way people work, shop, learn, communicate, and interact.
By the end of 1995, most Americans had at least heard about the Internet and vaguely understood that it was a worldwide network of interlinked computers. Everyone seemed to be paying at least some attention to the Internet, and many people could recognize a Web address when they saw one. Although a consciousness about the Internet had taken hold, most people in 1995 had yet to go online. At midyear, the Internet Society estimated that at least twenty million people but not more than forty million people were Internet users. More significantly, 1995 was the year of the emergence of notable entities and applications that shaped and helped define the online world. The year was a moment of innovation crucial to the character, content, and vitality of the World Wide Web.
Nineteen ninety-five saw the emergence of powerful if conflicting sentiments still associated with the Internet: a cocksure swagger encouraged by novelty; a promise of vast treasure to be found in the digital marketplace; and a spirit of collaboration and community that an online environment could uniquely promote. Those cross-cutting sentiments found expression in 1995 in the pretensions of Netscape, the California startup that made a breakthrough Web browser and, with its remarkable initial public offering of stock, catalyzed the dot.com boom of the second half of the 1990s. They found further expression in the quiet emergence of Amazon.com, which has become the Web’s greatest commercial success story. And they found expression in the development of the unassuming wiki, the open-editing software that enables Web users to collaborate across distances. Netscape, Amazon, and the wiki, each in its way, testified to the Web’s emergent dynamism in 1995.
The Emergence of the Online World
To be sure, the digital innovations of 1995 went beyond Netscape, Amazon, and the wiki. Many mainstays of the online world date their emergence to that year. The predecessor to Craigslist.org began in 1995 as a free email listing for apartments, jobs, and the arts in San Francisco. Its founder, Craig Newmark, has called Craigslist “a happy accident” that is “passionate about the mundane and the boring.” The online auction site eBay was launched in 1995 as AuctionWeb. Its founder, Pierre Omidyar, wrote the original code over Labor Day weekend while holed up at his home office in California. Omidyar was then twenty-eight years old; he became a billionaire three years later when eBay went public.
The online dating service Match.com got its start in 1995, and cyberdating gained recognition as “more than just a passing whim.” The New York Times made its first, top-dipping forays into the digital landscape in October 1995, posting reports at http://www.nytimes.com/pope about the visit to the United States of Pope John Paul II. The forerunner of Salon.com, an early venture into online news, was launched in San Francisco in 1995 as a weekly arts and literature “e-zine.” Yahoo! was incorporated in 1995, a little more than a year after the Web directory went online. Yahoo! was the work of Stanford graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo, who first called their directory “David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.”
So what made 1995 so digitally fecund? Why were so many veins of innovation fruitfully tapped that year? A variety of factors converged to make the year so rich and exceptional. For one, the Web was still new but had moved beyond its infancy. Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer, had developed the Web’s fundamental protocols by August 1991, and Mosaic, the first popular graphical Web browser, was available online less than two years later. Mosaic was a marvelous breakthrough; it was easy to install and easy to use, and it illuminated the Web for technophiles and early adopters. By 1995, moreover, computer use had crossed an important threshold: more than half of American adults were using computers at home, in school, or at work. And many new computers then were shipped with modems installed, encouraging access to the online world. Additionally, the growth of multifaceted, commercial online services such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy signaled emergent popular interest in going online, however circumscribed the experience might be. It was no major leap for subscribers to move directly to the Web and its promise of vast, unrestricted content.
The Web, moreover, came to be recognized as a barrier-lowering, micro-targeting platform that could facilitate connections otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve. To varying degrees, entities such as Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, and Match.com all seized on this capacity. They embraced the flexibility, versatility, and relative efficiency of the online world. Their founders recognized the Web’s capacity to promote convenience and to foster, if loosely and temporally, a sense of connection among consumers across distances. The feedback option, notably promoted by Amazon, emerged as a confidence-building mechanism for online consumers.
The Internet in 1995 also became the topic of much gee-whiz attention from the news media—attention that had the effect of deepening curiosity about the Web and its potential. For sheer hyperbole, few characterizations exceeded Newsweek’s cover story at the end of 1995. It had been “the Year of the Internet,” Newsweek declared, adding: “Remember when surfing was something you did outdoors, in a bathing suit? That was 1994. Now it’s what you do on the Internet—the worldwide network of computers that in 1995 was embraced as the medium that will change the way we communicate, shop, publish and . . . be damned.”
“You talk about revolution?” Newsweek went on. “For once, the shoe fits.”
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from 1995: The Year the Future Began¸ by W. Joseph Campbell and published by the University of California Press, 2015.