The Internet Society: Emergence of the Online World in 1995

In 1995, the internet turned what was once a place for researchers and the technologically proficient into a household concept.


| December 2014



The Online World

1995 saw the growth and expansion of the online world. Though it was a place different from today’s web, paths were being paved for today’s most successful internet companies.

Photo by Fotolia/artstudio_pro

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.