Back in my day…

(Image credit: Christiaan Colen, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you’ve browsed the Internet recently, you probably noticed how every-f#$@ing-one is dying to know whether you are going to accept their non-essential cookies or not. (I know, right? Weirdest sexual innuendo ever.) You’ll also have noticed how you’re asked to subscribe to something for every damn thing you need to do, and how receiving an email or a notification is no longer an exciting sign that somebody cares.

Okay, I admit it. I sound like a grumpy old man who’s making a big deal out of nothing. Still, while I thankfully am nowhere near being old yet, and while I prefer looking ahead over looking back, there are a few things that I like looking back to. One of them is the Internet of 20+ years ago.

If you weren’t born in the early 90s at the very latest, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. You hardly remember a time when Facebook and social media weren’t a thing, or when “google” wasn’t a verb. You almost certainly never used Yahoo! Directory, and I would be surprised if you knew about Yahoo! at all. (I doubt I’d know about it if I hadn’t lived through the times when it was the go-to search engine, but maybe it’s more popular than I think and I’ve been living under a rock all these years.)

I got my first computer in early 1998, when connections were all dial-ups and the next level was ISDN. I wouldn’t hear about ADSL for another five years, I think. That was the time when Windows 95 was all the rage (for most home users anyway, I guess), the first edition of Windows 98 was just about to be inflicted on the world, and accelerated graphics cards like 3DFX were add-ins that worked alongside your regular 2D card.

This, younglings, was the Google of those days. (Found on the Wayback Machine, February 1998)

It was a shiny new world for me, and I was in my teens, so I guess it’s understandable if I look back on it so fondly. However, there was something about the Internet of those days that I miss.

Cosiness. The Internet of the late 90s was cosy. It felt small and quiet. Despite really annoying things like animated backgrounds, background music, and pop-ups, most websites felt calm and homely, like nice little living rooms where only you and the website owner were sitting, chatting amiably. No one trying to get you to like or subscribe, little-to-no ads (though, on the flipside, there was no AdBlock to block them, as far as I know), no trillion of cookie options to tick or GDPR notices to read. (Not that anybody ever does.)

An old 14.4 kbps dial-up modem. (Credit: Lawrence Sinclair, licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To be fair, finding what you were looking for, if it was there to be found in the first place, wasn’t so easy as it is now. Today, if what you need isn’t among the first few Google search results, it probably doesn’t exist; in the 90s, you’d comb through each and every last page of Yahoo! Search (or Directory), because the website you wanted might easily have been at the very bottom of the list. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate not having to waste hours looking for things, but back then I had a lot more time to kill, and searching for something on the Internet was like a treasure hunt. I was into emulated games a lot, and finding a reliable ROM website after patiently looking for it the entire afternoon was an assured dopamine hit, just like finding a large MIDI collection, or simply the hobby website of someone who shared my same interests.

And, oh, those websites. Visiting your favourite ones over and over again, reading them from top to bottom, looking for updates, was kinda like going over to a friend’s place for tea and cookies. (Only the essential ones, though.) It was a way to get to know the people behind them without ever having met them. Instant messaging wasn’t really a thing (unless you count IRC) and your best shot at talking to them (especially if they lived abroad, which was often the case for people running the websites I visited) was sending them an email. You’d wait for a reply like you would for a Christmas present. (Yes, I’m exaggerating it again, but it was very pleasant nonetheless.) Anyone else remembers the excitement of the chime sound in Internet Mail when you got new messages?

Speaking of sounds, depending on how old you are, you might not know that back then your devices (which were just desktop or laptop computers at best) weren’t connected to the Internet all the time. Dial-up meant that you were making a phone call to connect, and the longer you were connected, the more you’d pay. That sucked big time, but if visiting your favourite website was like being at a friend’s place, switching on your modem and hearing the dial tone was like wearing your coat and going out to get there. I know a lot of people are very nostalgic about that sound.

Needless to say, at the time there was no YouTube, no Netflix, and no streaming. As far as I recall, AVI was one of the most popular video formats, it wasn’t very common to find videos to download, and when you did, your 33.6 kbps modem (or 56 kbps, if you had the latest gear) would take hours to download a 10MB video. So, yeah, watching movies online wasn’t really a thing. The anticipation of finally completing a large download was actually quite pleasant, though—less so when it failed at 99% after hours of waiting. (Yes. Yes, it did happen to me.)

I take it it must be still at it. (Source: Reddit)

In the early 2000s, say until 2005, things began to change. From my perspective, that was the rise of Flash and Java games, of ADSL, of VoIP, and the time when discussion forums were cool (they probably were earlier on too for many people, and for many still are). I am no Internet historian and I might be wrong, but I think that’s about when blogging was born. Before then, only true nerds had a hobby website: you either needed to know how to code, or be happy with whatever result you could produce with the horrible WYSIWYG editors of the time. (Also, no backend; you’d be lucky to have a visit counter and a guestbook.) I have good memories of that epoch too, the new hidden treasures of which were games like Submachine, Daymare Town, and too many others too remember (by the way, RIP Flash). That’s also when peer-to-peer grew in popularity, which combined with faster connections made it possible to download full movies—which could still take days, carried the risk of downloading a bunch of malware and viruses, and by the way was rather illegal.

Does anyone still remember computer viruses, by the way? It’s not like they’re gone, but they turned from trolls that messed with your screen and files to sneaky little bastards that try to keep as low a profile as possible—until they need to let you know that your files are encrypted and that you need to pay a ransom to get them back, anyway. Maybe I’m just out of the loop, but I don’t hear anymore about things like ILOVEYOU or Melissa.

The feeling of cosiness I was talking about and which used to apply to the whole Internet began to fade away when social media began; it didn’t just decrease in intensity, but also in scope. The number of websites that felt cosy plummeted as the Internet grew more “social”: comments, likes, shares, and so on. There were no nice little living rooms anymore, only big market squares where everybody was talking (and sometimes shouting) all the time. Catching other people’s attention became important, and that’s how having a personal website went from a hobby thing to a business where you need to know who your audience is, what the trendiest topics are, how to do SEO, and all sorts of marketing strategies. (Just so I don’t come across as a huge hypocrite, it’s not like I don’t care about growing an audience; I do, but words like “marketing” make me sick to my stomach. I’m one of those delusional romantics who believe that, as long as they focus on doing stuff they like, the right audience will come to them without having to resort to all tricks in the marketing bag.)

I was never big on social media. I joined Facebook only in 2011, Twitter only in 2020 (except for a brief fling in 2016 that ended up with me deleting my account), and there’s tons of others whose purpose I still don’t quite understand. Social media websites aren’t cosy pretty much by definition, but believe it or not, there was a time when Facebook felt small and welcoming. For a few years after I joined, it felt like a bit of a larger but still cosy living room with several friends instead of just one, except they were friends I knew in real life. Seeing the red notification icon was nice: some of my friends cared about something I said! Friend requests, whether I sent them or received them, were also very pleasant: they generally were from\to people whom I’d recently met in real life, and a friend request felt as though we were getting closer.

But then groups and pages became more and more popular, which eventually led to your feed being invaded by tons of people you didn’t even know existed. Ever received a notification about someone whose name you’ve never heard commenting on something you don’t care about in a group you forgot you’d joined? That’s what I’m talking about. Thankfully, I’m through with comment fights with strangers whose opinion I disagree with; I tend not to go much past “Happy birthday!” or “Nice cat!” But there still are people who think that, just because they happen to have a shared interest with you, it’s okay to send you a friend request even though you don’t have the foggiest clue who the heck they may be. Not cosy by a long shot.

These days, when I want to enjoy that cosiness again, I visit pages like this one. (Yes, for some reason that I myself don’t understand I’m a big Mega Man fan, and someday I should write about it.) It’s one of the few websites I know that somehow managed to survive this long without becoming a relic and without losing its original cosiness. In general, that cosiness may be lost forever, but like I said, I like to look ahead more than I like to look back: it’s possible that something new will come along, either on the Internet or some entirely new medium that we can’t even imagine yet, and with it, a new cosiness just waiting to be discovered and savoured. I look forward to that.

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