SXSW: The Internet We Once Knew

The Internet's early settlers sat round the campfire at SXSWi to recall the early days of the digital frontier

I'm down in Austin for SXSWi, and after hiking around yesterday to catch some amazing panels on the legacy of Arab Spring and the future of an online users' bill of rights, I gratefully collapsed into a chair at a panel put together by Katie Spence. I'm fascinated by the history of digital communities we've let degrade--I've written about what we lost when Geocities was shuttered and the promise of archiving Tweets at the Library of Congress.

Spence's panel was titled Tales of the Past Future: Web Pioneers Remember. It was far more intimate than I expected: we sat in the round, with everyone taking their turn recounting what the web had meant to them. Here's an oral history of the internet, as recounted by a small group of friends and strangers on March 11, 2011. This trip back in time was our collective accomplishment, each thought leading to the next, and it's presented that way below, an anonymous document about the way the Internet once was.

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Random chats are the hot new thing, but remember 1993's Forever September, when AOL connected all of its users to USENET? I remember SXSWi in 2000; we had our first panel on blogging, and the big debate was about commercial versus non-commercial sites. I thought blogging was the end of the web!

I don't want to be all "Kids nowadays!" -- you have to admire that people have made a living making these products -- but I had to learn, I had to invest time in these things; now there are CMSs everywhere.

When I got my first domain I didn't get .com because I thought it wasn't appropriate. Yeah, I thought using the wysiwyg was cheating. I think I used Yahoo search--"how to build a website"--to find Angelfire.

Being able to change the background color of a website was HUGE. And being able to put two images next to each other! Remember the cost of image hosting: having images big, (aka 300 px wide) was not an option. People wouldn't wait for a page to load. Bandwidth is more plentiful now; you can take shortcuts. Still, we have to remember Internet cafes do still exist. Not everything can be Ajax! Things must be able to degrade, gracefully.

I recall discovering the View Source option: being able to open up and see how things were made. So different from just playing a game on your computer -- you could build things. Using the internet isn't a hobby anymore.

I remember when there wasn't even internet yet, it was Gopher. And then they updated the software, and there was this thing called a "bookmark"! It really felt like, reading the internet, I could come to the end of it. NASA couldn't even do it, and now it's in your pocket.

It amazes me anyone builds a Facebook app. Don't they realize it will be gone in 3 years? [holds hands as if praying] I mean, I hope Facebook will be gone. Facebook is becoming AOL in a way.

When was the moment when the internet stopped feeling innocent? Oh, remember when Deja News launched in 1995? And everyone could search your Usenet archive. And Yahoo used to be a list of 100 websites! Being one of Yahoo's "cool picks" was the best thing that could happen to you.

Sometimes, when I see my friends finally join Facebook, it it feels like they lived the past 15 years in a completely different life.