The World Wide Web. It sounds like such a silly thing when you actually spell out those consecutive W's. Nowadays, we just say "the internet," but once upon a time the web was a new and exciting thing. It was a massive communications breakthrough that captivated minds both young and old with the promise of an "information superhighway," and forced us to endure achingly slow dial-up connections.
Last month, the web turned 25 years old. Yes, Tim Berners-Lee's simple creation has gone on to spawn this digitally connected world we live in: the social networks, mega e-tailers and search engines we all know and depend on today. Things were simpler when the web started out, but we assure you, our early experiences were no less weird.
I'd certainly had brushes with the internet before the evening of August 24th, 1995, but that's the first night I signed online with my own account and with a username that belonged to me: Lazycow18. (One that would unfortunately follow me for many, many years.)
While countless others were standing in the streets waiting to pick up Windows 95, I was already enjoying the fruits of Microsoft's labor. My father had installed a beta version of the operating system on my uncle's yellowing HP tower and plugged in a 2,400-baud modem from USRobotics. A couple of clicks and a few bursts of static later, and I was on The Microsoft Network -- not MSN. It definitely wasn't the bustling community that AOL had already become, but there was a smattering of others already lurking in chatrooms and posting on message boards. Mostly, people just wanted to talk about Windows 95. We were something of an exclusive club, those of us that signed in on that first official night.
On the TV in the living room, CNN showed people lined up around the block waiting to buy their boxed copy of the software that begged you to "start me up." They were definitely what you'd call early adopters but we... we were pioneers.
When I was 13 years old, I had an online girlfriend. After weeks of chatting back and forth on AOL Instant Messenger with this person (let's call her Lola), we decided to take it to the next level: phone calls. Now, I don't exactly recall what all of our conversations were about, and that's probably for the best, but I do know that sometimes Lola and I would talk until 3 or 4 in the morning. We mostly talked about how badly we wanted to meet each other IRL. A relationship of sorts had formed between us and we became exclusive even though neither one of us knew what the other looked like. Sharing pictures wasn't as easy back then.
Was Lola really 14 years old? Did her looks match her own description? These are things I'll never know since we never did meet. But I never once doubted that someone was at the other end of the line, despite how enigmatic the whole thing was.
There were the Harrison Ford fansites, perfect for girls like me. There were the game forums where I could bone up on my Sim Tower strategy. Worst of all was the Gone With the Wind fan fiction.
I'd undoubtedly had some exposure beforehand, but my first memorable and impactful experience of the web was an unorthodox one. In March 1998, my dad moved from the UK to Hong Kong for work. I was 12 years old at the time and, as part of new contractual terms, his employer was obligated to spare no expense in keeping us connected. This meant I could fly out as often as I pleased on the company's bankroll, but also, I was entitled to the latest in telecommunications tech. So, one weekend, an army of technicians piled into my bedroom as if it were a clown car, leaving behind a dual ISDN line (128 kbps), a ThinkPad laptop and a videoconferencing setup I was told was the first home installation in the United Kingdom.
The laptop was for emailing, of course, but I soon graduated to Yahoo chatrooms, StarCraft and everything else an unlimited and fast internet connection had to offer a curious youngster. Most people would laugh at the videoconferencing equipment now. A huge box with a motor-driven camera, many times the size of current-day consoles, sat atop the biggest TV I'd ever seen. You honestly wouldn't believe the quality of that setup. My dad's face was a barely defined pink blur most of the time, but he was right there, sitting in front of me, and that's what mattered. He's lived and worked all over the world since, and still, at least once a week, we jump on Skype and shoot the shit.
Even in the early days of the internet, there was something for everybody. I should know: I was an exceptionally strange kid. There were the Harrison Ford fansites, perfect for girls like me who were too embarrassed to admit they had a crush. (He was born in 1942, eight years before my dad. I mean, ew.) There were the game forums where I could bone up on my SimTower strategy. Worst of all was the Gone With the Wind fan fiction. In fairness, I didn't write any myself. But as a reader, I was insatiable. It all started innocently enough. Like other girls, I read the book, earmarking my favorite passages -- the kissing scenes, if I'm honest. As a shy teenager, I identified with Melanie, but wished I could be Scarlett. Most of all, I wanted a boyfriend like Rhett Butler: tall, darkly handsome, a little bit of a dick, but ultimately a good guy. And if I couldn't have him, I at least wanted Scarlett to end up with him.
Here's where things get weird. I downloaded MIDI files with excerpts of the movie soundtrack. I owned a collector's book showing costume fittings and script revisions. I read the unauthorized sequel, itself a piece of fan fiction, and even identified with the term "Windy." Then, when there was nothing left to buy, I resorted to fan fiction. Most of it was terrible -- cries of "fiddle-dee-dee" every other sentence, and raunchy sex scenes that left little to the imagination (not that I minded). The plot was always predictable too: Scarlett and Rhett end up together, but not before getting into another spat and breaking up again.
At some point, I grew out of it. After dating a Rhett Butler, I fell for a skinny redhead with good manners. And because Netflix doesn't offer Gone With the Wind online, it's been years since I've seen the movie in its entirety. But in its place have come other obsessions: Monty Python, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and now House of Cards. But if you think I read Frank Underwood erotica, you've got me all wrong; I'm building up my gif collection instead.
My favorite online persona was Ellen: a sheltered, gangly 17-year old violin prodigy who struggled with the lead part in Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy while her family life fell apart.
When I was a teenager it was still de rigueur to make fansites. These were basically personal shrines to the things you loved. And what I loved at the time was comic books.
When Wizard magazine printed a short list of songs that mentioned superheroes, I made a site to list every song that referenced superheroes. That site, in turn, got mentioned in Wizard. When one of my favorite comics at the time, Cyberella (which was a sort of Max Headroom-meets-Disney cyberpunk tale), got canceled in 1997, I made a fansite for it complete with timeline and FAQ page. The latter of which got me a slightly annoyed letter from the comic's artist, Don Cameron, pointing out an error. It was the first letter I'd gotten from a creator about my sites, but not the last.
My first hands-on experiences with the web were like those of, I imagine, many high school boys in the mid '90s: at a friend's house searching for naughty pics. I'd make up excuses to hang out at my classmate's house, but honestly, I was there because I was told the World Wide Web was a vast landscape of adult-themed imagery. Or as my friend put it (and I'm paraphrasing a bit): "Dude you can, like, search for famous people and stuff."
When my parents finally signed up for our own dial-up access, I used my newfound powers to search for a particular celeb: Teri Hatcher. To some, she was Lois Lane on Lois & Clark; to others, she's... whoever she played on Desperate Housewives. But to me, she'll always be MacGyver's Penny Parker. Unfortunately, I knew next to nothing about finding stuff on the web and my first attempts were complete failures. In desperation, I called my friend and he said he'd find what I wanted. The result? A 1.44MB floppy disk overflowing with two whole images of an... almost fully covered Teri Hatcher.
Yeah, you kids have it so much easier these days.
I lurked in the dens of iniquity better known as AOL chatrooms trying on personas and spinning yarns to elicit responses that a small, bespectacled Asian child could hardly understand. For weeks at a time, I masqueraded as a woman, a wearied pensioner and an adult version of myself. But my favorite online persona was Ellen: a sheltered, gangly 17-year-old violin prodigy who struggled with the lead part in Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy while her family life fell apart.
I'd come home from school and jump immediately into a chatroom to regale a group of faceless regulars with stories of how I ditched a violin lesson to meet a boy, a decision my fictional parents made me regret. Yes, I was a mildly perverted, preteen asshole. Somewhere along the way, though, those trollish tendencies (mostly) evaporated, and I was left with a love of telling tales and picking out the scattered truths when others told theirs. Which may well have led me to where I am today.
Have an early World Wide Web experience of your own that you'd like to share? Jump into this thread right here, join the conversation and share your stories of the old dial-up days with us!