It was a new frontier, an exciting new world to explore. Sure, we had grown up in the nurseries of CompuServe and later Prodigy and AOL. But this was wild and untamed, not a boxed, prepackaged environment. At last, the Internet was opened to the normal person. Armed only with Mosaic, later called a web browser, we set off to explore this unknown universe where there were over a quarter of a million websites (1996). How in the world (wide web) could a mere mortal explore such a vast (cyber) space?
In 1996 Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced AltaVista, a search engine that was far more advanced than anything seen up until that point. In two years AltaVista went from 300,000 searches on the first day to over 80 million searches a day. In other words, we all used it.
The search engine helped us to tame this beast by allowing us to filter and find what we wanted. Or perhaps it gave a starting point to let serendipity run its course.
Back in 1996, 1997 there was no such thing as social media. A few early shopping sites were just beginning to crop up. CNN had put up their web site only a year earlier (1995) and a few other news organizations were also getting into the action. In other words, the things you currently do with the Internet either didn’t exist or were in their infancy.
At that time we used the Internet mostly to gather information. Most of the content was text; that is, text and hyperlinks. Back then “surfing the net” was almost literal. You’d start on a site and see a link. You’d click it to a new site, start reading, see a link and click. In just a few minutes you’d go from looking for a hotel to reading an article about astrophysics, passing through how the fuel injection in your car works, the history of Paris, a commentary about Picasso’s Guernica painting, Nazis in Spain and the V2 rocket.
One cool thing I used to do with AltaVista was put in two unrelated words, say “bucket” and “furious”, and see what would come up. Really, in those early days this was actually fun, you never knew were you’d land. And then a few clicks later you’d be a universe away.
Sadly AltaVista’s days were very limited. DEC unraveled and was bought out by Compaq in 1999. Comapq decided to make AltaVista into a rival of Yahoo, who used AltaVista at its core. So AltaVista changed from a search engine into a web portal. Everyone,including me, hated it. There was a new upstart named Google. Google was a pure search engine, like AltaVista used to be. We all jumped off of the sinking AltaVista onto Google. Too late they decided to change it back to a search engine. AltaVista was bought by Yahoo and kept alive until 2011, long after it was relevant.
We often forget what it was like back in the early days of the World Wide Web. That sense of exploration and discovery has been missing from the experience for well over a decade and a half. We now have almost a billion websites. We do everything on the Internet. In fact, most of the time we never even think about being on the Internet, we think about an app without giving a thought about the fact it is tied into the net. It’s fun to remember those days.
Do you remember the primitive days of the WWW? Did you AltaVista?
Note – I created these images for a website I built in 1996