Do you remember your first experience with the World Wide Web? Saying it now, sounding out those ambitious syllables, reminds me of the early '90s when it seemed we'd discovered a strange and exotic place. Indeed, I'll bet there's a fine cultural history project underway somewhere that collects narratives about the first time people saw the web - and really understood what it meant.
Part of the fun is renewing the wonder we felt at the unfurling of a revolution in communication, computer software, and cultural exchange, a social tsunami that's all the more remarkable for the speed it washed over us. So soon, the once wonderful web has become commonplace. Almost boring. A generation that has never known a world without the World Wide Web is now finishing high school and starting college. This is a story of their lives.
Of course in the early 1990s, the web wasn't everywhere like it is now; it was somewhere out there, a foreign country you could visit only with a special visa and some tolerance for technical hassles. Before the first browsers, a few pioneers encountered the web through telnet applications. They learned arcane text commands and sometimes searched for servers operating after sunset, hoping to avoid the snarl of business traffic.
Those early surfers found a mishmash that was variously banal and bizarre: supreme court rulings, ASCII porn, the top 40 reasons why Kirk is better than Picard... stuff like that. It didn't matter. The kick of the whole thing was the illusion that you could fly your computer around the world and seemingly hack into someone's database. The illicit high of breaking and entering, slipping into houses of data under cover of night.
Without such dramatic imagery but nonetheless recognizing the limitations of the early text-based universe, the supercomputing nerds at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign released a graphical interface to the web in 1993. Their Mosaic web browser opened a world of images, sounds, movies to anyone who could click a mouse. The relatively tiny internet community knew this was cool, but the endlessly clickable continuum that stretched forth thereafter, that ever-sprawling Encyclopedia Humanis that we now take for granted, wouldn't burst into public consciousness until the following year.
In fall of 1994, I launched my grad school years by getting an email account (email@example.com - yep, I can still remember my first online address) and playing with the PowerMacs in the computer lab. I'd heard of the web, but I'd never seen it. Then one day I saw the icon for Mosaic on the friendly Apple desktop. It took one click, and then...
To be continued...
Read More: Check out Gary Wolfe's breathless coverage from Wired, October 1994
December 12, 2010 update: fortystones: The First on the World Wide Web