It’s difficult to explain the cultural history of the internet as it’s like trying to explain how the universe came to be in one sentence. The best we can do is hit the high points and learn about how we got where we are today.
The Primordial Ooze
The early days of the internet would appear alien to us today. There were forms of the internet before 1989, but it was mostly just computer engineers and enthusiasts sending primordial emails to each other.
90s Chat Rooms
Internet chat rooms, like AOL, were all the rage in the mid to late ’90s, especially with computer geeks. Computers in the home were either used by your parents for work or to chat with weird strangers. The Internet was a thing, but it was very primitive, and most sites were made up of basic text.
The internet wasn’t really widespread yet, and people didn’t really know what to make of it. Those who were more technologically inclined believed the internet would change the world and revolutionize communication.
Internet enthusiasts had pretty interesting ideas as to what the internet would evolve into. Some believed that it would replace cable companies, phone networks, and movie rental services.
They were very right in some ways and very wrong in others. Chat rooms almost felt like some kind of toy or novelty for the average person. Things like SMS and iMessage are second nature to us today, but back then, it was phone calls and the occasional letter.
Online chat rooms didn’t dominate the average person’s daily method of communication like how messaging and email do today. It was a very separate and non-integrated sort of thing, almost like a pastime for people.
Online Gaming in the ‘90s
The video game market of the 1990s was largely dominated by home consoles like the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64. There were also Game Boys. However, online gaming was almost exclusively played on PC.
PC gaming was not easy like consoles. You had to learn how to enter codes into command lines and install the games properly. This alone functioned as a barrier for entry and was a precursor to the modern attitudes of many PC gamers towards console gamers.
Online gaming required not just a strong internet connection but a pretty beefed-up computer in order to run the games. That meant that the people who did play online felt like they belonged to an exclusive club.
One computer game released in the early 90s would change the gaming world and online culture forever: Doom. In 1993, id Software released Doom for MS-DOS. It popularized the first-person shooter genre with its over-the-top violence and unique gameplay mechanics.
Doom gave birth to online multiplayer deathmatch and was known for distracting office workers and university students. It did this to such a degree that colleges and offices around the country had to put out memos demanding people to stop downloading and playing the game.
Online Dating Thanks To Tom Hanks
Telling a friend or coworker that you met a romantic partner online would result in some weird looks and a line of questioning in the 90s. Online dating simply wasn’t a normal thing, and if you did try to meet people, it was dangerous because there were no safeguards.
It’s not like online dating is perfectly safe these days either, but the internet was truly the wild west. There was little oversight and virtually no rules or regulations. Match.com was the first online dating site, and it was launched in 1995.
The creator of the site had all of his friends and coworkers create profiles to start the site up and make it look populated. Not long after, his wife left him for someone she met on the site—for real.
Online dating didn’t blow up right away. The internet was still a new concept, and most people were still trying to figure out how to hook up a DSL connection. But then, in 1998, Tom Hanks starred in a movie called You’ve Got Mail.
The movie is about two strangers meeting online and communicating through email, and eventually getting romantically involved. This movie popularized the idea of online dating and made the concept a lot more acceptable to ordinary people.
The Golden Age of the Internet
There was a time when the internet was just powerful enough to facilitate stimulating communities but was still new enough that corporate interests and manipulation didn’t spoil it. The 2000s was a wild and exploratory time for websites and users.
Early Social Media
Back when the internet was just becoming mainstream, a major aspect of internet culture was anonymity. Everyone knew you were never supposed to use your real name or any other pieces of personal information.
People could express themselves freely on sites that were far more customizable and fun than the sites we use today. MySpace was terrific because you could create custom profiles with personalized homepages and even add features like theme music.
Being anonymous was the norm in the 2000s, even on social media. People didn’t know you by your real name. They knew you by your screen name and avatar, and that was it. Sharing personal information was almost a taboo online, and it was seen as dangerous and reckless.
Social media was very much divided into categories and subcultures throughout the internet. Nothing was centralized. There were blogs for movie fans, public forums for video games, and chat boards for things like music and viral videos.
This was a time when YouTube wasn’t the only website to watch video content, and Twitter wasn’t the only place to get unwarranted opinions.
Pure Content Creation and Communication
The 2000s were a special time for content creation like videos and music. Content was uploaded and downloaded free with no guard rails. When it came to YouTube, people uploaded content just for the fun of it—not because it was their job as it is today.
You wouldn’t download a car, would you? Maybe not a car, but people definitely illegally downloaded music. Like, a lot of it. In the mid-2000s, online data services like Napster and Limewire introduced peer-to-peer sharing. These sites allowed people to exchange files with each other directly.
Media like viral videos, adult stuff, and movies was available to download, but it was mostly music. This was when digital media services like iTunes were still in their infancy, but music was still being downloaded and shared.
Things were a lot harder to find on the internet too. Google was around, but it wasn’t the end-all-be-all solution to finding information like it is now. If you wanted more info on how to defeat a boss in a particular video game, you had to join message boards and actually ask people. This was the catalyst for many online communities to grow and for relationships to develop online.
Communication happened on a far more organic level, with cooperation between members of communities that sparked new connections.
The Modern Era
Today, the internet is fairly uniform compared to years past. Most websites look the same and are not nearly as personable as they once were. And there are now only a handful of sites that we visit regularly, like Google and Twitter.
Unfortunately, the days of obscure chat rooms and message boards filled with interesting but anonymous people are kind of over. Anonymity is becoming less and less commonplace by the day. Facebook goes to pretty extreme lengths to verify people’s identities, like asking for copies of driver’s licenses.
Even if you try to stay unknown, people have methods of finding your personal information. How many sites have you made accounts for that asked for your first and last name?
Social media was a new and exciting way to communicate with people around the world in the 2000s. In the last ten years, it has become a source of addiction, depression, and misinformation. It’s even often used as a weapon.
In 2013, Edward Snowden confirmed what everyone in America already suspected; The government is spying on all of us. People acted shocked and then went right back on Facebook and Twitter without a second thought.
The NSA may not even find social apps like Instagram and Facebook all that useful, though, because the number of fake profiles and posts online has become rampant. Part of modern internet culture is faking your life and making it seem better than it actually is.
Let There Be Memes
One of the best things to come out of the modern internet era is the meme. It’s used as a conduit to pass down pieces of culture and funny pictures that usually have text. The source of any particular meme can usually be attributed to a popular movie or show and is used as a template for jokes or ideas.
Richard Dawkins coined the word in his book titled “The Selfish Gene” from 1976. The term was largely only used in academic circles until it gained popularity somewhat recently with the public. The word “meme” is more broadly used as a unit of human cultural transmission.
The whole idea behind the modern meme is to not perfectly copy a previous meme but to tailor it for the particular idea or joke you are aiming to convey. Today, they are commonplace and nearly universally understood thanks to their deceptively simple delivery and execution.
The Potential Metaverse
What is the metaverse, you ask? The word itself comes from science-fiction, but it is essentially a world that you can inhabit online—buildings, events, the whole works, but it’s all via the internet. People can buy and sell merchandise, buildings, and even names there.
While this may seem far-fetched, the idea of VR has grown significantly in popularity recently, especially due to the pandemic. That seems to be where the internet is heading, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
A Brave New World
The internet is far more complex and vast for any singular person to explain but what is universal is its ability to connect people in a unique way. The past 30 or so years have been a wild ride on the information superhighway.
Doom | Britannica
Online Dating: Safe or Scary? | Medium
Edward Snowden | The Guardian