The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Recalling the quaint early struggles to describe the Web

With considerable uncertainty and obvious tentativeness, news outlets 20 years ago struggled to describe the then-new phenomenon of the World Wide Web.

Their tentativeness seems quaint nowadays, and a bit droll.

But as I point out in my new book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, it wasn’t as if the experiments in locution about the early Web were necessarily wrong. They were, though, strikingly cautious and uncertain at a time when the Web was entering mainstream consciousness.1995fullcove_155

Exactly 20 years ago today, for example, an article in the New York Times referred to “the popular Internet service known as the World Wide Web.”

Early in January 1995, the Times described the Web as “a section of the Internet overflowing with sights and sounds.” (It also said that the Web was “the place to be in 1995” for “anyone with a computer, modem and so-called browser software.”)

Later that month, the Times said in another article that the Web “was an electronic amalgam of the public library, the suburban shopping mall and the Congressional Record.” The following month, a wire service report called the Web “a string of data bases available through the global maze of computer networks known as the Internet.”

Revisiting these descriptions is not meant to ridicule the efforts to define the lexicon of the early Web. Rather, looking back offers reminders about how embryonic and shifting the Web vernacular was in 1995.

As Lauren Kirchner noted a few years ago in Columbia Journalism Review, the Internet of the mid-1990s “was so wide open and undefined that the right language didn’t even exist to talk about it yet.” Terms such as “internaut” — a blend of Internet and astronaut coined to describe a frequent Internet user — circulated for a while without really catching on.

It’s important to note, too, that even in early 1995 some journalists were notably perceptive in describing the Web and what it would become.

For example, Peter H. Lewis, then of the Times, wrote in an article published February 7, 1995:

“As with all truly great communications tools, including the printing press, the television, the telephone and the personal computer, the Internet’s World Wide Web is both a dynamic information source and a prodigious productivity waster.

“As an information engine, the Web has the potential to transform business, education and other aspects of daily life. As an entertainment source, it also has the potential to be a time-sucking black hole.”

Lewis also wrote, somewhat less perceptively, that the Web “is a speed trap on the data superhighway, a Bermuda Triangle in the information ocean, the junk food aisle in cyberspace’s digital supermarket. … It is always fascinating, even when it is just plain weird.”

Familiarity with, and understanding of, the workings of the Web seemed to deepen over the course of 1995. By year’s end, news organizations appeared to be more confident — and certainly more lavish — in their characterizations.

In mid-December 1995, the Times declared that the Web had become “a full-fledged media star, hailed and hyped, part technology and part fashion accessory.” (The article focused on Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s creator, and didn’t fully explain the “fashion accessory” reference. It did note, though: “The Web is the popular multimedia branch of the Internet, and it has helped bring the Internet to the masses.”)

Late that month, an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer described the Web as “an electronic publishing service for pictures, sound and video, as well as text.” It also said:

“The Web, which debuted in 1991, is where anyone with Internet access and a modicum of know-how can establish a beachhead in cyberspace — a Web page.”

For sheer extravagance about the Web in 1995, probably nothing topped the hyperbole of Newsweek’s year-end cover story titled, “The Year of Internet.”

Newsweek called the Web “an awesome construct where the publishing efforts of thousands of people are interlinked into a massive seething monument to human expression, enabling everything from shopping for a new car to keeping track of Madonna’s biological clock.”

Cool: The early Web as “awesome construct” and “massive seething monument.”

More tamely, the American Dialect Society designated “World Wide Web” as one of its two “words of the year” of 1995.

The other?

“Newt,” as in Newt Gingrich, the voluble speaker of the House who came to power in 1995 and was Time magazine’s “man of the year.” Newt also was a principal force in bringing about two partial shutdowns of the federal government in 1995.

WJC

24 comments on “Recalling the quaint early struggles to describe the Web

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