1995: The year the future began
I had the pleasure recently to be interviewed by the Internet History Podcast, an outstanding and expanding online resource based on the recognition that 1995 was a turning point in the emergence of the Internet.
It’s a premise with which I agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, the recognition of the watershed character of 1995 undergirds my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.
The host and creator of Internet History Podcast, Brian McCullough, invited me to discuss 1995, which he praised as “a fantastic book — an excellent read.”
Our interview focused largely on the Internet and World Wide Web — which, I pointed out, became household words in 1995. By the end of that year, I said, almost everyone “had heard about the Internet, had heard about the World Wide Web.
“Not everybody was online — far from it — in 1995,” I added. “But it was very clear the movement [of the Internet] from the domain of academics and techies had really taken place by the end of 1995.”
I pointed out that it’s interesting how many prominent mainstays of the contemporary digital landscape trace their origins to 1995; these include Amazon.com, eBay, Match.com, Craigslist, Salon.com, as well as the first, anemic version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. “The list,” I noted, “is fairly lengthy.”
To that roster McCullough added the incorporation of Yahoo, the 20th anniversary of which took place early this month.
Not only did entities such as Amazon, eBay, and Match.com get their start in 1995, I noted that they took advantage of the Web’s barrier-lowering potential — its ability to facilitate connections that otherwise were difficult to achieve.
McCullough’s contributions to Internet history include an archive of more than 50 podcasts, among them a 30-minute program early last year about the events leading to the initial public offering (IPO) of Netscape Communications Corporation — a development McCullough called the “big bang” of the early Web.
Netscape “was a great company,” I said, and its IPO in August 1995 “had the effect of illuminating the Web for lots of people, including people who had no clue as to what this was all about. And it certainly grabbed the attention of Wall Street in a way no other Web-based startup had ever done.” (See the Wall Street Journal’s lead paragraph, above.)
Netscape was a great company “perhaps in a perverse way” as well, I said, noting that the company’s “rise and fall was so compacted that it defined ‘Internet time’.” In less than five years, Netscape went from start-up to near-hegemony with its “Navigator” Web browser to being acquired and absorbed by AOL.com. And thereafter becoming mostly an afterthought.
It’s regrettable, I said, that Netscape is not recalled more often than it is.
Our conversation also touched on to the “cyberporn” scare of 1995, which centered around a Time magazine cover story that suggested the Internet was awash with pornography.
As I note in 1995, the magazine’s cover (left) featured an unsettling illustration “of a pasty youth at a computer, his eyes bulging and his mouth agape in the apparent shock of confronting images of some unmentionable sex act. Inside the magazine, an illustration depicted a naked man in suggestive embrace with a computer.”
The article, it turned out, was highly exaggerated and based largely on a superficial study by a Carnegie Mellon University student.
I pointed out in the podcast interview that the vigorous reaction to the “cyberporn” story became an early demonstration of the potential of the online world “to take on and debunk that kind of stuff. And Time’s story was exposed to the withering [assessments] of online critics. And [Time] had to walk that [story] back, very quickly.
“It was, as I say, an early demonstration of the power of the Internet, the power of the online world, to debunk shoddy reporting,” I said.
McCullough brought up the misguided predictions about the Internet, published in 1995 by the scientist Clifford Stoll, noting how they “pop up every couple of years on the Web because, unfortunately, he got everything so wrong.”
That reference was to Stoll’s memorably dismissive essay about the Internet, which appeared in Newsweek in late February 1995 beneath the headline, “The Internet? Bah!”
I pointed out that the essay was a companion piece of sorts to Silicon Snake Oil, the book Stoll published in 1995 that contained “even more predictions that were wayward and misguided and proved to be quite inaccurate.”
Several of those predictions are cited in 1995, including this one:
“I don’t believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance.”
And this one:
“Video-on-demand, that killer application of communications, will remain a dream.”
I also noted that Stoll’s wrote the essay both as a contrarian and as a veteran of the Internet, claiming to have been online 20 years.
“His timing happened to be exquisitely bad,” I said, “because he happened to write right at the moment when the Web is taking off and entering the mainstream consciousness. And it wasn’t very much longer before Amazon started selling books online, which he predicted probably wasn’t going to happen” in a meaningful way.
The podcast interview took up other topics that are addressed in 1995, including the not-guilty verdicts in the prolonged O.J. Simpson murder trial. The announcement of the verdicts, I said, “probably was the last major news event in the United States in which the Web did not play a major role as a provider of the news.
“People gathered around television sets, they gathered around radios, they got the news word of mouth. The country essentially, for maybe 10, 15 minutes on the 3rd of October 1995, essentially shut down. They waited for the verdicts … to be announced in court in Los Angeles. People wouldn’t get on airplanes. News conferences on Capitol Hill were postponed. Not knowing was an impossible position for people to be in” that day.
“The Internet wasn’t really a major source of news of the Simpson trial verdicts,” I said, noting that television audiences when the verdicts were read October 3, 1995, reached “absolutely astounding” levels.
While no solid figures are available, estimates are that 100 million people tuned at least for a few minutes to hear the verdicts read.
“Those are just huge audiences,” I said, “unimaginable today.”
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