the web and now

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Porque nos emocionou, e antes de desapareça.


The Web, then and now 5 nov 2019

A high school teacher of mine had bought and setup a modem, installed Netscape and Trumpet Winsock on the Windows 3.11 computer. He was on a mission to teach the kids about computing, programming and the Internet, all of which he believed to be the future. Two of my then friends invited me to computer class and that's how we got to try out the Internet for the first time. He'd pick three students each lesson to visit the Internet Room — a tiny room that contained the school's only Internet connected computer. And this time it was us.

On the desk was, aside from the expected mouse, keyboard and modem, a paper with instructions on how to get online and a computer magazine which then featured a big section of tips about web pages to visit. The Web was a big deal in the magazines at the time. For instance, one magazine I used to buy came with a 1.44MB floppy disk of downloaded websites so that people like myself, who didn't own a modem, could try out a random selection of sites offline. You can't fit that many websites on one floppy, but my computer didn't have a CD-ROM device. I had just upgraded from a hand-me-down 286 with a black and white display to a 486 with 8MB of RAM, which is all to say that I could finally type "win" and use a graphical user interface for most of the programs that I was using. I was fine and didn't really need an optical drive that badly. Besides, you'd be surprised at how many websites you could fit into 1.44MB back then.

I and my friends followed the instructions on the paper, until we heard an alarming noise from the modem. We were certain that we had broken it. If you have never heard a modem connecting, it gives a lot of high-pitched random beeps and boops with additional noises. After it stopped whining we were connected. The connection timer starts counting from 0:00 so that you can keep track of how long you've been connected – since the phone line owner paid by the minute.

We opened Netscape. Now what? We tried some random URL:s from the magazine. Amazingly they worked. A co-student had already made his own homepage (what we used to call personal websites) and jotted down his URL at the bottom of the instruction sheet. It also worked. Like any good webmaster at the time, he had provided some contact information. If the visitors had any questions about his website they could just phone him. He had added a website counter image to his site. This way you could tell how many visits his homepage had gotten. We were visitors number 17. He had a few hyperlinks to other websites. This was good practice. That way, the user could continue surfing. Perhaps in the future you could keep clicking for hours, finding more relevant and interesting content with each website. Related, we had also heard of Moore's law, that (roughly translated) states that computer capacity will double every two years. Even though we had seen it working it was difficult to believe that this could continue for more than a few years from now.

After this we tried something wild. Someone had said that there were already quite a lot of registered domains and suggested we'd simply try making up a few ourselves and checking whether they existed. Some of them did. Being fourteen and curious of sex I tried playboy.com. It worked. The teacher came back into the room and my face turned very red. He did not punish me.

The rise of homepages

I got into building my own homepage soon after this. Because of my limited amount of RAM I couldn't use any of the cool HTML editors of the time such as HotDog or HoTMetaL (many products used this naming pun with uppercased H, T, M and L; most famously HoTMaiL). I would edit the files in DOS, then type "win" to start Windows and finally open Netscape to preview the results. I realised soon that Notepad fit my memory constraints and saved a few minutes for each iteration of edit – save – refresh browser. Despite being quite simple by today's standards, Notepad was then a popular editor for HTML. Several homepages had a badge with something like "made with Notepad" or "proudly hand coded in Notepad".

With enthusiasts creating homepages and hyperlinks the Web grew. Its usefulness increased. We started using search engines (then called web crawlers) just to find the content we were looking for. We didn't make homepages to make money. We made them because we were fascinated with this new gigantic medium and where it could take us. If I could put something up there that someone else found useful, that's great.

Most web servers ran Linux and most had Perl. You could visit Matt's Script Archive and download a script for your own counter, or guest book. Forums became a thing. Users didn't need to learn HTML and create their own homepage just to add content to the web. Together we built a forever growing database. I put up the lyrics of some songs that I liked. There were many good guitar tabs pages. Just a few years later there were even pages where you could download MP3:s of a few famous songs. My computer was too weak to play them at the time, let alone would most of them fit a floppy.

When I visited a homepage, I knew that the author wanted for me to have the best experience. One example is that they would add a disclaimer to the front page: Best viewed in 640x480 (later 800x600, and some disrespectful occasions of 1024x768: I mean most people's hardware couldn't produce that resolution in 1994). They never wanted to get to know my shopping history, my friend graph, or to obstruct the content by showing ads, cookie consent and GDPR information. Even annoying pop-ups came later.

The disappointing Web of today

Fast forward to 2017 I was trying to remember the lyrics of a lullaby I wanted to sing for my kids. I started searching the Web and got increasingly frustrated. The first result was a slow page. It was showing lots of ads. It obstructed the content. I couldn't scroll down to read the entire text. It crashed my phone's browser. But it wasn't just that one page. All of the pages I found were annoying at best, and useless at worst.

A dream

I miss the days where an international community of enthusiasts would create content for the Web just for fun. That's why I created a website that simply contains a set of Swedish lullaby lyrics. It's ad free. It's fast. It has almost no Javascript. The hosting of the source code and the web hosting is for free. The pages can be edited in plain text with no knowledge of HTML.

It's my little fantasy of how we, the enthusiasts and users of the web, could take back some control of producing and owning valuable content on the Web.

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