– By Arnav Gill

Those of us who grew up with even a slice of experience of the world that the internet inhabited in the early 2000’s will no doubt remember that it bears little, if any resemblance to what it is today. The best description I heard of this time was by Edward Snowden in 2013 who said, “you could have children from one part of the world, having an equal discussion…with experts in the field, from anywhere in the world, on any topic, at any time, all the time”. He went on to argue that the internet of that time was free and unrestricted, in the way that even these children were granted the same respect for their ideas as experts.

As the internet moves into its third decade of existence, it is hard to imagine the colossal transition such a project has made in such a short space of time; especially when comparing it to any other technology that has changed society. I often find myself explaining the time when the internet was in its infantile stages to people who are just 4 years younger than me. I must sound like I’m recanting stories of a lost world. Not to get too nostalgic, but this strange pocket of history ought to be explored.

When the internet began in the 1990’s it was super slow. Using a dial-up connection meant you had to sacrifice the ability to use the phone line. Even still, dedicated users began to flood early chat rooms with discussions that ranged from conspiracy theories to X-Files fan clubs. The end of the decade marked the internet as a project for hobbyists, certainly not as something the general public could use, or as a device that could be used by government and news on a large scale.

The early 2000’s appeared to change all that. With the arrival of faster, even wireless connections the possibilities of what could be achieved were endless. Sites like Myspace capitalised for the first time on youth culture, with other sites like Napster piggybacking off the rebellious nature of illegal downloads that began with the advent of Lime Wire.  Anyone who doesn’t at least remember one of those three will be lost on me, but trust me the internet was a fun place.

Miniclip provided hours of mindless entertainment, giving a growing market place for small developers long before the app store. Memes were born during this span of internet history, where the custom of adding silly captions to photos pathed the way for the underbelly of online and offline comedy that is prevalent today. In a world before YouTube, video content was banded around this website for anyone’s amusement. Feeling lost still, don’t worry you’ll recognise the next chapter of internet time.

The internet began to change subtly from 2006 onwards. Facebook launched worldwide in February of 06’, no longer being the best kept secret of America’s Ivy League. YouTube suddenly filled the video creation market that so many had been desperately craving on the internet. With Twitter following not long after, social media became the internet’s identity. Alongside the ever-advancing phone market, content creation and the ability to sell and share advertising space became the epicentre of the World Wide Web.

The internet began as a fringe project, misfits and weirdos gathering in secret to discuss their niche interests amongst each other as equals. What it became was a marketing tool. As someone who has seen social media platforms be born and evolve, I believe that the romanticized dream of free speech that they initially embodied has ultimately failed. They arrived with a desire to forge global communities and to share knowledge, but somewhere along the way the party got hijacked, and knowing we were all there like sitting targets, advertisers flocked. Perhaps it’s important we look back at that time and see what lessons we can learn from its three decades of existence… and think even more carefully about what the next three decades will look like in our new-age technological existence.

Image credit: jamesmarkosborne

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