On this day 30 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal with the dreary title “Information Management” to his superior at the European physics laboratory CERN.
It began by asking how future scientists would keep track of their increasingly large projects. “This proposal provides an answer to such questions,” he wrote.
The proposal described what, in just a couple years’ time, would transform into the World Wide Web: a connected system for sharing information that would revolutionize how the entire planet communicated.
At the time, connected networks of computers had been up, running, and growing for a couple of decades. People had sent emails, shared files, ran message boards, and even created the first emoticons.
But it wasn’t until the World Wide Web came along that the internet at large really began to take off. Web browsers, webpages, and hyperlinks made information easy to find and move between, and because the core code was open sourced, anyone could create a browser or website of their own.
Over the past 30 years, major portions of the web have come and gone. They’ve made us laugh and cringe, let us waste time and find friends, and reshaped the world in the process.
For its anniversary, we’re looking back at some of our favorite websites, from A to Z, as well as some key people and technologies. Of course, there was far too much good stuff to include, so we had to note some additional favorites along the way.
The web quickly became a major place to shop, and nothing encompassed that better than Amazon. What began as an online bookstore rapidly expanded, and soon consumed, many of the brick-and-mortar brands we knew and loved. These days, using Amazon is kind of unavoidable: it’s a voice assistant, it’s the cloud powering many of the sites you use, it’s a gourmet grocery store chain, and it’s the site you use to buy pretty much anything. Ironically, it’s also learned from old rivals and opened plenty of physical stores.
Other favorites: Angelfire, America Online installation discs
From cat GIFs to personality quizzes to “The Dress,” BuzzFeed was one of the defining voices of early digital media, and it was good at what it set out to do: make viral content. Its irreverent voice set off a wave of copycat sites, enough to create an entire industry of online media for millennials begging to be parodied. Sure enough, it was. The Onion launched its satire website ClickHole, a pitch-perfect, bizarro version of clickbait sites, and in BoJack Horseman, Diane works at a BuzzFeed-like website called “Girl Croosh.”
Cascading Style Sheets made it easier to make pretty and usable webpages by separating out how a page looked from how a page was put together in HTML. More importantly, CSS made it easier to learn how to make pretty and usable webpages: you could use a browser to inspect a site’s code and start messing around with the whole page, changing everything with just a little tweak. (Shout-out to Microsoft for supporting CSS early. Then shout at Microsoft for ruining the lives of web coders everywhere with its weird box model and other broken CSS implementations.) Having to code to specific browsers is still a thing, but at least it’s not as bad as it once was. Go ahead and change a font on your favorite webpage today, just because you can.
Computers birthed the World Wide Web, and the World Wide Web birthed Twitter, which so graciously provided us with the wonders of Weird Twitter. Dril, who fathered classics like, “‘im not owned! im not owned!!’, i continue to insist as i slowly shrink and transform into a corn cob” has played an important role in defining what it means to be Online. Last year, they published their best tweets by way of a seminal, self-titled book. And just like dril, we all will continue to ignore the advice of our loved ones and refuse to Log Off. Forever.
Sitting somewhere between the professional storefront of Amazon and the complete free-for-all of Craigslist, eBay has cemented itself as the go-to place for buying pretty much anything second-hand online. Few online marketplaces are just as likely to sell you aftermarket car parts as they are second-hand clothes, and yet, somehow, eBay finds a place for all of them, and there are enough users (and now businesses) that you’ve actually got a pretty good chance of finding the obscure item that you need. These days, eBay’s dated interface often creaks under the weight of catering to absolutely everyone, but its catalog is just as weird and wonderful as it ever was.
It was 2004: we had digital cameras and proto-social media sites like Myspace and Friendster, but there was no real way to share photos. Then Flickr came around and changed everything. It was an amazing feeling to upload a huge batch of pics from a backpacking trip, share them with friends, then relive the experience of waking up in tents pitched in the shadow of a glacier with the click of a button. You could do it through Flickr’s clean, attractive interface and without all of the clutter and noise that was typical of early aughts websites. Flickr was a digital gallery, an online photography museum for pros and amateurs alike. It seems to be shrinking these days, but it will always loom large in influence.
Close your eyes, and imagine your dream GeoCities page. Maybe it has some glittering clip art or a tiled background because you couldn’t find an image big enough to fill up the screen without making it all stretchy and weird. While you’re deciding, though, maybe put up a GIF of a construction worker with a hard hat and an “under construction” sign so that visitors will know you have something good coming. Don’t forget to join a webring when you’re done.
The web didn’t invent email, which predated it by at least 20 years. Webmail did, however, make email easy to use and widely accessible. Hotmail launched in 1996 as one of the first webmail sites that anyone could sign up to use as an alternative to their ISP’s offering. The early web was so geeky that Hotmail’s founders — Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith — chose the name because it included reference to HTML (“HoTMaiL”). Hotmail use exploded after it was purchased by Microsoft in 1997.
It’d take longer than a lifetime to consume a sizable fraction of the Internet Archive’s 20 million books, 4.9 million movies, 5.1 million audio recordings, and 410,000 pieces of software, including loads of classic games, all of which are available for free. But they all pale in comparison to the most important thing the Internet Archive is archiving: the internet itself. There’s no better place to see what the web was like — and expose things long thought forgotten — than the 349 billion webpages stored in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. (You can thank it for most of the screenshots found on this page.)
Other favorites: Image macros
Jennifer Ringley started broadcasting every moment spent in her college dorm, by way of grainy photos uploaded every 15 minutes, in 1996. She was one of the first people to share her life online without a filter, offering a sense of intimacy and relatability that we now take for granted with digital celebrities. She was also one of the first people to discover the pitfalls of internet fame, including burnout after living years of her life in public, which is why she’s stayed mostly offline since 2003 when Jennicam went dark.
The internet is a never-ending sprawl of extremely good memes, constantly mutating, remixing, and changing. Know Your Meme chronicles and makes order out of that chaos.
Other favorites: kottke.org
Once upon a time (around the turn of the 21st century), there was a social network called LiveJournal where large numbers of people (some with very confusing pseudonyms) hung out, blogged, argued in long comment threads, posted fiction and poetry and art, and had a generally good time. In 2007, LiveJournal was sold to a Russian media company, and many of its original contributors eventually decamped to Facebook, Twitter, and other foreign climes. LiveJournal is still, well, live; its servers (and its user agreement) are now Russian and so are many of its users.
The web’s accessibility birthed a fan fiction renaissance, which inevitably generated a lot of angsty and self-indulgent fantasies from teenagers and, in turn, deliberately awful parodies of those fantasies. The fascinating thing about My Immortal is that nobody’s sure which one it was. Did a teen named Tara Gilesbie write a malapropism-filled Harry Potter fan story about a mall goth vampire witch named “Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way?” Was Tara herself a fictional creation? Or was My Immortal an earnest project that descended into trolling? A supposed “real” author came forward in 2017 with a memoir, but the publisher discovered she’d made up large parts of the story — only adding more layers to the mystery.
Destroying the menace that was Blockbuster’s late fees would have been legendary enough, but Netflix also managed to rapidly transform from a DVD rental service to a full-on digital streaming service that thoroughly redefined how and where we watch movies and TV. Netflix is now enmeshed in popular culture. The phrase “Netflix and chill” has become a meme, and it’s now a safe bet that you can strike up a conversation with an acquaintance around the latest original shows to run on the service. In 2019, streaming services are in, and Netflix is on top.
As online dating moved toward the mainstream, OkCupid eased us in with an endless stream of goofy (and very important) quizzes. The site’s compatibility measures have since fallen out of style in favor of simple swiping, but there was always something about OkCupid’s quirky approach that made the site and its users feel like they were in on some sort of joke about the inherent awkwardness of getting to know a stranger.
How would society have ever evolved without Pornhub? We’d probably be diving through dumpsters in search of discarded porno mags like horny little pizza rats, desperate to hole away our booty against the glare of onlookers. Yes, there are cultural downsides to so much porn being freely available. But Pornhub has also encouraged people to let their freak flags fly. It, and sites like it, have helped many find kinship around their quirky fetishes ever since the site launched in 2007 with a “Niches” section. What started as a place to view dirty pics is now one of the web’s most visited sites.
The facts are these: QWOP is a game; it was created by the moral philosopher, game designer, and former Cut Copy bassist Bennett Foddy 11 years ago; and it is devilishly difficult. The game isn’t about winning or losing. It’s more a meditation on reward, punishment, and how much you’re willing to endure. QWOP may not have been the most fun Flash game, but it was one of the few that allowed you to truly feel something beyond the mash of a button.
Digg came first, but it was Reddit that managed to create a user-curated news site around vibrant communities interested in everything from cat pictures to finance advice to beauty products. The self-described “front page of the internet” is also the place people go to unwind, discover curiosities, and find like minds. That’s been problematic at times, and Reddit is still dealing with the repercussions, but the site has become a fixture, and there’s nothing else quite like it.
The beauty of Strong Bad is that you don’t need to know a thing. The humor is self-explanatory: a cartoon antihero in a Lucha Libre mask sardonically answers his fan mail in the lowest-fi text interface imaginable. But in the early 2000s, it was anything but low-tech. The animated Flash web cartoons leaped from the screen in a way very few things on the web could. The Strong Bad Email series was popular at a time when the web was small enough that it sprouted memes of its own — including “Trogdor the Burninator,” an instant death metal classic that eventually made its way into Guitar Hero II.
When Tim Berners-Lee came up with what he thought would be a global system for knowledge and data sharing among research institutions three decades ago, it wasn’t called the World Wide Web; it was just “Mesh.” The WWW project was ambitious and exciting from the start, yes, but even its inventor could hardly have envisioned the subsequent explosion of the web’s use for private and commercial purposes.
Tim Berners-Lee continues to play a role in steering the development of the web via the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets universal standards like HTML5, and the World Wide Web Foundation, which advocates for a free and open web. As a supporter of net neutrality, Berners-Lee can most often be seen leveraging his celebrity to push governments and international organizations to preserve the web’s original collaborative spirit.
The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is the unglamorous string of code upon which this entire web edifice is built. A thing doesn’t exist on the web without an address string to identify its location. Like most things related to the web, the URL was never designed for the eventual ubiquity it achieved. Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has admitted that there wasn’t any technical need for the double slash at the front of each URL, and he’d get rid of it if he could go back in time.
Other favorites: Urban Dictionary
vBulletin wasn’t the first or the only software to run web forums, but it was a favorite. Even in the age of Facebook, forums are still an essential strata of the web. They’re places where topic-specific communities gather to talk, argue, and (unfortunately) plot. vBulletin made it easier to create, manage, and moderate those communities. One devious setting called “Tachy Goes to Coventry” put a user on a global ignore list without alerting them that nobody was seeing what they were typing. It’s an effective moderation technique because sometimes it was easier to let somebody shout into a void than to tell them to shut up.
You could just call Wikipedia “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” but that’s underselling its impact. Wikipedia is a living reflection of modern culture. Since launching in 2001, it’s gone from shorthand for “don’t trust the internet” (kids, don’t cite Wikipedia in your homework!) to an arbiter of truth (kids, check Wikipedia before deciding the Moon landing was a hoax!). Its hypertext structure encourages intellectual curiosity — maybe a little too much, actually. (We’d link to Wikipedia’s Wikipedia page, but you’ve got three more entries to read, and we don’t want you to spend the next hour clicking links.)
XKCD has only been around since 2006, but it’s hard to imagine that there was ever an internet without it. It’s self-described as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,” which covers a whole breadth of topics and lends itself to the classic adage of “there’s a relevant XKCD for everything.” Faceless stick figures make it easy to project ourselves in the comics, whether they’re single panels or behemoth undertakings that take you through a click-and-drag adventure.
Search engines built the web, and Yahoo was one of the first, biggest, and longest to survive. Yahoo became the web’s homepage for many, delivering news, markets, sports, and more, and putting a link to your Yahoo mailbox on the same page. Yahoo’s homepage remains one of the most visited sites on the web, even as its influence has waned. The company was acquired by Verizon two years ago, and it’s infamous for letting Flickr waste away. (It certainly could have done better by Tumblr, too.)
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