A remembrance of webs past

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A lot of the recent talk about Ello, an upstart social media site, has been about how the nascent community reminds members of the early days of the Internet. You know, before native advertising, privacy invasions and Buzzfeed.

Ello's appealing manifesto recalls the first days and first communities in the web. 

And that got me thinking about what the early web was like. Many people, and a lot of my students, think the Internet began in 1991, with the birth of the World Wide Web. And, while it's true that the web of intertwined, typographically varied documents started then, the Internet, as a network of computers, had been around for decades. Networks like Fidonet and Compuserve offered a rich array of documents and online communities and dialing into FTP servers opened up even more digital doors.

And, in the early '90s, when you browsed the wonderous web with Mosaic, you could actually log on and scan the new sites that had sprung up overnight. Honestly, in those first days I did just that, spending a half hour to see what new resources had popped up. It was that small and that fresh.

The sites I found all sported generic gray backgrounds, ungainly fonts and designs that revelled in rotating ovids, "under construction" graphics and ungodly colour schemes. What pictures there were got painted across the screen at the pace of a dot matrix printer and were tiny, 256-colour blocky smudges. There was little sound, almost no video and it was a Land Before Flash.

To create the pages, you either hand-coded HTML or used a clunky tool like PageMill, which, when I first saw it demonstrated at MacWorld in 1995, was the first software program I lusted after.

The online communities back then were either walled gardens, like AOL or Prodigy, or text-only playgrounds for nerds. Some of my favourites were Community Nets, geo-centric sites that had sprung up in cities like Cleveland and Denver and acted as virtual city hubs. I even helped build one in Hamilton -- CompuSpec, an online community started by the Hamilton Spectator and killed a few years later by editors who thought the Internet was probably a fad.

It's hard not to be nostalgic about those years. Facebook didn't exist, nor did Google, or cookies, or botnets, malware or pop-ups. It was clear sailing to the far side of the world.

Now the web has become its own world of wonders, beyond what we dreamed of back then. I'm writing this on a cloud-based word processor, with a wireless keyboard paired with a phone with 128 gigs of memory (so much, so small) on a moving bus while connected to a web so fast I could stream a hi-res movie and have a video conference with 10 friends. And, yet.

So, I understand the nostalgia Ello spawns. We can't live there anymore. But sometimes it's nice to visit. 

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Kevin Baird/flickr

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