In the ’90s and as far as the late noughts, the internet was extremely different from how we know it today. One could not take for granted that they would be connected anytime and anywhere. The internet was something you used intentionally. To communicate you had Internet Relay Chat or IRC but your friends were not always available online and you could not always ping them. You could at best leave a message and they would get to it when they did. Often you ended up meeting them in person before they logged into the internet the next time in their house.
Things were problematic at home as much as across friends’ homes. If you wanted to connect to the internet you needed to use the phone line via dial-up. This meant nobody else could use the phone line. Using the internet was akin to calling someone up; you just did it with a lot more multimedia.
Despite all this, there was always entertainment online. Distraction is not a new entrant into the World Wide Web. The difference was that you intentionally set yourself up to get distracted—or get some down time if you will. You had the likes of Yahoo! Games or Miniclip where you could log in and play games. For what we knew then these games were pretty fun and exciting. And you played them in your browser.
You could play with friends but you had to plan ahead. As with IRC, there was no way to just hook someone into a conversation on your beck and call. There was no way to notify someone you wanted to get in touch with them. That brings us to the first item on this list of good and bad things on the modern internet.
Notifications are a bad thing
The internet has gone from being a tool to being a manipulator. Ever since dial-up died (which was a good thing) and was replaced with broadband and now fibre (which are good things) we have taken for granted the idea that one is eternally connected to the internet. With this comes the idea—also taken for granted—that we are always reachable. Be it a text, an e-mail or, the worst of the lot, social media, everyone is taken to be just a notification away from rushing to us.
Newsletters are a good thing
In terms of communication, good things on the internet are things that allow us to use them. These are not things that demand to be seen, read or reacted to but things that arrive—much like the humble post—and remain in our letterboxes while we make time to get to them.
At the top of this list then are newsletters: brief writings by people who care about certain things written for the consumption of people who are also interested in these things, with respect for the reader’s time and, on the part of the readers, respect for the writer’s efforts to want to remain subscribed.
E-mail is a good thing
Along the same vein as newsletters are e-mails. They arrive and wait for us to make time and space for them. Sure some may notify us, but who gets priority is based on our list. We can also sort some into junk and, more important, control from the receiver’s end who can reach us through blacklisting etc.
E-mail is, in effect, the ideal means of electronic communication that respects the time and interetss of all parties involved in an exchange. This is also why it has remained pretty much unchanged since inception. In a culture that is not drowing in hustle and that actually respects everyone’s time and privacy, e-mail works flawlessly.
Advertising (in its current form) is a bad thing
In the beginning the internet came with no strings attached. It was a platformn driven by independent individuals, not corporations. Things were not put with expectation of returns. ‘Sites’ on the web, like sites on physical ground, were places where you were you. You owned them, you showcased on them what resonated with you, and others saw it and enjoyed it and shared their own. The ’90s web was as good as it sounds in ways that mattered. It was a fun place to be and in its clarity lay its potential. (Of course there were seedy websites, but they too were not commercialised yet.)
Then came the corporatisation of the Web. Every inch had to be ‘monetised’. The Web is no longer just a level place for every individual to gather, rather an assortment of piecemeal handouts by large, faceless corporations that work to give us the impression of having some control over the rules that govern the web. Bringing about this change was no simple feat. The goodness of the internet had to appear to remain untouched; things had to give off the impression of possibility and openness even as ads blocked every square inch of our computer screens.
It was no different from the ads you see in a magazine already, they said, not remarking on the fact that everyone sees the same ads in a magazine, not different ones customised to our previous reading. Like real estate, advertising sold the internet to a table full of devils.
The corporate web is a bad thing
For many people who started using the web only in the late ’10s, the corporate web is all they have ever known. The idea of an independent web in which corporations fight for scraps seems like a revolutionary idea rather than the razed foundations of what once was. The ‘indie web’ has only been overshadowed by the flashy, colourful attractions of the corporate web. But the guise can only last so long.
Once people realise that they own the web just the same as a large corporation and that they can come together to get things done same as large corporations, the tables will turn. Corporations will no lnoger be able to dictate the rules of the land or oversee public conversation or take your eyes off the vast emptiness lying in wait for individuals to capture, beyond the corporate compound walls. The internet will return to what it once was: a place of possibilities driven by well-meaning individuals.
Platform-agnostic content and social media are good things
The internet dissolved the walls between content, presentation and platform. These were ideas that, from the early days of the computer right up to the mid-2000s, were crystal clear. In the early days of the internet the internet itself was simply a means of reaching out. The content was always under the complete control of the person who owned it.
Today, we think of Tweets that are Twitter-centric, Instagram posts that are Instagram-centric, and Notion notes that are pretty much locked into Notion1. We need to refuel our desire to own our content, to separate content from platforms. Platform-agnostic solutions should be the future but so far are not poised to be. Static sites or flat files with markdown are better than Squarespace or Wix. The Indieweb idea, still in its infancy, of content syndication for absolutely everything is ideal but lacks a frictionless workflow. Things are in their infancy but we need to catalyse their growth before platform lock-ins become the norm.
Translation services and the accessible web are good things
Although forms of the accessible web existed since the inception of the WWW, they are being put in force now. This is definitely a good thing. So also are translation services that are recognising a multilingual web without shutting anyone out.
New platforms and interaction protocols like Mastodon and ActivityPub are leading the way in this. Not including alt text is drawing soft ‘tut’s from the public—maybe this is how we get started with serious accessibility. Translation services are now being built into operating systems as we all learn to appreciate one another’s cultures—again, this is how we get started.
Pop-ups are a bad thing
It would seem that the ’90s were guilty of pop-ups or other similar weirdness, and the debate about whether they are a remnant of the ’90s or a child of the ’10s can rage on. Whatever the judgement, let us stop them. And while we are at it, let us take a moment to recognise that pop-up ads are the absolute worst.
What about pop-up discount coupons and pop-up newsletter subscription prompts? While their intention may be good, wolves in sheep’s clothing are still wolves.
Cookies are really okay
With GDPR, consent for cookies has become an irritant. Perhaps it is a necessary irritant and one that has even made people more aware of websites that might track them. But not all cookies are bad things. Some cookies are definitely unnecessary. So in the end we might say cookies are really okay.
Functional cookies and necessary cookies are perfectly safe. I would go so far as to say that analytical cookies are fine too: website owners need to know about their audience to build better. The trouble comes in the form of third-party cookies, advertising cookies and other such ignoble trackers. These are terrible and should continue to be opted out by default.
Cloud drives are a good thing with potential for evil
Storage has always been an issue ever since broadband speeds increased and storage itself became cheaper. Humans are hoarders by nature (perhaps even by evolution?) so the more space we can get, the more stuff we will find to fill it with.
The trouble arises when cloud drives have made themselves such intergral parts of our lives (which has already happened) and have amassed so much of our data (this will happen sooner than one might suspect) that we will be held hostage by them. The corporate internet will then rear its head again, trying to milk us for our hard-earned money thanks to our sunk costs.
Too much personalisation is a bad thing
In the beginning the internet just existed. It was nobody’s unless you specifically went to someone’s web site. That is to say, the internet was mine if you were on my (this) web site.
Now, the tables have turned: the internet is yours wherever you go. If I had an ad next to this paragraph, it would be on my website but tailored to you. This was sold as a good thing in the name of relevance and efficiency and meaning. It turned out to be a silo that reinforced your biases and acted as blinkers while you shot down a tunnel towards the only light you saw. Personalisation should be limited. That is how you strike a balance between your things and exposing yourself to ideas outside your neighbourhood.
E-commerce is a good thing
While the thought that immediately strikes most of us when we talk of e-commerce is shopping addiction, this is not entirely a product of e-commerce or even the internet itself. With that clarified, e-commerce is generally a good thing. It not only created employment as delivery personnel and packaging supervisors (although the conditions under which these people work is questionable), it also made the process of procurement of everyday household goods frictionless.
E-commerce is especially useful for older and disabled people who cannot go out as often or as easily as fitter youngsters. In a sense, this is promoting accessibility too. If we can agree that the capitalist associations of e-commerce are the stuff of another essay entirely, we quickly realise that—but for our ill-doing—e-commerce is generally a great thing.
Unfinished software programmes and update cycles are bad things
This is one I genuinely detest. Back in the ’90s and ’00s, you had certain expectations from software because there was only one way it came—compact discs. Sometimes you had as many as eight discs with which to install a programme or game. Magazines even came with CDs tucked in and companies delivered CDs to your doorstep. At one point you even needed a CD to set up your internet access.
In large part this had everything to do with the fact that most people could not get online at all, most did not bother, some would have liked to but the infrastructure did not exist. Today, we once again take the internet for granted and not just to deliver software, but in the assumption that software may be delivered in any (questionable) state because the user will be online to ‘update’ it with bug fixes down the line.
If a software can start earning money from this Thursday, companies have now normalised the idea of ‘launching’ an unfinished version of that software to start minting money knowing that they can issue bug fixes a fortnight later to bring their software to the level of stability it should have had when it came out in the first place.
The overuse of AI due to its a novelty is a bad thing
When Apple Music first launched, one of its key selling points was that it offerred playlists tailored to you curated by humans. The AI rage was in its infancy at this point2 but Apple seems to have seen two steps ahead because they sold human-led curation as a feature targetted at an audience tired of being misunderstood by Artificial Intelligence.
AI is not a bad thing in itself, but its overuse is. As of the time of writing this essay, AI is still a novelty. Many people know it exists, many others have heard about its wonders, but few have actually used it and fewer still use it regularly. But the general notion is to bend over backwards and find ways to include some semblence of AI activity in everything we do. Perhaps this will pass once AI is no longer a novelty, but until then (or if it does not pass) the overuse of AI will affect us socially, mentally and creatively.
These are fourteen things we have seen in the current age of the internet (from 2006 onwards at the earliest, or at least from 2010 onwards for the last thirteen years or so) that are worth judging from a period of greater calm.
This is all in hindsight of course; and none of these judgements are intended to be Luddism. But knowing what we do, reminiscing about the ’90s as we can, and learning what we must from history, it is worth being more proactive in shaping our future with the internet before it starts shaping us and normalises things.