Recalling the early Internet days and what they mean today

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A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a ICQ chat log from the year 2000, containing extensive text conversations between me and a friend. I had saved the file in a folder with old documents which I kept backing up over all the years. Reading our old conversations did not only make me recall lots of memories from my teenage years, but it also gave some forgotten insights into how Internet usage looked like back then. It was a time during which my parents just had signed up for an ISDN flatrate, enabling me to spend vast amounts of time on the World Wide Web, which back then was in a Wild West-like stage.

Some tidbits from my protocol were published on the German IT news site t3n, generating more shares on the social web than any other article I have ever written. Seemingly people enjoyed the emotions they experienced while reading. ICQ was the messenger of choice for Germans (until smartphones came and WhatsApp changed the game), which means that most users have some memories related to the venerable instant messenger.

Publishing these tidbits here in a translated version would not make too much sense. But I want to highlight a couple of the learnings and realizations I had while browsing through what felt for me like a historical document from a forgotten past.

1. Internet speeds are relative

At one point I complained to my friend that downloads from Geocities – another legendary Internet service from the early days – never reached up to the usual 6 kb/s but were hovering at around 3 kb/s. The maximum downstream speed my ISDN connection was able to reach was about 7 kb/s (64 kbit/s). To those of us who live in countries with more or less fast broadband, the difference between 3 kb/s and 7 kb/s sounds completely negligible from today’s perspective – we consider both rates slower than a snake moves and completely inacceptable. But 15 years ago, downloading a file with a rate of 7 kb/s was pretty much state-of-the-art full speed for me, whereas 3 kb/s felt unbearably slow.

This suggests that in the year 2025, we might have similar thoughts about today’s range of common broadband speeds. While someone who today gets upgraded from a 5 Mbit to a 10 Mbit connection, from a 20 Mbit to a 50 Mbit, or even from a 50 Mbit to a 100 Mbit, would most likely consider this a significant improvement, in 10 years all these speeds could appear to us equally lame and hardly distinguishable.

2. Clickbait existed before Social Media

While I complained about the slow download speed, my friend had an issue with the attention-seeking headlines from a site called Shortnews. He described in our chat how he disliked the news portal’s tendency to promise things in its sensationalist headlines which then were not fulfilled in the actual articles. Yes, that sounds exactly like what some of the notorious viral sites of our times are practicing. This “clickbait” strategy actually has existed before social media encouraged creators to produce viral content that focuses less on satisfying information needs but more on exploiting user’s less sophisticated emotional instincts.

Back in 2000, Shortnews (which still exists today, but without the relevance of the early days) was quite aggressive in the German web sphere. It provided “webmasters” (when was the last time you heard that term?) from traffic-heavy websites with an embeddable news ticker, presenting a never ending stream of headlines. Even the ticker is still around. Sometimes Shortnews paid website owners for these embeds, making sure that as many German Internet users as possible had the chance to see its stream of mostly user-generated, tabloid-like headlines.

Some things never really change.

3. Before the Internet, globalization was just a word

In Summer 2000 I tried Napster, the (in)famous peer-to-peer file sharing software that in conjunction with the invention of MP3 marked the beginning of a new era of music consumption – and the end of the music industry as we knew it. Amazed by the new possibilities, I told my friend over ICQ how great Napster is. I also expressed my surprise about that somebody from Texas just happened to download Techno music from me.

I remember that before Internet turned the planet into the “global village”, I was under the impression that all Americans exclusively liked hiphop and pop music. With the web, these kind of uninformed stereotypes changed quickly. Within a few years, at least for me the complete huge planet Earth became much smaller, more understandable and something I could much better relate to. I still remember the magic I felt when I entered a chat room on a U.S. website for the first time, suddenly being able to “talk” to people thousands of kilometers away. Crazy. In the beginning I did not get what people meant when they opened a conversation with “asl?” though.

In the year 2015, the international nature of the Internet is not as exciting anymore. I mean, to me it is still one of the greatest aspects of our connected times. But it has become the default, the expected state. The novelty has worn off. I am happy that I experienced these things back then.

4. MP3 was one of the Internet’s killer apps

In 2000 I was constantly busy downloading music. I spent many hours every day doing it. I do NOT miss these times though. Streaming is so much easier, more convenient, and it is legal and gives something back to the artists. At least a tiny bit. However, without MP3 the web back then would have been less exciting to me. And the ICQ chat protocol in which I discussed the latest releases with my friend had been at least 50 percent shorter.

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