In Tales of the Early Internet, Mashable explores online life through 2007 — back before social media and the smartphone changed everything.
“The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed,” William Gibson famously wrote in 2003. With the benefit of 2020 hindsight, we can add this about the era he was describing: the future was also unevenly believed. Even when it was right in front of us, we couldn’t see it through our assumptions. This was especially true of the things we were most passionate about.
Everyone who was extremely online back in the late 1990s and early 2000s lost themselves to some new obsession when we got our first high-speed internet connection at home. Often it was an obsession that seemed somewhat illicit at the time, and utterly quaint now. For me, as for millions, that obsession was music — and acquiring it on Napster.
This was spring of 2000; dotcom mania was in full swing, and I’d just moved to San Francisco to cover it for Time magazine. The moment Pacific Bell hooked up my first DSL line, I couldn’t resist downloading the bad boy of music sharing — we’d just put Napster on the cover — and soon saw what the fuss was about. More than 30 million people freely sharing music collections on the same server: This was something new in the world. It was the first cultural bazaar where everything was available, instant and free. One night I asked my visiting British dad to name a tune it might not have.
“‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ by Lonnie Donegan,” he replied gruffly, almost like he regretted making the challenge too hard. He scoffed at the likelihood of finding it. Ping! Donegan downloaded 30 seconds later.
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While I was knee-deep in Napster, RealNetworks in Seattle kept pitching story ideas on Rhapsody, its first-in-the-world music subscription service. That was my cue to scoff. Rhapsody was a meager thing then, with music from a few labels and none of the majors. And a subscription? Who on Earth would pay $10 a month to stream music they could get for free on Napster, or via ripping their own and their friends’ entire CD collections, as I was doing at a rapid clip on an ever-expanding rack of external hard drives?
Even if Napster went away — and users did tend to download like they were running out of time, well aware the courts would catch up to Napster sooner or later – there would be LimeWire and Kazaa. Not as fast or as user-friendly, since they weren’t hosted on a single company’s servers, but still free. Hey, I thought, maybe Steve Jobs would make good on that idea we kept discussing in interviews, about how the labels should just get it together and sell songs for 99 cents a pop.
“Subscriptions miss the point; we are an acquisitive species, homo consumer,” I wrote at the time. “We want to own our stuff forever. That includes digital music.”
Well, mea culpa on that prediction. Fast forward two decades and here I am paying more than 10 bucks a month for Spotify, the service that has best realized the Rhapsody dream so far. It is almost Napster-like in the completeness of its library, annoying gaps notwithstanding. It is synched and available instantly on devices in my pocket, at my desk, on my couch. My playlists are downloaded for offline listening, which turns out to be enough to scratch my acquisitive itch. Even though there’s no real sense in which I own this music; I’m shelling out for ongoing borrowing rights, essentially.
And that carefully-curated library, the fruit of years of CD ripping plus illicit downloading plus a few hundred purchased tracks? Well, it still exists, though it seems to have lost a few more tracks every time iTunes upgraded into a newer, more bloated form over the years. I dip into it a couple times a month on average, compared to every day for Spotify.
And here’s what would have really blown my mind in the year 2000: Rhapsody still exists now, in 2020, in 34 countries, under a different name, having purchased a tech brand no one had used for years. It’s called Napster.
‘Look for the thing everyone is laughing at’
This is just one tale among many, from those halcyon pre-smartphone days, that shows our online future was hardly unforeseeable. It was hiding in plain sight the whole time, its gospel being spread here and there by believers, each one carrying part of the true picture of the decades to come. And in most cases, when presented with these true pictures, we yawned, scoffed, or rolled our eyes in response.
Sometimes the idea was just waiting for a mass audience to appear online. A Seattle grocery delivery startup called Webvan was the ancestor of Instacart, but it could never gain traction. A “we deliver everything” site, Kozmo.com, which I used to bring me Krispy Kremes and DVDs, was widely derided as having an unworkable business model. We can now see it was a prototype Postmates. Everyone laughed at Pets.com; that sock puppet was the poster child for everything that seemed dumb about dotcom valuations. Thinking you can turn a massive profit by shipping pet food online, how absurd! No one even thinks to laugh at Chewy.
Sometimes all that was lacking was the execution. Friendster could easily have been Facebook if it had sorted out problems in its code that overwhelmed its servers. When Friendster’s founder and CEO Jonathan Abrams banned the use of fake names or profile pictures, killing profile pages for places like bars and clubs in the process, we got an early glimpse at how social media titans could act like tyrants.
But almost everything that would catapult the internet economy into the stratosphere was already present, in embryonic form, in those innocently decadent dotcom days. (Hot Or Not, which influenced Tinder, YouTube and even Twitter, is another classic example). You could often find the future by following the sound of chuckles. Advice I heard years later from Netscape Navigator creator turned VC, Marc Andreesen — “look for the thing everyone is laughing at, but that is growing like a weed” — turned out to define the era.
Netflix on the Net? C’mon
Another memorable example came when I wrote Time‘s first story on a DVD delivery startup called Netflix. This was 2001, the dotcoms were all going under, and nobody I knew expected Netflix to last more than six months. Still, the factory was fun to write about. A Rube Goldberg system of rails and tubes ran around the place, with robot hands grabbing DVDs and stuffing them in red envelopes.
Founder Reed Hastings was a fun interview too, although he did keep going on about his plan to one day deliver movies directly over the internet.
Yep, Reed, Sure. I’d heard that one before. Dozens of online video content startups had come and gone since the late 1990s, each of them talking a good game, raising millions of dollars in funding, then flaming out in what we would now call Quibi style. The customer base didn’t exist yet. Not enough people had broadband. Nobody wanted to watch movies on a computer.
And even if they did, how were you ever going to muster the massive amounts of bandwidth required if you had any hope of making an internet movie look as good as a DVD?
Nice try, Google
In fairness, it’s not as if I didn’t have a track record of picking winners and losers in techland. For one, I was so convinced Jobs was going to bring Apple out from under the thumb of Microsoft that I planned to buy Apple stock in 1997 — until my first gig out of college, writing about Apple, made that ethically impossible. I fought my New York editors to make sure we wrote about the iPod when it launched; he thought it less interesting than the other MP3 players I’d reviewed. And I pushed to write about an excellent upstart search engine, Google, when all New York wanted was Yahoo stories.
The problem was more this: Every tech company snowed you under with bullshit, so you built a shell of cynicism that not even obvious candidates for greatness like Google could crack completely. That’s what I’m blaming for a moment at the first Googleplex where a young Sergey Brin tried to convince an equally young me that the search advertising system they were about to launch, Ad Sense, would transform the internet.
I nodded along, but in my mind I remembered watching the CEO of another revenue-free search engine, Alta Vista, insisting to his wary staff that advertising would save the company. Then its IPO was pulled. Ads would never work on the internet; that was as close to axiomatic as conventional wisdom got in 2000.
Alta Vista shut down permanently in 2010. Google AdSense earns more than $3 billion every quarter, and did indeed fuel the company’s growth from search supremo to global tech giant. I learned it was unwise to second-guess Sergey Brin. (Well, up until he spearheaded the Google Glass project.)
Amazon and on and on…
That wasn’t even the most embarrassing time I failed to see the worth of a whole new business model. That would be in 1999 when Jeff Bezos expanded his inventory of things sold on Amazon — no longer just a store for books, CDs, and DVDs, it would now also sell home improvement products. I harangued Bezos for doing the classic dotcom trick of expanding too fast.
“You’re diluting the Amazon brand!” is what I believe I said to the man who now sells everything and is the richest person in the world. “Why not stick to books?” (Still, I must have found his argument compelling enough to nominate him — or rather, oddly, his head in a box — for Time‘s person of the year in 1999. And to be fair to the skeptics, it did take another decade for Bezos’ company to actually turn a profit.)
That’s just the way things were in the early internet; conventional wisdom was being shattered all the time. Our concepts of what the internet was for (beyond porn, as Avenue Q sang in 2003) morphed and expanded like hilarious slowpoke caterpillars turning into great angry moths overnight.
Memes were a thing, let us not forget, from the very early days online. We became aware of them very slowly and then all at once. The notion of a meme, an idea that reproduces itself like genes, goes back to Richard Dawkins in 1976. The concept of “internet meme” goes back to a Wired article in 1994. We were so amused by the simple pleasures of small things dancing — starting with a baby which went viral, as we didn’t say then, in 1996, and was followed by the Hamster dance in 1999. For anyone who was paying attention, there were clearly depths of cute inanity to be plumbed.
Memes were also political from the start; that Wired article, after all, was by Mike Godwin, explaining how he had seeded the “counter-meme” of Godwin’s Law because he was sick of Nazi comparisons in online chatrooms. It would be another 23 years before Godwin issued a clarification: Yes, the “shitheads” at Charlottesville in 2017 could be compared to Nazis.
The trolls were there from the start, too. In 1999, my Time email was snowed under by meme-makers from Serbia who opposed the NATO attack on their forces occupying Kosovo. Their little digital posters were every bit as unfunny and crudely propagandistic as Trump memes in 2020. What also makes me shudder at two decades distance: The email addresses of writers were regularly published in the magazine, exposed to a slowly growing (but still tiny) number of trolls.
There were some unevenly distributed glimpses of the future nobody would have believed, even if they could have stitched them together. It would not have surprised us to learn in 2005 that a San Francisco programmer named Jack Dorsey had an idea for a service where everyone could talk to everyone in short bursts of text, just like group SMS. It would not have surprised us to learn that this service would become popular, or that the motor-mouthed host of The Apprentice would want to join it to share his opinions, or that he might also run for president one day (the Simpsons had predicted that much in March 2000).
But what happened when Twitter and TV star got together would have to be witnessed to be believed. Back in an age when Napster was treated like the greatest threat to civilization, the true future nightmare would have been laughed out of the room.