The Return of the Old Internet

Is the Old Internet making a comeback? Let's check the Magic 8-Ball

What is the Old Internet? It's not very well defined, but as far as I can tell, the 'Old Internet' is the Internet how it existed from the late 80's through the 90's, give or take a few years depending on when the person lamenting about its passing was first exposed to it. But what *is* it, exactly? It's hard to get a concrete definition, but the best I can come up with is that it's the Internet as it existed before Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), YouTube (2005), Google (1998), and the other mega platforms that dominate the Internet today.

The reasons that people liked that period of the Internet are varied, but some of the ones I see most often include:

  • There were no ads
  • Signal to noise ratio was higher
  • Sites were more interesting
  • It was just more fun
These are all ways of saying basically the same thing: that the Internet was better before all of the non-techies got involved.

I've fallen into the same trap myself a lot of times. Thinking back to my days noodling around a webring looking for interesting sites, using my handful of megabytes provided to me by my ISP to put up some page with a stat counter, and then refreshing the page to watch the numbers go up. Just the novelty of the entire experience of being able to learn the barest amount of HTML and put it up somewhere that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection could look at it was amazing. Being able to use email to correspond with people anywhere in the world was amazing. Being able to jump into IRC and talk in real time to anyone in the world was amazing. It was a digital playground and it was full of like-minded people.

If you're in a tech-circle and can find hair grey enough, you may eventually hear the person attached to it refer to September 1993 as the September that never ended. September 1993 is generally seen as the start of an endless flood of new users came onto the Internet and overwhelmed everyone and every existing community on it. A lot of the communities disappeared. Most of the ones that survived were permanently altered.

Now that you have a massive neverending flood of new users to this internet thing, you have a problem. Several problems, actually. The Internet, which was a digital playground full of like-minded people is now overrun with users who want to get the benefits that everyone else who's been on the Internet for years has been talking about. They want to talk to people all over the world. They want to post things for their friends to read. They just don't know how to do it. Getting online was tough enough.

I spent hours poring over documents trying to get my modem to connect to my ISP and I spent a lot more time poring over other peoples' manuals trying to get their modems to connect to their ISPs. I ended up spending more time configuring other peoples' email clients than I did my own. I could sometimes train someone enough to be able to connect to IRC if I preconfigured everything beforehand. Creating a website on their ISP's hosting was usually out of the question.

For some people, that's a good thing. The dichotomy of making people either learn how to participate on the Internet 'properly' or just be forever a bystander suits them just fine. Other people will take the approach that if they can just make the information easy enough to get to and if they make it easy enough to understand, then anyone sufficiently motivated will have every tool they need to do what they want. They believe that everyone can do it if they're willing to put in the work. And then there are people who see a marketing opportunity.

These people realize that there are far more non-technical people on the Internet than technical ones. They've figured out that they can sell access to expertise and knowledge and make some money by providing people with the tools that they need to participate on the Internet. Sure you could register a domain, set up DNS, set up a server with some web server software on it, buy and install an SSL certificate (yes, I know about Let's Encrypt), set up some email server on it, set up MX, DKIM, and SPF records, install and configure a firewall, learn HTML, learn CSS, learn JavaScript/PHP/MySQL/CGI/PostgreSQL, and then keep all of those things up to date. Or you could pay someone to do some, most, or all of those things for you. But even that takes a little bit of technical knowhow.

Even if you don't set up and run your own server, you still have to manage a virtual server in a datacenter somewhere. Even if you don't set up your own web server software, you still need to know some HTML and CSS at minimum. Even if you don't run your own email server, you're going to have to figure out how to point your DNS servers to the right place. Or you can offer these services to people for free (don't worry, I'm not going to go into why that's dangerous in this rant).

And that's where we are now. You have an unfathomly large number of people on the Internet, most of which don't know what an operating system is, much less how anything related to the Internet works. These are the kind of people that keep the malware industry booming. They may not know what a web browser is, even though they use one every day, but they can figure out how to post to Facebook. They couldn't figure out how to install Wordpress, much less configure it and secure it, if you offered them a million dollars in cash. That's the dominant lifeform on the Internet, and that is who the current Internet is being built for. And, the thing is, that's always who the Internet was built for.

The 'old' Internet that people pine for was built by tech-savvy people for tech-savvy people because it was fun and it was interesting and they could envision how the free and open exchange of information had the potential to change the world. And it did. Since around September of 1993 tech-savvy people and marketing and advertising people have used that free and open platform to build a machine that extracts as much money as possible from as many people as possible. The Internet being built now is dominated by a few large players because that's what The Masses™ expect and it's what they want.

The Internet is bifurcated. The 'old Internet' is still there, but the people running it are giving up or dying off. They lose users to platforms like Facebook and Twitter and once enough of them go it becomes harder to justify the time and expense and effort into keeping the old community going and the plug is pulled. Occasionally somebody notices. Nobody comes to replace them and the 'old Internet' gets slightly smaller.

I don't think it will ever go away completely, but I don't think that it's going to get back to the levels it once enjoyed. I think that the 'old Internet' is going to stay the domain of the hobbiest. The kind of person that's interested in knowing how the Internet works and wants to make a website for fun. Or the occasional nutjob to eschews the 'modern Internet' for whatever reason. It'll just be seen as a weird thing that techies do. Everyone else will be doing whatever it is that they do on the 'real' Internet. the 'modern Internet'. The Internet graciously provided to them by the benevolence of the platform owners, who would never ever do anything... inappropriate.

This entry's fake tags are:

● Social Media ● Two Internets 

Read more blog · Go back to the homepage