15 Wild Stories From The Early Days Of The World Wide Web

List Rules
Vote up the early web stories that take you back to a bygone era.

It took several years, multiple governments, and companies that spawned billionaires and bankruptcies to create the internet as we know it today. As with any developing technology, the road was a bit bumpy, and if you lived through the early days of the World Wide Web, odds are you have a mix of fond and frustrating memories - or maybe you think it's one of the worst inventions ever.

Stories about how the limited internet expanded into the genuinely global World Wide Web aren't from too long ago - but with hindsight they seem pretty bizarre.


  • A Gaggle Of Competing Search Engines Existed Before Google
    Photo: Ask / Fair Use
    96 VOTES

    A Gaggle Of Competing Search Engines Existed Before Google

    "Google" has become a verb, the name synonymous with searching the web. It's the dominant web search engine today, no matter what Microsoft wants you to think about Bing. That search engine and several others, including Yahoo and DuckDuckGo, still operate, but before Google, many more existed.

    During the so-called "Search Engine War," these companies competed for users. Google was pretty late to the game, but offered a more streamlined approach; text-only advertisements, which required less bandwidth; and results that were usually more accurate than the competition's.

    Before Google stepped in, other search engines maintained an extensive database of keywords used to find results based on the search term. This process often returned results that didn't make sense, and users quickly became frustrated. AltaVista, the No. 1 search engine for a while, operated this way, and was eventually shut down after being bought by Yahoo.

    Google achieved more intuitive and satisfying results by opting for a more fluid method which emphasized the cross-references between pages, rather than a top-down imposition of pre-existing categories. This approach drew upon an insight first articulated by Vannevar Bush, in his seminal 1945 article "As We May Think," which laid much of the conceptual groundwork for both the internet and a means of navigating it.

    Google has toppled the competition, with a lot of companies in its graveyard, including Ask Jeeves and Dogpile.

    96 votes
  • The Annoying Modem ‘Handshake’ Screech Had Five Distinct Parts
    Photo: Streepjescode / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
    88 VOTES

    The Annoying Modem ‘Handshake’ Screech Had Five Distinct Parts

    The sound made by early dial-up modems connecting to the internet was noisy, annoying nonsense to human ears, but the sound was incredibly important, part of a process known as the "handshake," which amounts to two computers talking with one another and agreeing to connect.

    The handshake had five distinct parts, each one important to the process of establishing a connection. When modems were first introduced, they connected to one another by sending a sound that another modem could understand. This was due to their reliance on phone networks for communication, and those required sound, not data. The first step was called "exchanging pleasantries" because it involved one computer picking up the phone and saying "hello" to another.

    After that, the real conversation began, with the calling computer listing its capabilities as both systems agreed on the terms of the connection. After this was complete, the system initiated an echo suppression, which made it possible to listen and "speak" at the same time. They then went through a process of bouncing sounds back and forth as they settled on the best mode for communication. The last part reduced the noise as the sounds settled on lower-pitch tones, then went silent.

    88 votes
  • Netscape And Microsoft Faced Off In The Epic ‘Browser Wars’
    Photo: Indolering / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
    71 VOTES

    Netscape And Microsoft Faced Off In The Epic ‘Browser Wars’

    Unlike the competition for the best search engine, the so-called "Browser Wars" got particularly nasty - lawyers were involved. Toward the end of the 1990s, Microsoft's Internet Explorer was up against Netscape's Navigator for domination of the web browser marketplace. 

    In 1997, Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer 4.0 via a massive launch party in San Francisco. The centerpiece was a giant letter "e" logo standing 10 feet tall. The following morning, workers at Netscape found the "e" on the lawn of their building with a sign reading, "From the IE team... We love you." Before long, the "e" was on its side, with the Mozilla dinosaur standing on top of it. 

    Netscape was doing well, but Microsoft had more money and resources, making it possible to pre-install IE 4.0 on every Microsoft Windows computer. This gave the company 90% of the market share, leading to an antitrust case in 1998. Despite the case's outcome, which wasn't great for Microsoft, by the end of the decade, the company's share of the browsing market jumped to 96%, making it the winner in the first Browser War.

    There have been several Browser Wars over the decades, and Microsoft ended up losing its share of the market to Google's Chrome. Google Chrome supplanted Internet Explorer (and its successor, Edge), but not through PCs. Chrome's use on Android devices, aligned with the rise of mobile devices throughout the world, exponentially increased its usage globally. It remains the No. 1 browser.

    71 votes
  • 4
    88 VOTES

    AOL Sent Everyone Free Coasters In The Mail

    Before the Internet became a truly World Wide Web, it existed as a much smaller online entity. Initially, people connected to other computers (not servers) that hosted Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) made of text and ASCII "graphics." Companies then began carving out their own spaces by establishing large servers that allowed multiple users to connect to and interact with one another. The first large-scale company to offer this service was America Online, or AOL.

    To access AOL, users had to install the company's program on their computer and connect through the interface. Once someone was online, they could go into chatrooms and message boards to explore their interests. Unlike today, internet access was often limited by the number of hours a person could remain online. It was common for a user to purchase a block of 500-plus hours on AOL to use throughout the month. To ensure that as many people on the planet as possible had the software, and a ton of free hours to check it out with, AOL sent out millions of coasters - er, CD-ROMs - containing the information and access.

    It didn't matter if you had an AOL account already or even if you owned a computer. If you were alive in the 1990s and living in a country where AOL was accessible, odds are you received an AOL CD at least once a month. Sometimes, you'd get several in a week, and they'd keep coming. AOL sent out so many of these disks (initially, they were floppy disks) that they became something of a joke. Their existence has been lampooned by just about every comedy source, including a comment in an episode of Futurama about a giant ball of garbage. It's unclear how many CDs were sent out, but it's estimated the number is somewhere around 1 billion.

    According to Jan Brandt, AOL's former chief marketing officer, the company spent around $300 million to send out those disks. "At one point, 50% of the CDs produced worldwide had an AOL logo on it," she said. "We were logging in new subscribers at the rate of one every six seconds."

    Despite all the jokes, the CDs worked well for the company. Once AOL started sending them out, its market cap jumped from $70 million to $150 billion, and each disk was estimated to have generated around $350 in user/subscriber fees.

    88 votes
  • 5
    66 VOTES

    Pop-Up Ads Made Surfing The Web An Incredibly Frustrating Experience

    Pop-up ads, as you likely know (and despise), are windows that literally pop up on the screen, covering whatever you are looking at. Early on, as this technology "improved," it became harder to get rid of pop-up ads. Some websites would immediately throw pop-ups at a user the second they loaded, and could inundate the screen with clickable ads. Some played sound, while others played video - all unwanted and a drain on the system when internet speeds were slow.

    Pop-up ads became so loathed that even the man who created them has shown remorse. Ethan Zuckerman, who created the technology behind pop-up ads, has since apologized:

    It was a way to associate an ad with a user’s page without putting it directly on the page, which advertisers worried would imply an association between their brand and the page’s content. Specifically, we came up with it when a major car company freaked out that they’d bought a banner ad on a page that celebrated anal sex. I wrote the code to launch the window and run an ad in it. I’m sorry. Our intentions were good.

    66 votes
  • 6
    66 VOTES

    ‘A/S/L’ Contained Your Essential Info In Early Chatrooms

    When most people see the letters A, S, and L next to one another, they probably think "American Sign Language." But in the earliest days of internet chatrooms, people used the letters for something else entirely. When meeting someone in a chatroom for the first time, it was common to ask, "A/S/L?" or simply, "ASL." This was a way of asking someone their age, sex, and location.

    ASL was most commonly used on America Online, but it popped up on other chat and messaging applications. It appeared before AOL and originated sometime in the 1980s when chatting involved nothing but text.

    These days, ASL is more of a game. In 2014, the /r/GuessTheASL subreddit launched. People can post pictures there of personal items so others can try to guess their age, sex, and location. Typical pictures include someone's bedroom wall, their home office desk, video game setup, or contents of their wallet.

    66 votes