Net of the 90's

Remembering IM'ing, Napster and more
April 13, 2012

A world of information at your fingertips, finding friendship in a digital space, free pictures of the ladies from Baywatch! Yes, the internet of the 90's had it all. Having grown up during the first internet boom period, I have a nostalgic feeling for that simpler era of the Cyberspace Revolution. It was a pretty magical time.

What follows are my memories of the innovations that changed our social interaction, acquiring of entertainment and likely, our consumption of Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew while in front of a computer screen.

Growing up my older brother was into computers, at least what passed for computers in the early 80's. He had a Commodore 64 that he would program to do all sorts of stuff, like have words on a screen...and, uh, maybe some blocky graphics? As you can tell, it didn't mean much to me at the time, but the point was I at least knew what a computer was in 1985. However, it wouldn't be until 10 years later that I would grasp the concept of its ties to the technological wonder that was and is, the internet.

My first memories of the "Online" phenomenon came about through the comic and video game magazines of the time. Back then, magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM), Gamepro and Wizard: The Guide to Comics would occasionally come in plastic bags filled with promotional items like trading cards, mini-comics and demo discs of new PC games.

But around 1993 I recall these publications began including 3 ¼" floppy discs and shortly thereafter, CD-ROMs (remember that term?) of this thing called America Online. Pretty soon I noticed stacks of these things at every retail check-out counter in town and you could take one for free! Kids love free stuff! But still, I had no idea what you would do with the discs once you had them.

One day in 1994 the clouds of confusion parted when I was at my friend Devin's house and he told me that his computer had "Windows" (a foreign concept to me) and America Online. He explained to me that he had "downloaded" sound clips from movies and TV shows right off the internet and into his computer. My mind was blown. Isolated clips of Homer Simpson saying, "To start press any key...where's the Any key?" and Bruce Campbell shouting, "This is my BOOM STICK!" were a revelation.

I still didn't quite get how one would obtain these computer files from this "world wide web", but it sure piqued my interest. Was it all a part of this "Virtual Reality" thing I had been hearing about or maybe just something computer nerds knew how to program?

I was 12 or 13 around this time and still dealing with adjustments to the strange world of Junior High, so I was distracted from the full internet experience until high school rolled around a few years later. By then most families in my area had internet in their homes. We did not.

In 1996, having been invited to watch the UFC 10 Pay-Per-View at a Freshman classmate's house, I was about to have a night of firsts. First exposure to the violent world of "Ultimate Fighting" (MMA was not yet a household word) and first official internet search. While I wasn't much for the brutality of the UFC (I preferred the more theatrical brawling of professional wrestling), the mystery of the internet was still a riddle I wished to solve.

My friend showed me how you just type words into this little box and suddenly a list of related words would appear on the computer screen that you could click to view pictures, hear sounds and even watch videos! VIDEOS! Usually I was using this software called RealPlayer and man did it suck most of the time.

Of course, being teenager raging with hormones I went searching for naked ladies...and boy, did I find them. It may have taken 20 minutes for them to download on that dial-up connection, but for the socially awkward, sex-starved teenager, no wait is too long for such a sight.

Of course I then went on to use search engines such as Alta Vista and Yahoo! for less erotic purposes, like downloading my own sound clips which I assigned to my computer's various functions and studying up on my new favorite rock group, KISS!

As High School rolled on my social circle continued to expand and soon the internet played a part in staying connected with friends no matter how far apart we were. Back in the days before our cell phones were in fact mini-computers, these archaic devices were nothing more than fancy walkie-talkies. Communication took place through actual voice conversation only, no texting (imagine that!).

Instead we had to be on our actual desktop computers and typing into a little box on the upper right hand of our screens. You had to come up with an IM "handle" like TopangaLuv98 or EekTheGak for people to recognize your awesomeness. It was great if you were grounded, because you could just stay in your room IM'ing with your buds about how unfair it was that you got busted for sneaking out to see that Marilyn Manson concert (yeah, he used to be feared) and your technophobic parents would be none the wiser.

Personally I used it mainly to stay in contact with my friend British friend, Hanna, who had come out from England to visit for a summer then was magically whisked away to the U.K. In those pre-Facebook days it was awesome to hear the opening door sound byte and see that "Goose1980" was available to chat about tea, Spice Girls and Doctor Who or whatever British people talk about.

Towards the end of high school around 1998, I got tech-saavy enough to believe I could (should?) create my own website. The easiest method for this was an online community called GeoCities. It was a place where anybody could create a page based on their interests: Rollerblading, Ponies, a cult devoted to worshipping Urkel.

Basically you just filled in a webpage template with pictures, text, color scheme and BAM, you had made your mark in cyberspace. What topic did I decide to create a website for, you ask? Well, I figured my metal band "Natural Fear" (see my article "Garage Band Memories" for more) needed some web promotion so I put together a black page with devious red font and rockin' photo of us playing live to a somewhat disinterested high school audience. I remember being so proud and wanting to show it off, but the web address was so long for GeoCities pages that I couldn't even memorize it to tell people how to check it out! Needless to say, we were not a web phenom.

Finally around 1999, the magic of Napster hit the web. You just downloaded the software and you could upload and download any music you wanted. No longer were we slaves to records stores or making mix tapes off the radio when our favorite songs came one. Just search for "Dishwalla" on Napster and you've got all their albums (why you would want them is a different story). Me, I was mainly downloading Misfits songs, especially rare bootleg live recordings that people had uploaded.

Those were good days. Of course what I remember most is the waiting, the endless waiting for that dial-up connection to finish downloading a song. There were times I had to leave the computer running overnight just to get 2 or 3 songs by Ace of Base in my playlist (don't judge me!).

Of course this "sharing" of music created a moral dilemma for some (um, anbody?) and outrage in others (yes, Metallica). Eventually Napster tried to go legit and get people to pay for access to a limited catalog of music. Sounds great...NOT! (oh, how we used to love that expression) Nowadays I hear there's something called "Bit Torrent" that has taken Napster's place for acquisition of such media, but alas, technology has once again moved beyond my comprehension and left me lost and confused.

Yes, for that brief moment in time spanning 1995-2000 I was caught up in the excitement of the internet and new frontier that lay before us. Now of course, we couldn't live without it, as our lives revolve around being connected online for everything. I wonder if there will ever be another leap like that again, catching our imaginations and re-defining what's possible. Who's up for Internet 2: The Sequel?
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