The 16 Greatest Moments in Web History
Depending on how you calculate it, the Web has been around for between 15 and 17 years--which makes it old enough to ask for the car keys, but still an awkward teenager growing toward maturity. Yet it already has a long and storied history (and some prehistory). We've decided to chronicle its 15 greatest moments here.
When possible, we pinpointed a specific day, hour, and even minute--the "aha" moment when the people involved got the original idea, launched the site, sold the first product, or posted the first entry. Instead of listing the events chronologically, we've ranked them in ascending order of importance. (Did we miss any? Post your thoughts and your own lists below.)
16. Scandal in a Blue Dress
January 17, 1998; 11:32 pm PST: Drudge breaks the Lewinsky scandal.
Love Matt Drudge, hate him, or think as little about him as possible, you have to give the muckraker (or is that pitchforker?) his due. One day after Newsweek killed a story about a new scandal in the Clinton White House, The Drudge Report broke the Monica Lewinsky story anyway. It was the first notable example of the Web scooping the national media, but it wouldn't be the last.
As when the telegraph supplanted the pony express, traditional media sources realized they could not compete with the immediacy of the Net and began scooping themselves, publishing stories first on the Web and later in print. Some publications killed their print editions to publish exclusively online; others redefined themselves or disappeared entirely. The Web news era had begun.
15. Do You Yahoo?
February 1994: Jerry and David bookmark the Web.
Some hobbies take on a life of their own; others change the world. In early 1994, Stanford PhD students Jerry Yang and David Filo posted a list of their favorite sites on the Web. The exact date they posted the links is lost to history, but we do know the list's original name: "Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web." By April '94 it had a new tongue-in-cheek name: "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," or Yahoo for short.
Yahoo represented the first attempt to catalog the Web, offering directory-style listings of every site that mattered--with tiny sunglasses marking sites deemed truly cool. When providing exhaustive coverage became impossible, Yahoo was reborn as a Web portal, combining the directory with search, news headlines, instant messaging, e-mail, photo hosting, job listings, and assorted other services. As other major portals like Lycos and Excite died off or were consumed by bigger fish, Yahoo continued to expand. Though surpassed by the Google search juggernaut, Yahoo may have memorable Web moments yet to come with cofounder Jerry Yang holding the reigns.
Blogs to Wikis
In 2005, five bloggers did a heckuva job in real time tracking a natural disaster and its unnatural aftermath. A decade earlier, a Web site opened the world's largest ongoing garage sale. And at the turn of the millennium, a Web visionary began piecing together a compendium of all knowledge out of the clamor of thousands of contending keyboards.
14. Blogging Katrina
August 28, 2005; 12:01 p.m. CST: The Survival of New Orleans Blog debuts.
As what was then a Category 5 hurricane bore down on New Orleans, Michael Barnes blogged: "We're on the 10th and 11th floor of a corporate high rise on Poydras Ave., right near St. Charles. We have generators and tons of food and water. It is 5 of us total. I am not sure how the Internet connection will be affected. I have a camera and my gun. .... Sustained winds are 175, gusts to 215. The real danger is not the wind, though, it's the storm surge the wind will be pushing into the city from the Gulf through the lake. The city might never recover. Honestly, this thing could be biblical."
Thus began what was for many the only eyewitness account of the worst natural disaster in our nation's history. For five days, Barnes and his coworkers rode out the storm and its aftermath, providing live reports and photos from their refuge in the downtown offices of Zipa Hosting and DirectNIC. Tens of thousands of Netizens visited the blog each day, getting a kind of personal coverage unavailable on CNN or inside The New York Times.
Barnes's moving account was proof that blogs could be more than just unsolicited opinions and self-obsessed ramblings--they could serve as a valuable tool for recording and understanding the human experience.
13: Bidding for Stardom
September 3, 1995: eBay completes its first auction.
Not so long ago, the only way to get any return on the junk in your garage was to hold a yard sale. eBay changed all that. Now tens of thousands of small and medium-size businesses use eBay as their primary storefront, bringing e-commerce to the people.
According to eBay lore, the first item auctioned was a broken laser pointer that sold for $14.83, proving that someone somewhere will buy just about anything. Several billion dollars' worth of transactions later, the proof is on firmer ground than ever.
But eBay was also the first site to create a working reputation system on the Net, according to Chris Dellarocas, a business professor at the University of Maryland who studies how online reputations are formed. And as we move toward a world where your online reputation can make or break your ability to garner a job offer, get accepted into a school, or find a mate, this may ultimately prove to be a greater legacy.
"The fact that eBay was able to build a marketplace of 60 million people that works smoothly is a fundamental accomplishment," Dellarocas says. "They've built in enough trust so I can send money to a guy in Germany I've never met and expect to get what I've paid for in return. It's enabling us to have smoother transactions from any location--to truly take advantage of the flat world the Internet provides."
12. Something Wiki This Way Comes
January 15, 2001: Wikipedia posts its first entry.
Everybody's an expert. That phrase has never been truer than on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia where anyone can add or edit entries on any topic, regardless of their personal expertise. Wikipedia now boasts 2 million articles in English (over 7 million total) on everything from Aaargh! (a computer game) to ZZZap! (a TV show for kids).
Think of Wikipedia as an endless series of arguments, filled with edit wars and revisions to revisions, archived and identified by contributor. The result is a sprawling, anarchic, constantly changing resource that serves as many people's first stop when researching something on the Web (though, given the controversy over the accuracy of many entries, we hope it's not their last).
Creator Jimmy Wales doesn't remember the first Wikipedia entry, though he does remember the first words he typed into the wiki software: "Hello world."
"I think Wikipedia had a big impact on how people think about collaboration and knowledge, as well as the thinking about how to design security into social systems," says Wales. "We emphasized accountability and transparency over gate keeping. It was a philosophical change to leave things open, to make sure things can be fixed easily and you can see who did what, rather than pre-vetting contributors at the start."
Mind-Numbing Titillation to Speedy Web Mail
A nation turned its lonely eyes to Jennifer Ringley and watched, stupefied. Oddpost made the experience of using a Web-based mail system feel as fast and efficient as working with a desktop app. Here are four more milestones in the development of the Web.
11. Candid Camera
April 1996: JenniCam goes live.
For more than seven years, Jennifer Ringley trained the unblinking eye of a Webcam on her life--first as a free art project, later charging subscriptions of $15 a year to cover bandwidth costs for the site's 20 million visitors. Though she occasionally appeared in the nude and had sex on camera, the content tended to be less pornography than a window on a tedious round of unexceptional experiences shared with everyone.
(Ironically, the once extremely public Ringley is now something of a recluse; e-mail messages we sent to her last known address went unreturned.)
But JenniCam paved the way both for a burgeoning X-rated cam industry and an entire generation of Web exhibitionists (see MySpace.com). It turned Orwell's notion of Big Brother on its ear: Instead of a government spying on us, we'd spy on each other (and maybe make a few bucks along the way). Reality TV shows like The Real World, Survivor, and Big Brother and viral video sites like YouTube owe a debt to Jennifer Ringley, who at least for a while made the mundane day-to-dayness of her life seem fascinating.
10. You and 3,255,620 of Your Closest Friends
March 2003: Friendster makes the connections.
MySpace is huge and Facebook is the flavor of the month, but neither of them--nor the gazillion other social networks that have sprouted up like kudzu--would be here if it weren't for Friendster. Opening its digital doors to the public in March 2003, the site was the first to reveal the interconnections between its users.
Founder Jonathan Abrams says he came up with the idea for Friendster after being put off by the creepy anonymity of online dating sites. "I wanted a different kind of online experience that would integrate the online and offline worlds and bring your real-life social context with you onto the Web, something where you could network with people like we do in real life," he writes in an e-mail missive.
The idea caught fire. By July 2003, Friendster had over 1 million users. But connecting the dots between that many people brought the site to a virtual standstill, and Friendster was soon surpassed by more-nimble competitors. A series of bad business decisions didn't help. The story of Friendster became a textbook case of how not to manage a startup.
Ironically, Friendster is enjoying something of a comeback, riding the social networking wave that it helped create. In addition, Abrams has launched Socializr, a site that helps people plan social events in the real world instead of merely the virtual one.
9. Act Globally, Think Locally
October 24, 1995: Craig Newmark unveils his list.
Like many seminal Web events, Craigslist started out as a quirky side project seemingly devoid of commercial possibilities. In March 1995, Craig Newmark quit his job as a software architect for Charles Schwab in San Francisco and started a mailing list where subscribers could share information about interesting cultural events in the Bay Area.
"I was reflecting on how much people helped each other out on the Net, in those days, on the WELL and usenet news groups," he says via e-mail. As the list grew, people began posting messages looking for apartments, jobs, and other topics. In October of that year, Craig turned his private list into a public Web site at Cnewmark.com.
In September 1997, Craig's list became Craigslist.org. In early 1998, the site began charging a nominal fee for job listings (though the vast majority of ads remain free), and in 1999 Craigslist.org incorporated and began paying its employees.
Today, there are 450 local versions of Craigslist in 50 countries, and more than 25 million people visit them each month. The service has been credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) with taking the classified ad market away from established newspapers. But Craigslist's greatest contribution may be in proving that, like politics, the greatest global movements are always local.
8. Odd Pioneers
February 16, 2003: Web mail service Oddpost debuts.
In 2003 anyone who used Hotmail or Yahoo Mail probably had a desktop e-mail program as well. That's because using Web mail services was torturous. Making any change to your inbox--such as filing a message in a folder or deleting spam--required lots of clicks and a round trip to the service's servers, while you drummed your fingers and waited.
Oddpost managed to make a Web mail service feel as if it were running on your hard drive. You could drag and drop message files to organize your inbox and preview messages instantly. Yahoo liked it so much that it bought the company and used the technology as the basis for its new mail service.
Oddpost powerfully illustrated what could be done within a browser, and soon that kind of functionality (based on programming platforms like AJAX and Ruby on Rails) began showing up in Web-based word processors, spreadsheets, photo editors, and pretty much anything else a venture capitalist could shake a few million dollars at.
Birth of Domain Names to Successful Online Retailing
"127.0.0.1" doesn't sound as inviting as "home," and nothing draws a crowd faster than the promise of one-stop shopping. Our countdown continues.
7. URL Be Glad They Did
June 23, 1983: The domain name system is born.
Thank Paul Mockapetris, Craig Partridge, and the late Jon Postel for the fact that you didn't have to type 126.96.36.199 to get here. Together they created the domain naming system, replacing numerical Internet addresses with English-language "domains" and introducing the nongeek world to joys of the backslash key.
Instead of having to memorize a 12-digit number for every host they wanted to visit, users could simply type the machine's name and domain. Servers set up across the network would then translate the words into numbers.
On that June day 24 years ago, a DNS packet first crossed the network and elicited a response, Mockapetris reports in an e-mail note. "That's my best estimate," he adds. "Nobody thought it was important, so no cameras were present or plaques made."
Back then--eight years before the introduction of the World Wide Web--a few hundred machines were connected to the Net. Today more than 130 million are. Without an easy-to-use naming scheme, the Web as we know it would not exist.
6. Geeks Bearing Gifts
March 15, 1993; 1:11 a.m. CST: The graphical browser is born.
Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina were just geeky grad students at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. (Try saying that three times fast.) But when they announced that the first beta of their Mosaic browser for X Windows was available for download, they never realized the huge impact it would have on the development of the Web.
The change didn't look all that dramatic. Instead of opening images in a new window, Mosaic displayed them embedded inside text. But Mosaic's smart simplicity caught on, and versions of Mosaic for other operating systems soon appeared.
Roughly a year later, Andreessen teamed up with Silicon Graphics' Jim Clark to form Mosaic Communications Corporation--which later changed its name to Netscape. Microsoft licensed NCSA Mosaic code for use in Internet Explorer 1.0. The browser wars had begun--and with them, a mad race to turn static Web pages into multimedia extravaganzas.
5. For Whom the Bell Tolled
July 16, 1995: Amazon.com opens for business.
It's fitting that the site once billed as "the world's largest book store" is so rich with stories about its founding. For example, there's the legendary cross-country drive from Manhattan to Seattle where founder Jeff Bezos tapped out the business plan on his notebook while his wife, Mackenzie, drove. Or the story that Bezos was originally going to name the site "Cadabra" (as in "Abra Cadabra") until a friend convinced him it sounded too much like "Cadaver." Or the converted garage in Bellevue, Washington, that served as Amazon's first headquarters; it featured a potbellied stove and three SPARC workstations rigged with a bell that would ring every time Amazon recorded a sale.
According to Amazon's official timeline, the first bell rang for Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. Fortunately, the site evolved beyond nerdy titles to encompass virtually anything that can be bought or sold, including virtual goods such as downloadable music and videos.
From its regional distribution centers to its affiliate programs, Amazon revolutionized commerce both on and off the Net. And in January 2002, the site even started turning a profit--making it one of the few stories of Net pioneers to have a happy ending.
Mobile Packets to the Web Itself
Parts of a log-in is better than none, as ARPAnet researchers discovered. And a Christmas present from snowy Geneva in 1990 remains a treat for everyone today. Here are our top four Web moments.
4. LO! and Behold
October 29, 1969; 10:30 p.m. PST: The first packets make their way across the Net--barely.
Before the Web was born, there was simply the Internet, and before the Internet came ARPAnet. Though plans for ARPAnet had been brewing since the early 1960s, it wasn't ready for prime time until fall 1969--and even then things didn't go exactly as planned.
Late on the evening of October 29, Professor Len Kleinrock linked a mainframe computer at UCLA to one at the Stanford Research Institute over a dedicated phone line. To test the connection, Kleinrock had arranged for students at UCLA to transmit the word "LOG," after which the computer at SRI would respond with "IN." Researcher Charley Kline managed to send the L and the O, but before he could send the G, the system crashed. (Some things really haven't changed all that much.)
The next attempt was successful, but "LO" marks the moment the Internet sent its first word--as significant an utterance as Samuel Morse's "What hath God wrought?" or Alexander Graham Bell's "Watson, come here, I need you."
"Morse and Bell were a hell of a lot smarter than we were," Kleinrock noted in a 2004 interview. "They knew they were doing something of historical importance. We were just engineers, trying to do a good job."
3. When Sergey Met Larry
September 7, 1998: Google incorporates.
Back in 1995, when cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page met at Stanford University, they didn't like each other much. But by January 1996, they were collaborating on BackRub, a graduate project analyzing how back links could be used to improve search results.
By early 1998, they had set up a data center in Larry's dorm room and begun shopping the BackRub concept around. (One of the first people to pass on the offer was Yahoo's David Filo, who is probably still sore from kicking himself.)
In September 1998, when Google Inc. opened for business inside a Silicon Valley garage, the Web entered its second phase. Unlike thousands of now-dead dot coms that preceded it, Google proved that you really could give stuff away and still make a profit. By allowing Net users to determine where pages ranked in Google results, the search engine was arguably the first Web 2.0 application. Its 2004 IPO spurred a rebirth of investment in the Web--and some 1997-style deja vu--that shows no sign of slowing. And in June 2006, the Oxford English Dictionary made it official, adding "google" to the lexicon as a verb meaning to search the Web for.
2. Day One of Irrational Exuberance
August 9, 1995; 9:30 a.m. EST: Netscape goes public.
Sure, Netscape Navigator was good, but Netscape's IPO created the dot-com frenzy. On that fateful summer day in 1995 the company's shares zoomed from $28 to $75 before settling back down to $58 at the session's close.
The Netscape IPO inspired a flood of other public offerings, including Yahoo (April 1996), Amazon (May 1997), eBay (September 1998), and some that are best forgotten (Pets.com, anyone?).
At the time nobody had any idea how these companies would make money--and most of them didn't, leading to the dot-com crash in 2000. But by then, Netscape as we knew it was gone, too: Famously "crushed" by Microsoft in the browser wars of the late 1990s, it was acquired in November 1998 by AOL Time Warner. The name lives on in an open-source browser and a site that's just another way onto the AOL portal.
More important, the Netscape offering put the Web on the map--and into the consciousness of millions of people who cared not a whit about technology but loved to dream of endlessly skyrocketing stocks.
1. World Wide Wonder
December 25, 1990: The Web comes online.
Stop us if you didn't see this one coming. The greatest moment in the Web's history has to be the instant of its own creation. On Christmas morning 1990, Tim Berners Lee and Robert Cailliau of the CERN research lab in Geneva communicated with the world's first Web server--presenting all of us with a Christmas gift that keeps on giving.
According to the Living Internet site, Berners Lee originally developed a hypertext system to keep track of the hundreds of projects, software, and computers in use at CERN's High Energy Physics department. Using a NeXT computer, Berners Lee developed a rudimentary browser in the fall of 1990. He and Cailliau then created the first Web content: the CERN phone directory.
The following August, Berners Lee unveiled his creation to the world (or at least, to the portion of the world that logged on to the alt.hypertext newsgroup). By the end of 1992, the Net hosted 50 web servers. By the end of 1994, that number had grown to 2500. The Big Bang had already begun.
The earlier development of the Internet gave us the infrastructure computers needed in order to communicate, but the Web provided the Net's most important cargo--what today amounts to more than 135 million Web sites, connected by rat's nest of hyperlinks and growing at a steady 5 percent per month, according to Netcraft. No aspect of our lives remains untouched by the Web. The fact that you're reading this on your computer screen--not on paper--says it all.