Found  /  First Person

Social Media Is Not What Killed the Web

Better browsers made things worse.

This is how the internet felt back then: promising but empty. Nobody says surfing the web anymore, but at the time the phrase made sense as a description of the lugubrious, often frustrating task of finding entertainment. A visitor online felt like a beach bum waiting to catch a wave. (Channel surfing described a similar vibe one got from watching television.) A lot would change in the years that followed. For one thing, much to the chagrin of the operators of, the internet quickly commercialized. But even then, “content,” as we call it today, was rare. You might read an article or visit a brochure-ware website for a car or a vacuum, or even purchase a book at Amazon. What you wouldn’t do was spend your whole day online.

Connectivity was one reason. The library computer lab was connected via high-speed ethernet, but home use still monopolized the phone line as bits were eked out slowly from a modem. Wi-Fi wasn’t yet widely available, and a computer was a place you had to go in the house. Using the OldWeb emulator on my laptop, I recalled how much we used to rely on the status bar at the bottom of the window (now mostly retired) for updates on the process of loading a webpage, and on the little browsing animation—Netscape’s was a view of shooting stars—for distraction while we waited. Online life was mostly waiting.

Because every click brought more delay, one clicked more deliberately. Browsers displayed visited links in a different color (purple by default, instead of blue). They still do this, but nobody cares anymore; using the OldWeb browser reminded me that those purple links helped you navigate a strange and arduous terrain. Yes, that’s where I meant to go, or Nope, already been there.

Once you reached your destination, you’d be confronted with a series of distractions. Screens were small back then, with low-resolution text and graphics. On The Atlantic’s old website, the type was small and pixelated. Italics were not truly semicursive, with curved letterforms, but slanted versions of roman. Lines of text ran most of the way across the screen without a break. In order to read an entire article using Netscape in Macintosh System 7, I had to interrupt myself repeatedly to click the scroll-bar button. These minor glitches may have worn away our capacity to focus. But we had no idea how much worse that problem could become.