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by Andy Killworth on 30th October 2012
Ah, we have it easy these days don’t we? Smartphones, laptops, netbooks, desktops,apps, iPhones (or Android devices for those with more sense), fibre-optic broadband, video on demand, music on demand, Google Maps, social stuff 24/7…
But when I was a lad…all this were nothing but fields…or something.
I think because web/internet (let’s not get picky on the correct word) is so integral to our lives and taken for granted, we forget how much things have changed in such a short amount of time.
So today is dedicated to those iconic website features and other memories of internet gone by. To put this post into context, my first ever memory of anything net-related was way back and when; my Dad (a researcher) showed me how you could connect from one computer to another across the world – I found this absolutely fascinating and, in a rather tragic and geeky way, went home to write a program in BBC Basic to emulate it. Which in fairness was rubbish, a) because it wasn’t connecting to anything and b) the program went no further than letting you ‘log in’ to an imagined computer somewhere. DEFPROC Loser.
I first started using t’internet properly back in 1999. To some, this still means I’m a ‘noob’, to others I’m probably old-school. I feel old now either way.
But I digress.
Without further ado then, here are my top ten things which make me think ‘old school web’:
ASL? Or A/S/L if people could be bothered to write that, or usually just asl? This meant age/sex/location. It was almost de-rigeur to use this as an opening gambit in chat-rooms. It was blunt, it was totally impolite, and you’d never use it as an ice-breaker in real life.
The most frequent users of this bit of lingo were of course men (most of them more concerned with the A and S rather than the L).
I guess it feels a very dated bit of jargon these days as more and more of the interaction on the web is no longer ‘anonymous’ as such, and actual chat-rooms aren’t anywhere near as popular as they were; whereas abbreviations like LOL are pretty much ingrained into modern online linguistics.
ROFL (Rolling On The Floor Laughing) was the worst abbreviation though; at least with LOL you might actually Laugh Out Loud, however I don’t think I’ve ever Rolled On The Floor Laughing in my life. Chance would be a fine thing, but then I’m a Grumpy SEO.
2) Custom cursors
Oh dear God. One thing that visually screams ‘horrible early web design’ is a wacky or animated cursor. These bad-boys were all the rage in Geocities, Angelfire etc. They gave the page owner the ability to change the appearance of your cursor so that it displayed, for example, a dancing banana alongside it. How hilarious, how wacky. Absolutely unforgivable.
The ‘crosshair’ cursor was especially popular in more arty circles, such as (but not limited to), 15 year old pseudo-goths who had personal pages, almost always with a black background and a black and white image of, say, a gravestone. And some ‘poetry’.
Well, if you fancy one, the good news is you can still do it – . But please, please don’t, I implore you. Not even if you’re doing it an ironic way.
3) Geocities / Angelfire
For those of you that don’t remember, Geocities was a service provided by Yahoo which allowed a user to set up a free website (e.g. www.geocities.com/yoursite). The whole ‘cities’ thing was because originally they split it into areas, or ‘cities’.
There were many other places offering similar – for example Angelfire, 8m.com and so on.
Looking back, it’s easy to be condescending about the design and content of these sites (you can see mirrors of Geocities at www.reocities.com). However, the great thing was that they encouraged creativity and learning amongt web users, with plenty of people picking up HTML and so on.
That said, with very few exceptions, even back then they looked pretty naff (hit-counters, tiled backgrounds, visible tables etc.).
Want to ‘GeoCities-ize’ your own website? Now you can (great site).
Mum, put the phone down!
I’ve had broadband for so long now that thankfully I’ve put most of the memories of dialup to bed. One big pain with it was that, if you only had one phone line, being online would tie the line up so no-one could phone you. However, the most heinous act would be if your parent/partner/housemate picked up the phone during your online session and kicked you off. This would inevitably be during a great game of Quake Arena, or with some supposedly ‘hot chick’ that you hoped to hell was telling the truth about their A/S/L.
This would also work the other way around – you’d be on the phone having a serious conversation just as when someone was going online, so both parties to the conversation were subjected to the sound of the PC dialling the ISP; thus having to shout “I’M ON THE PHONE” to the guilty party.
Whenever I hear the dialup tone it instantly takes me back. Happy days! (But I’ll stick with Fibre Optic thanks).
‘Welcome To AOL’ – that pleasant, soft toned voice that was so reassuring. That, along with the same voice telling you ‘You have email’ (which really should have said ‘You have spam’). AGH!
AOL was dubbed ‘AOHell’ (see what they did there?) for good reason – it sucked as an ISP. I say this from experience. I bring AOL up as I do think it’s a pretty iconic part of the old internet landscape (though admittedly they’re still operating). For many people (shamefully myself included) it was their first introduction to using the internet.
What AOL attempted to do was make getting online accessible, easy and friendly. They aggressively (and successfully) marketed themselves and you could guarantee you’d find an AOL install CD in any given computer magazine. It also came with Windows installs. You couldn’t get away from it.
Its proprietary software, whilst enjoyable for some, was also bloated, clunky and seemed to take over your PC. Its customer service sucked too and it was a PITA (and nigh on impossible) to uninstall the software completely.
Oh, and it would disconnect you if you’d been ‘inactive’ for some time – hence having to use pinging software to keep it open.
6) Flash Splash Screens
Websites have always been about experimentation and changing technology. Flash (by Macromedia and then Adobe) is something I’ve often been incredibly impressed by, but is also something I feel has been over-used, or used totally inappropriately.
In terms of what I consider to be old-school web, Flash was all the rage for adding (or trying to add) a touch of glamour to your site. Significantly though, way too many Webmasters implemented ‘splash’ or intro screens to their sites. This was almost invariably bad, and unnecessary. Bad because it was usually a lame animation of text; unnecessary because it added nothing to the user experience.
Webmasters with a heart added a ‘skip intro’ link, which most users would click on in a nano-second. Lame ones didn’t, and you’d have to sit through a tedious animation; God help you if you were on dialup as you’d need to wait for it to pre-load.
7) Old HTML Tags
Cast your mind back, web-folk – remember the browser wars? Remember what a pain cross-coding was between IE and junk like Netscape 4.7? Like two competitive male dogs attempting to be the alpha, each one tried to outdo each other by implementing different ‘features’ and code. DHTML was a nightmare.
The two HTML tags that stand out for me from that time are the glorious <marquee> (thanks Explorer) and <blink> (thanks Netscape). Thankfully these bad-boys are obsolete now.
For those of you that were lucky enough not to experience these, allow me to explain – Marquee was a tag which meant the text within it scrolled (horizontally or vertically, to boot). Not only was this massively distracting but the scroll was never smooth. It smacked of ‘oooh look, our site has bells and whistles’ and it looked naff, even back then. It was also rather self-consciously wacky, perhaps the online equivalent of an office worker wearing a Simpsons tie, and equally as nauseous.
Next up we have Blink – this tag was so vile that Jakob Nielsen himself called it ‘simply evil’. Now that’s quite harsh wording, but from a user experience perspective he was spot on. So what did the Blink tag do? Well it allowed you to (in Netscape at least) have the content between the tags flash on and off. This was annoying, distracting and kind of looked like a cheap neon sign flashing on a grim city wall. Using Blink made your website instantly appear garish and amateur – yet plenty of people did it. Seems odd looking back at it, but then so does the fact that thousands of punters spent real currency on the Mr Blobby single.
If you REALLY wanted to stand out though, you used Blink AND Marquee on your site – this way you provided a rich, exciting visual experience for pretty much all of your users. Or something. By the way, here’s the story of how the Blink tag came to be.
8) Midi files
Embedding .midi files used to be all the rage. Why? Well, way back and when, let’s face it – web technology was pretty bland. Sure, Flash was making headway, but for Joe Bloggs, he wanted to snazz his homepage up a bit using something other than the Font tag. What better way to do this by having some twee music playing involuntarily in the background when you visited the site?
You always knew when you were in trouble – you’d click through to the site, it would hang during loading, and if you looked at the status bar and saw it was loading twee.midi, you knew you were in for a treat.
Napster was awesome. It was a peer-to-peer application that allowed you to share music with other online users. There were two things I loved about Napster – firstly the buzz you got when you tracked down that obscure song you loved from years ago; secondly, being nosey and browsing the music collection of the person you were downloading a song from – kind of an old-school ‘related artists’ type thing that you’d see on Spotify. This would frequently turn up some gems, turn you on to a new band – or just allow you laugh at the person’s bad taste.
Of course, no matter what my colleagues might tell you, my musical taste is awesome so nobody ever laughed at mine.
The downside was this – you’d be happily downloading a track you really, really wanted (probably on dialup), get to about 96% completed and then the user would log off, often never to return, leaving you a jibbering, musically frustrated wreck.
In the end though, Napster was allowing users to breach copyright laws and was destined not to last. Uploading and downloading the odd track, or even album, seemed perfectly harmless to many. However, artists like Metallica and Dr Dre thought otherwise (whether they were right or not is another debate) and Napster shut down the network in 2001.
I still miss it (although I love Spotify).
10) Comic Sans
Comic Sans is an evil, stinking mess of a font and I’m half tempted to lobby the government to have it banned outright. If there’s one way of screaming ‘amateur’ either on or offline, it’s using this.
Now the really sick thing is, the guy who designed it (Vincent Connare) also made Trebuchet, thus making himself out to be some kind of good cop/bad cop purveyor of typography. What I find encouraging, however, is that he didn’t earn any royalties from it (and rightly so). Poor man though, imagine having created something universally despised by a whole industry.
Way back and when, loads of sites used Comic Sans. Combine this with the sheer horror of spinning gifs, midi files and the like and you had a great recipe for a vomit-inducing web presence.
What really scares me though is the odd occasion you come across a contemporary website which still uses this font.
Whilst we’re talking fonts, allow me to share this topical joke with you: three fonts walk into a bar. The barman says “we don’t serve your type in here.”
Basically, ban Comic Sans.
Over to you
What other things are iconic for you when you look back at the internet of years gone by? What things do you miss? What things are you damn glad don’t exist any longer?