Internet trends that have come and gone

Features James Hunt Feb 17, 2013

James gives us a brief history of the internet: what we did, and why we no longer do it

The internet is so ubiquitous in our daily lives that sometimes, it’s easy to forget that it’s still relatively young, and changing fast. Trends that seemed to define it one day barely warrant a mention a year or two later.

Sometimes, though, it pays to stop and think. How has the internet changed? Why did those changes occur? And where might they be going? In this article, we cast out minds back, sometimes as far as 1995, to look at the way things were in that younger, more naïve world. Read on and learn the fate of sites like Geocities, Friends Reunited, LiveJournal and more as we examine the internet trends that have come and gone.

Personal websites (1994-2000)

When the internet began to reach the wider public in the mid-90s, there was little provision for non-technical individuals to get a site up on the web. You needed an ISP or academic institution to provide you with web space, or to shoulder the expense to buy hosting at a time when it was far from the norm to do so, as well the necessary knowledge to create your own site. It’s not a huge surprise, then, that when GeoCities launched in 1994, it practically changed the face of the web.

GeoCities gave anyone the ability to create a website of their own, using prefabricated HTML and rudimentary editing tools.Perhaps more importantly, it did it for free. A wave of poorly built ‘personal’ websites instantly arose as for the first time ever, technical lay-people could create a web presence. The early 90s equivalent of a Facebook profile page, only the content was usually even more mundane than they are, if you can believe that.

This, remember, was happening at a time before JPEGs had caught on. If you wanted to put a photo of yourself online, you mostly had to upload a 256-colour GIF the size of a postage stamp. More frequently, people just didn’t bother, settling instead for a combination of animated GIFs and vector-style graphics. These personal pages were monuments to monotony, built with a mixture of comic sans and HTML marquees. When the backgrounds weren’t a default grey, they were low-resolution tiled graphics. Browsing Geocities was like playing Russian roulette with a bullet in every chamber. It was a horrible place to find anything useful or entertaining, but a great place to learn about the various cats owned by families in the American Midwest.

Soon after launch, the site diversified, with its ‘neighborhood’ directory organising sites by topic. Entertainment sites went in ‘Hollywood’, computer and gaming pages in ‘SiliconValley’, and so on. By 1995 there were 14 neighborhoods, each with countless suburbs (both of which were represented in the URL, alongside a unique user number).

Although GeoCities operated a premium subscription service, in 1997 it placed mandatory advertising banners on every free user’s home page, becoming one of the web’s earliest ad-supported services. It didn’t dull the site’s popularity; by 1998 it had a million users and was the fifth most popular destination online. By 1999, it had floated on the stock exchange and was third most popular, behind only Yahoo! and AOL. Yahoo! duly bought GeoCities out.

Times changed, though. The dot-com bubble burst. Getting online became cheaper and easier. Tools allowed people to create professional-looking websites even without much technical nous, and perhaps most damningly, the reputation GeoCities acquired for low-quality, low-content sites meant no one with any credibility wanted to go within a hundred miles of it.

The site was eventually shuttered in 2009 (except in Japan, where it remains inexplicably popular), taking 38 million user-generated pages with it. Let’s face it, though, that wasn’t quite the blow to human culture that it could have been under any other circumstances. Imitators, such as Tripod and Angelfire, were similarly absorbed into larger companies (in this case, both become part of Lycos) and stripped for parts and users before disappearing into obscurity. These days, anyone with a tenner and half a brain can launch their own professional-looking website, and social networks have taken up the mantle of the online vanity project. The days of the personal website are long gone, and not a moment too soon.

Blogging (2000-2008)

One of the things that undoubtedly contributed to the disappearance of personal websites was the rise of blogging. In April 1999, Brad Fitzpatrick launched the website LiveJournal as a way to help him and his friends keep in touch with one another by journaling their experiences and discussing them. Blogging had only recently emerged as a concept (the term was coined in December 1997) and LiveJournal was one of, if not the first place to give the public a place to start their own.

A rigid invitation system meant that the site’s growth was slow but steady, and as a nascent social network (it explicitly featured the ability to add your friends and keep up with their activity, albeit in a long-form way), LiveJournal was particularly popular in the early 00s.

However, the site soon came under competition. As the concept of blogging spread (leading to the creation of the term ‘blogosphere’ in 2002 to encompass the discussions on blogs and between bloggers), other sites arose that allowed users to create their own online journals, often without the joining restrictions LiveJournal placed on its users. Services such as Typepad, WordPress and Blogger all appeared between 2003 and 2005.

More importantly, blogging was one of the first web phenomena to truly catch the eyes of the credible mainstream media, particularly after the discovery of Salam Pax (aka the Baghdad Blogger), who was writing on-the-ground updates during the US bombardment of Iraq in 2003. Blogs were soon everywhere, with their authors striking book deals and being hailed as ‘citizen journalists’. It proved that the internet, far from just being a place to argue about Star Trek, also allowed individuals with worthwhile information to reach a huge number of people.

Of course, unlike some of the other internet phenomena in this article, blogging never really went away. There are still millions. It did, however, become less interesting and get absorbed into the general substrate of the web. For example, it was arguably the blogging explosion that caused websites to put a comments section on almost every page, no matter how insignificant or uninteresting it might be. Certainly, the idea of citizen journalism never quite went away, becoming major components of Twitter and YouTube’s success.

However, at some point, blogging lost its cool. Partly, it was because the number of blogs made it harder to sort the good from the bad. Partly, it was because people who were writing blogs migrated to social networks where there was more emphasis on shorter interactions and real-time feedback. And partly, the media just realised it wasn’t quite the second coming of the internet and turned their attentions to something else. And although LiveJournal failed to move with the times and lost a lot of its influence, it’s still around in more or less its original forms, as are Blogger, TypePad and WordPress.

E-cards (1997-2000)

From almost the moment the internet was conceived, email has been one of its killer features. In roughly the two decades since the technology became truly popular, it’s managed to decimate postal communication and made handwriting practically a thing of the past.
But not everything about email caught on. You can’t, for example, beat a good old-fashioned birthday card. We know this because in the mid/late 90s, just as everyone was finally getting hold of 56k modems, companies tried to replace the traditional greetings card with e-cards.

E-cards were virtual ‘postcards’, which allowed you to send a personalised graphic or link to a recipient, wishing them well or letting them know about a new product (and in some incredibly classy cases, both together). The thing is, typing someone’s name and email address into a box then hitting ‘send’ didn’t quite suggest the same level of care and thought as going out, buying and then posting a real card.

The security implications were also a factor. When e-cards were popular, mail services tended to do things like automatically open images and attachments without any care for the possible harm their contents might cause. People were happy to click on links to sites they’d never heard of, and they weren’t quite so worried about their email address being given out to companies who’d use them for marketing purposes. When these attitudes and behaviours started to change, e-cards began to disappear as well.

The real truth, though, is that e-cards were just terrible, and it’s a little embarrassing that any of us ever got tricked into sending them in the first place. There are plenty of sites still offering them, but their popularity has waned substantially: in 1997, the average internet user received around 30 e-cards a day (at least, that’s how I remember it). Today, even greetings card websites like Moonpig and Funky Pigeon don’t offer them - probably because the last thing either of them want is to be associated with something so thoughtless. Because nothing says Happy Birthday, Congratulations, or With Sympathies for Your Recent Loss quite like an animated GIF being sent to you by a website you’ve never heard of.

Vanity email addresses (1999-2003)

Another email fad that has largely died out is the trend for ultra-personalisation. In the mid-90s, there were almost no decent webmail services; you either used the service that came with your ISP, or you used Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail.

At some point in the late 90s, companies realised that they could set up their own free email provider with a selection of domains and reap the rewards based on advertising. This was, after all, pre-bubble, when everyone had giant piles of money to spend and companies like Microsoft Expedia would pay ten cents to their advertising affiliates every time someone so much as clicked on their link.

Suddenly, you could get email at all sorts of different domains. So that’s what everyone did. These weren’t boring domains, like ‘@hotmail.com’; they were fun ones, like ‘@rainbowsandlollipops.com’ or ‘@istotallycool.co.uk.’ Providers such as Another.com allowed you to sign up to receive email at multiple domains and funnel it all into one account, and even to potentially buy those domains outright.

Of course, the thing about email addresses is that like phone numbers, it’s actually convenient to keep the same one as long as possible. A new email address every week makes it difficult for other people to contact you, but worse than that, it actively inconveniences you as well. When you sign up for accounts, you have to give them your email address to use as a username. Imagine how much difficulty it places on you if you’re using up to ten different email addresses and can’t remember which you signed up with!

This fad for vanity email addresses was short-lived, though, largely because the providers weren’t ultimately making enough money to keep it going. They’d made emails throwaway, so no one attached any value to them. Some companies wrapped up, leaving people unable to retrieve their emails. Others were bought by larger organisations. Another.com refocused on the domain brokering side of its organisation. And a few years later, Google launched Gmail, webmail was almost immediately revolutionised, and no one ever looked back.

Web-based piracy (1996-2000)

It’s no secret that file-sharing, these days, is largely accomplished through the use of torrent files, which are downloaded from all manner of law-skirting websites. But what was file-sharing like before torrents existed?

Piracy, as it turns out, is on a sort of evolutionary journey. Torrents - small, de-centralised peer-to-peer networks - were created as a response to the failure of the previous model: the p2p filesharing system. At the turn of the century, systems such as Kazaa, Morpheus and the infamous Napster allowed users to log into a single server, upload a list of available files, and then share those files with others. Downloads could be pulled piecemeal from multiple users, meaning that removing one copy of it didn’t make the file unavailable, simply a little slower. That was fine until the servers holding the file lists got killed.

P2P file-sharing was itself an evolution of the previous piracy model, in which movies and software were bundled into a single archive (for example, a .rar file) and then split into a multiple easily downloadable chunks before being posted on the web, often in web space that had been illegally accessed. The hope was that the various parts could be reassembled even if one copy was discovered and taken down. It was slow and inefficient, but so was the rest of the internet back then.

Even this was a response to the frequency of takedowns that was crippling the ‘original’ online piracy scene. The piracy and cracking scene actually began offline, in the bedroom coding and hacking groups, then moved onto the web in the mid-90s after groups left private dial-up BBS boards behind and established a web presence: file-heavy websites called ‘warez’ sites. Pronounced ‘wares’ (as in ‘goods’), these sites made pirated material (usually software - it was too early for video or music!) available for download, at least for as long as their web servers were alive. The scene was volatile, full of in-fighting, rivalries and self-imposed codes of conduct, and you couldn’t even get into the sites without navigating a maze of affiliate links!

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that file-sharing has been around in some form virtually since the internet crawled out of its primordial ooze, and getting it off the web didn’t help stamp it out. Torrents have certainly lasted longer than most, with a solid decade under their belt as the main distribution network for copyright infringement and online piracy, but if history shows anything, it’s that if you shut down one system, another, better one will appear in its place.

Online chat protocols (1988-2012)

In the text-heavy days of the early internet, online chatrooms were a much-touted feature, allowing users from all over the world to communicate with one another in real time, without the costs associated with a long distance phonecall!

The earliest (and still one of the most robust) incarnations of online chatting arose in the form of IRC (Internet Relay Chat). Created in 1988, it was one of the main pillars of the online community at a time when sending simple text strings was about all that your modem could do with any real semblance of speed or reliability. Existing as multiple isolated network of IRC servers (‘networks’), each hosting various ‘channels’ (or ‘rooms’), IRC was (and remains, to an extent) a largely anarchic frontier of the internet, where anyone has the chance to set up a server and join a network or even create their own.

IRC’s popularity was later challenged by instant messaging clients, but a rather large change to the IRC scene occurred in 2003, when one of the ‘big four’ networks, DALnet (the others are EFnet, Undernet and IRCnet) was subject to a severe, ongoing DDOS attack that left users struggling to join due to heavy traffic. At the same time, the owner of one of DALnet’s biggest chat servers delinked (i.e. removed the connection to) the network, leaving the rest of the servers unable to cope with the influx of users. DALnet still exists, but only in a vastly reduced form - it’s not even in the top ten networks any more!

While IRC has proven robust, historically, it has failed to attract much attention as the modern web acquires some of its virtues: Twitter and Facebook are real-time broadcast communications but have much wider audiences, better metadata and the advantage of being on the web, rather than in a separate enclave.

For similar reasons, instant messaging has struggled to keep up with online trends. Systems such as ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL’s AIM and Microsoft’s MSN Messenger were all variously popular ways of communicating, which launched at the end of the 90s and are now virtually dead in the modern web ecosystem.

ICQ was perhaps the first and most adventurous. One of the earliest ‘private messaging’ systems, ICQ was a horrendous mess of software, full of garish colours, ridiculous sound-effects and pop-up alerts that could drive you from serenity to madness during a single session. Rather than usernames, people signing in were given a (somewhat ambitiously named) ‘Universal Internet Number’, which was a string of eight to 12 digits with absolutely no convenient way of being remembered.

The system later gave way to more sober messaging systems such as those mentioned earlier, but even they are on the wane. Facebook and Gmail incorporate their own web messengers, meaning there’s no reason to open a separate program to talk to your friends in real-time, while again, the likes of Facebook and Twitter allow you to start conversations more generally rather than one-to-one. Microsoft has clearly seen the writing on the wall and plans to shutter MSN in March 2013, moving its users to Skype as part of a new deal. Meanwhile, usage of AIM and Yahoo! Messenger has imploded and seems unlikely to recover.

And, of course, there’s Chatroulette, which combined webcams with randomised instant messaging, to make the best use of video on the internet since YouTube… for about half an hour, after which it became the best place on the internet to see fat exhibitionists getting naked. And let’s face it, there’s no shortage of places like that online. 

Where are they now?

If the past two decades have shown anything, it’s that online tastes are fickle. It might be hard to imagine a day where you don’t visit the likes of Facebook and Twitter, but obscurity and irrelevance are only ever a decent competitor away. Here, we’ll look back at some of the web’s most popular sites and ask ‘Hey, whatever happened to those guys?’

Friends Reunited

One of the original social networks, Friends Reunited gave people what they always wanted: the chance to compare lives with their old schoolfriends and tacitly brag about where they ended up. Unfortunately, MySpace and Facebook took the wind out of its sales. Friends Reunited’s mistake was trying to make users pay to contact the people on the site. The social networks that followed in its wake were the first to realise that the site wasn’t the product, the users were. Advertisement and marketing-fuelled social networks soon took over. Friends Reunited was sold to ITV for £120 million in 2005, and then again to Brightsolid Limited for a paltry £25 million in 2010. It’s still around after a somewhat stalled ‘memory driven’ relaunch (focusing on nostalgia), with an estimated worth of just £5.2 million. Ouch.

Hot Or Not

In its heyday, Hot or Not was a popular website that allowed users to rate the attractiveness of various men and woman out of ten. Founded in 2000, it was one of the earliest examples of crowd-sourced content, inviting users to upload their own photos (or, more realistically, photos of their friends) so that others could judge their attractiveness. All a bit creepy, but it was a more innocent time for the internet. It wasn’t the only site of its kind (Facebook actually started as a Hot or Not clone called ‘FaceMash’), but it was the most successful, attracting two million page views a day only a week after launch. As its popularity waned, it added a ‘Match-up’ component and now appears to be owned by dating-focused social network Badoo, which merely uses the brand on top of its regular service, minus any rating component.

FaceParty

Before Facebook, before Friends Reunited, even before Friendster, there was FaceParty. Launched in 2000, it was one of the UK’s first social networks. By 2006, it had six million members and was still growing, but competition from other, similar sites was strong. In 2008, the site’s ownership returned to original co-creator Andrew David Bamforth, resulting in the removal of all advertising and the forced deletion of some seven million profiles (some sources report that this included anyone over the age of 35). Now more youth-focused, the site’s actually still alive and seems to be of the few ‘boutique’ social networks that’s actually swimming against the tide and succeeding, thanks mainly to its quirks and individuality.

What might go next?

It’s tempting to think of the web, which offers content the chance of digital immortality, as a place of permanence. However, it’s clear from the rest of this article that it’s anything but. So what might be next to go? We’ve given ourselves the grim task of predicting the big sites you won’t be using in five years time…

1. Digg.com

Digg started in 2004 as one of the first social bookmarking websites and maintained a position as one of the best for years after. Since 2011, however, the site’s users have abandoned it in droves. In the last 18 months, it’s lost 75% of its users, and there’s no indication of a reversal on the cards. If you’re one of the few people still using Digg, start exporting your data now. The site, at least in its current form and under its current owners, is dead in the water, its social sharing activities replaced by the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. It’s not long for this world.

2. Blogger/Typepad

With the blogging boom long over, sites like Blogger and Typepad are struggling to grow. The former hasn’t grown for years, but TypePad is in steady, consistent decline that could speed up at any moment. Its competitor, WordPress.com, isn’t doing much better as a hosted blogging platform, but its open-source simple CMS software keeps the name and services growing. It’ll probably be a matter of years rather than months, but barring any serious reversal of fortune, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Blogger or Typepad shut down or sold off before long, especially since the Google-owned Blogger is now essentially competing with features on the aggressively promoted Google Plus service.

3. Instagram

It might be the darling of the photo-sharing scene, but a recent purchase by Facebook puts Instagram in a precarious position of being former upstarts who sold out - and we all know how well that worked for Flickr. A recent change to the terms of service threatened to allow users’ photos to be placed in adverts without their knowledge until a user-fuelled backlash forced it to rewrite the contract. In spite of that backtracking, the damage may have already been done; some estimates show as many as half of its active users have deserted it as a result of the mere threat of a ToS change. Even if that’s exaggerated, the negativity surrounding the service is palpable. It’s ripe for desertion the moment a competitor emerges.