Most people had to call the bank to check their balances. Or inquire in person, or wait for a paper statement to arrive in the mail. Baseball box scores were found in the newspaper. Weather forecasts came over the phone from the weather bureau, or on TV.
Back then, most Americans still had to lick a stamp to send mail.
Then along came an experimental browser called Mosaic, followed by an improved browser from Netscape. And if you had a computer, you discovered a new way to this cool, new thing called the World Wide Web.
Mosaic and Netscape were the first popular connection to what came to be called the information superhighway and followed the first browser by Tim Berners-Lee called WorldWideWeb.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, fewer than one in seven Americans were online in 1995. Today, the majority of Americans are surfing the Web, exchanging e-mail, reading bank statements and ball scores, checking the weather. Today, Pew says, two out of every three Americans spend time online.
The World Wide Web has transformed the way people live, work and play. People can play travel agent and book all the elements of a vacation online. They can arrange for their bills to be paid automatically while they are gone. They can put a hold on mail delivery, find directions to tourist attractions and get a long-term weather forecast before they pack.
Even on vacation, they can log onto the Web to keep up with news from their hometown paper or TV station, and stay connected with friends and family. In its first decade, the Web altered the pace of popular culture. It made distance less daunting, rendered information instantly accessible and revolutionized communication.
Googling and blogging
In the mid-1990s, the top three Web sites were AOL, Netscape and WebCrawler (which was a search engine owned by AOL), according to Internet research measurement company comScore Media Metrix. Each had an audience of 4 million to 6 million people per month.
Today, the audience for the Web numbers more than one billion and is growing.
“People are being much more customized in the type of content that they want to see and consume [online],” said Peter Daboll, president of comScore Media Metrix. “Also, there are the communication advances where it is easier to communicate and stay online. And they are just having more of their needs filled, whether it’s travel, shopping and all these other activities that didn’t exist to the same degree in the early days of the Web.”
The Web has added plenty of words to our lexicon, although some have yet to make the dictionary. If you had talked about Googling or blogging 10 years ago, you might have had a lot of listeners scratching their heads.
But like any youngster, the Web still has some growing to do. For all its uses, most people still go to the Internet primarily for e-mail. According to Pew surveys, 58 million Americans sent e-mail each day in December 2004, while 35 million used the Web to get news.
Many of those online users are irked by spam — unsolicited offers for everything from lower mortgage rates to pornography, pharmaceuticals and pitches to help a Nigerian launder millions of dollars.
Congress passed an antispam law in November 2003, with the backing of several of the biggest Internet companies. Spammers seem undeterred and San Francisco-based Ferris Research estimates the time lost by employees dodging spam will cost U.S. businesses $17 billion in 2005.
Another e-mail problem is phishing, the fake e-mail that looks like it is from a legitimate source. The bogus e-mail is designed to get the reader to divulge personal information, often a credit card number
Broadband ‘has changed everything’
E-mail is a one-way media; you send an e-mail and wait for a response. Steve Outing, a senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and an interactive media columnist for Editor and Publisher, says the Web has evolved into an interactive forum where users can converse through chat rooms and instant messaging. It has also become participatory through the advent of blogs — online journals or columns — he said.
“We’ve come a long ways, but we still have a ways to go,” he said.
In the early days of the Web, many news sites were little more than a collection of links to stories by The Associated Press and a few pieces of content repurposed from the newspaper or TV station. If you were lucky, there might be a photo in the story. With so many people using the Web today for news, TV networks, newspapers and magazines have been increasing the types of content they make available on the Web.
“Rich media and multimedia content are much more popular,” Outing said. “Media companies are more willing to put in the money to produce it. They recognize that people can now use it.”
Some media companies have been slow embrace the Web, he said, and in the meantime, they have found themselves facing increased competition from entrepreneurial sites, like craigslist.org, which is a popular bulletin board featuring free classifieds.
The biggest change has been effected by broadband, Outing said.
“In the past four or five years, the penetration of broadband has changed everything,” he said. “The computer is always on and the information is always there.”
There are 10 times more broadband users today than there were in June 2000, according to Pew.
The Internet generation
Daboll, of Media Matrix, said broadband outnumbers dial-up as the connection of choice among people who log on from home.
Just a few years ago, the move from a 28.8k modem to 56k was enough to make many users ecstatic. These days many DSL and cable connections are up to 70 times faster than the old dial-up. The faster Web makes it much easier for people to watch video, listen to audio and share files.
The Web is changing the way people communicate, Daboll said. He pointed to the “Internet generation,” teenagers who have grown as the Web as grown. One of their favorite tools is instant messaging, he said.
But the Internet isn’t an orderly environment for the person who wants to pay bills, watch the latest music or take a virtual college class. It also can be a tempest. There are bad people out there — hackers, pedophiles and thieves.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, 1 in 25 adults was a victim of identity theft in 2003 and the number of people affected online continues to increase.
But the Web can also help combat ID theft. An FTC booklet with tips to prevent or deal with ID theft is accessible on the department’s Web site. The agency says it has received more than 1.8 million visits.
And there’s plain old fraud. The FTC said slightly more than half of the fraud-related claims it received in 2004 were Internet related, and many of the deceptions involved individuals or companies that used e-mail or a Web site.
Internet users are also vulnerable to spyware, computer viruses and annoying forms of advertising.
Advertisers are changing, too, trying to figure out how to best use the Web. JupiterResearch projects that Internet advertising will grow 27 percent, to $10.7 billion, in 2005.
The increase in demands of the Web has even affected the way Media Matrix serves its clients, generally companies looking to best place their advertisements.
“The nature of what we do has changed from ratings and ranking to more broadly covering what goes on the Web,” Daboll said. “Looking at actual number or searches and looking at actual expenditures by household by category — for instance money spent on travel sites versus retail sites.”
A decade from now, who knows what statistics and functions they’ll be measuring.
After all, 10 years ago, few people imagined it wouldn’t be long before you’d be able get a satellite picture of a city a continent away or read the local news from three time zones away or even order pizza without talking to the folks a few blocks away.