I first went online in 1995, back when you paid by the hour for an extremely slow connection. At the time, my concept of the internet only went as far as what America Online would show me. Actual websites existed, of course, but between the slow speed and my unfamiliarity, I mostly stuck with chat rooms, forging fast friendships with total strangers that were completely forgotten ten minutes later.
Even after just a few years, a lot had changed, but it was still no comparison to what we have today. Here’s an actual screenshot of my computer screen from September 16th, 2000:
Still on AOL. Still on dial-up. Thirty programs always running simultaneously. Goddamned RealPlayer.
Everything was plodding and everything was made of glass, but we didn’t take it that way. Hell, I must’ve been having fun, since I somehow spent more time on the internet back then than I do now. (Well, duh. It took ten times as long to do anything.)
Below are five things I enjoyed from my earliest days online, in no particular order.
(Late 1999/Early 2000)
I was around to see the great race to make “online shopping” a working thing. Even if the amount of virtual stores was nothing compared to today’s glut, the lengths those companies went to for your business was just nuts. It seemed less about making money and more about taking a hit in order to grab a foothold. If a consumer had his finger on the pulse of it all, he could really take advantage.
One example: During the holiday season of ‘99, countless desperate companies released online coupons for “$10 off $10” orders, or even “$20 off $20” orders. I ran through as many of those offers as I could find, getting everything for free by staying under the coupon amount. Books, movies, vitamins, whatever. I’d say that I don’t know how those companies survived the storm of thousands of people doing the same thing, but the truth is, many of them didn’t.
In a similar vein was Urbanfetch. Like a miniature Amazon, they mostly sold video games, movies and books. The difference was that Urbanfetch, a Manhattan-only retailer, used its own team of messengers to deliver your purchases within a few hours.
To gain even more attention, Urbanfetch sliced the prices on nearly everything in its store, including the then-new Sega Dreamcast. It wasn’t a token sale, either. They cut the prices IN HALF. While everyone else in the country was zipping from toy store to toy store hoping to pay full price for a system that was always out of stock, there was Urbanfetch, personally delivering it for half the price.
It was insane. I already had a Dreamcast, but since the sale extended to video games, I bought five or six of ’em at half price. I didn’t live in Manhattan, so I just had them delivered to a friend who worked there. Even she got in on the deal: Urbanfetch included free cookies with every order!
As you’d suspect, this wasn’t a sustainable model, and Urbanfetch bottomed out soon after.
My earliest years online were spent nearly exclusively within AOL’s universe. To me, “online” just meant chat rooms and e-mail, and eventually, instant messages. AOHell was an early “cracking” program that probably did worse things than I remember it doing, since I only used it to be a pest to total strangers.
It wasn’t like I was a part of some hacking circle. AOHell was extremely easy to find in the AOL’s “secret” chat rooms. (“Secret” in quotes because everybody knew of them.)
With the click of a button, you could flood a chat room with ASCII nonsense. Another click sent your target incessant and unstoppable instant messages. Another would bomb them with e-mails. It was as dumb as it sounds, but for a teenager on AOL, that program made us feel like gods.
#3: Yahoo! Chess:
I don’t know the precise history of Yahoo! Chess, but by 1998 or so, it was a daily part of my internet doings. The simple chess game is still running today, but it’s obviously been outclassed by the zillion other multiplayer games that have sprung up since.
What originally made it stand out was that you could actually play against a real person. I know it’s hard to believe, but that was an incredible thing at the time. Everyone I “ran with” played Yahoo! Chess, and I don’t think a single one of us even liked chess.
Another key attraction was the game’s attached chat window. We all had those two or three friends that we messaged back and forth with endlessly. Instead of dinging them with nonsense all night, you’d just chat in Yahoo! Chess, slowly playing a game that you were barely interested in to begin with.
But the neatest thing about it wasn’t the chess or the chatting:
It was those icons! Or avatars! Whatever they’re called!
You’d choose between a bunch to represent you, and once you got past the normal human characters, they were so weirdly great. Humanoid dogs! Blue devils! A fat-headed alien boy in a Yahoo baseball cap! The icons were barely noticeable on the screen, but that didn’t stop us from putting IMMENSE THOUGHT into which would represent us.
Sometimes I’d just sit there clicking through them for ten minutes, hoping that my opponents would see the random heads rotating. I still don’t know if they ever did.
#4: Old Amazon Orders:
(Mid ‘90s – Today)
I placed my first Amazon order in 1999, and assume that some of you have been ordering from Amazon for just as long.
So, here’s a trick. Did you know that you can still see every order you’ve ever placed from Amazon, no matter how old it is? Click “Your Account,” then go into “Your Orders.” Keep digging, and you’ll soon be drenched with the strangest kind of nostalgia. Many memories will be sparked by seeing what you’ve ordered. I’ve rediscovered passions previously forgotten, and remembered people that I haven’t thought of in years.
Those are actual screenshots from my ancient orders. Take special note of the quantity on that first order. Darth Sidious figures were on sale for a dollar each. I bought twenty of them for some ancient X-Entertainment contest that never got off the ground. Totally forgot about that. Now I know why I find eight Darth Sidiouses every time I do a major cleaning.
#5: AOL’s Red Dragon Inn Chat Room:
(Mid to Late ‘90s)
I typically shuffled through AOL’s chat rooms without rhyme or reason, but sometimes, I found a special one that not only grabbed my attention, but managed to hold it for months.
The Red Dragon Inn was AOL’s “roleplaying” chat room, acting as a sort of medieval “bar” in the fictitious land of RhyDin.
You’d waltz in, devise some strange character for yourself, and chat with everyone using a phony old world language that came off more like malformed Pig Latin. Maybe you’d be a knight, or a monster, or a mage, or a werewolf. Maybe you’d be that mysterious guy in the corner, wearing all black while studying your grog.
I was the worst kind of player, and there were many like me. The Red Dragon Inn had been around long before I found it, and its original crew strictly adhered to the rules they’d set. As AOL grew enormous, many new players entered the fray, and we were far less dedicated. We’d stay in-character if it was fun to do that, but the moment things got boring, all bets were off.
Like, let’s say I went into the room pretending to be a bounty hunter looking for clues. All well and good. I’d interact with people, and they’d play along. If they wanted to engage me, they did. If they didn’t, they’d slide out of the conversation, always careful to stay in character. (“…Lady Ravenclaw moves to the other side of the Inn, distracted by an unseen spectre…”)
But man, the moment I got bored or had to leave, the shit hit the fan. Suddenly I was the Terminator. Suddenly I had giant guns and was on a mission to kill everyone, as loudly and with as many caps-locked words as I could type. It took less than a minute to ruin everyone’s fun. The good players would do their best to ignore me, but my fellow “noobs” would just as suddenly come at me with flamethrowers.
Other times, we’d try to get everyone to “sing” the then-current pop songs, line by line. Nothing spoiled medieval roleplaying faster than virtual Chumbawamba karaoke.
Still, my best memories of the Inn are of the times I played “correctly.” It was the one true roleplaying experience I’ve ever had. The only limit to the possibilities was your own imagination, and when I put it like that, I immediately understand why so many people still D&D their hearts out.
Unbelievably, I still have an AOL account. I never use it, but I can’t bring myself to kill it. It’s a good thing I didn’t, because believe it or not, AOL still has chat rooms – including The Red Dragon Inn!
I took this screenshot yesterday. I can’t believe that the good ol’ Red Dragon Inn is still there.
Unfortunately, AOL’s chat rooms aren’t what they used to be. A few actually had people using them, but the Red Dragon Inn was decidedly empty. Still, I couldn’t resist the chance for one last go: