The Old Internet Shows Signs of Quietly Coming Back

The Old Internet Shows Signs of Quietly Coming Back

Old Computer
Websites that are original and creative expressions of their
creators’ personalities were the foundation of the early 1990’s
Internet. In this article, I will use this as the definition
of the term “old Internet”, not to imply that these websites are
passe, but because their purpose and sometimes even their look has
not changed since then. Although the old Internet will not
replace the Internet we have today, signs point to it growing in
size and visiblity as Internet users become increasingly
disillusioned with the corporate-run shopping mall that today’s
Internet has become.

The Internet of the Early 1990’s

The public Internet began as a loose collection of network services.
Services that had been created for universities and military
contractors first became available to the public to fulfill the
needs of college students who had recently graduated and wanted to
stay in touch with their friends and former professors. Usenet had
been around since 1980, local “electronic mail” since the 1960’s.
In the first couple of years after the Internet went public, much of
it consisted of newly-linked BBS’s (Bulletin Board Services). Many
BBS’s also connected to Fidonet, another world-wide network that had
been linked via modem over telephone lines since 1984 (and still
exists today). The Gopher network
also linked the computers of many universities.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, this eclectic collection of
networks and services initially seemed rather nebulous and
mysterious to me. I remember at first not even being sure what to
call it. Whenever I settled on a term, someone would inevitably ask
me what I was talking about and then correct me by saying that it
was more than just that.

My recollection is that I first stumbled upon electronic mail in
1985 completely by chance while exploring my university’s computer
network. I rarely had time for exploring, because I was always very
busy with school work. How I wished I had had more time to explore
back then. For whatever reason, on this particular afternoon I had
a free hour or two. As I sat in a wooden chair in front of a
black-and-white monochrome VT-100 terminal, around me perhaps 8-10
other students peered intently at other identical terminals. Via a
300-baud modem bolted to the wooden table beside my terminal, I was
connected to our shared Cyber mainframe
that ran the Taurus operating system. The terminals in that room
were often hard to connect to the network, because students used to
reset the modem dip switches. I never understood why, but this was
a regular source of annoyance for me. By chance, I came across the
sendmail command, wondered about its purpose, and began reading its
online manual entry. As soon as I understood its significance, I
was eager to try electronic mail, but no one I knew had an
electronic mail address. Years passed during which I could only
read about electronic mail and hope that one day I would find
someone with whom to exchange it. In the 1990’s, “electronic mail”
became “e-mail”, and finally “email”. I am fairly certain I sent my
first email from work, but I cannot recall that particular momentous
event in my life. It probably did not occur until around 1996. The
passing of perhaps eleven years between the time I first learned
about email and my first use of it seems amazing to me now, after
having used it daily, or at least weekly, for decades.

Back in the early 1990’s, the spirit of the Internet was the pursuit
of knowledge, exploration, innovation, fun, and community.
Immediately after going public, it began to swell with websites
created by tech nerds who enjoyed playing and experimenting with the
new technology. Individuals created their own websites mostly for
fun and for the learning experiences that they afforded. Most
discussed little more than computer gaming, technical interests, and
geeky hobbies. Personal websites soon comprised most of the public
sites on the early Internet and essentially became the public face
of the Internet. Other than a few blank placeholder websites,
corporations and governments had not even established their
presences on the Internet. Most were not even convinced that they
should be there. A significant number of corporate executives and
government leaders did not even know what the Internet was.

In those early years, individuals were free to express themselves on
the Internet in any way they wished on any topic they wished without
the slightest interference from corporations or governments. Mostly,
individuals created the content and ran the platforms that hosted
it–Internet-connected BBS’s and home computers. Internet users
could go wherever they wanted view whatever they wanted without
being tracked or spied on. We had no corporate gatekeepers, no
search engines, no SEO or click-bait, no obnoxious advertisements.
The “social media” back then–IRC, USENET, BBS’s–had little in
common with today’s social media. The NSA was not monitoring
email. No laws punished black-hat hackers. Governments were not
even aware of the problem. The Internet was not just unworthy of
their attention. It was essentially invisible to them.

The early Internet expanded tentatively at first and then picked up
momentum like an avalanche that would eventually cover the earth. I
say “tentatively”, because even at double digit yearly growth rates,
several years passed before a significant percentage of the
populations of the developed nations were on line. Public dial-up
providers that anyone could use to access the Internet appeared in
the United States in the late 1980’s. In 1990, the command-line
Internet gave way to the graphical Internet when Sir Tim Berners-Lee
created HTML and the WorldWideWeb Internet browser and put up the
first website. In 1993 the Mosaic Internet browser came into
existence, and this finally opened the door for the general public
to access the Internet in large numbers. Nontechnical people at
first trickled slowly onto the Internet. As I recall, most were
drawn by curiosity. They wanted to know what all the fuss was
about. Soon, dial-up Internet providers had added hundreds, and
then thousands of local phone numbers all over the United States
that enabled nearly every interested person to have toll-free access
to the Internet. However, many developing countries still did not
have direct access to the Internet, but they did have email. As a
result, even into the late 1990’s, many people around the world
relied on a system of email servers that sent them web pages upon
request. They “surfed” the Internet
by email.

As soon as the Internet opened to the public, most new users raced
to the first walled gardens created by early online service
providers like CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online. Seemingly,
wherever an Internet corral was erected, the cattle of the Internet
were drawn to it. Even back then, many in the general public did
not realize that they did not need one of these companies to get
onto the Internet. All they needed to access the larger Internet
was a modem, a phone line, an account with one of the dial-up
service providers, and a local phone number to dial into. By the
late 1990’s, every personal computer had a built-in modem for
accessing the dial-up Internet.

I remember thinking in the early 1990’s that the Internet was a
fabulous invention, but websites were hard to find and small with
not much content of general interest. My expectation was that
corporations moving onto the Internet would improve it by adding
much more interesting content. At that point, I was too naive to
see the downside of corporate involvement.

The Internet of Today

Today our personal computers no longer have modems, and Compuserve
and Prodigy are long gone. AOL has become a media company,
although as late as
2015, 2.1 million people were somehow still using its dial-up
. The Internet itself seems to many to have degenerated
into a giant advertising tool. And, a high percentage of websites
load as slowly as a sick turtle awaking from a long slumber.

Just as radio stations, newspapers, and television networks were the
communications gatekeepers of earlier generations, we now have
Internet gatekeepers keeping us in line, on line–preventing our
voices from being heard by too widely, funneling us to their
advertisements, online stores, and walled gardens, and monitoring
whether we are taking their bait. They have even incorporated
scary-sounding warnings into our web browsers telling us that all
websites without certificates issued by them are unsafe! And, they
are constantly inventing new
of keeping the Internet cattle in their corals. The
problem is now so bad that The
New Republic
has called Silicon Valley executives “apex
predators”, named Mark Zuckerberge its scoundrel of the year for
2021, and called FaceBook “the worst website that has ever
existed”! And, here I was, fearing that perhaps my hostility toward
corporate manipulation of the Internet could be driving the
Cheapskate’s Guide into tabloid territory. The fact is that many,
many people hate with a burning passion much of what corporations
have done to the Internet.

Despite the widespread hatred of these corporations, the cattle
appear to be staying in their corals. As hard as this may be to
believe, as late as 2016, millions
may not have known the difference between FaceBook and the
. Perhaps this is partly the result of owners of walled
Internet gardens telling their cattle for the past three decades
that everywhere else is just too dangerous to explore, too
wolf-infested to venture into.

Many governments around the world are also interfering with the
Internet. Even in so-called “democracies”, they seem nearly
universally opposed to freedom in any form when it is practiced on
the Internet. Many are in the process of fracturing the Internet
into single-country “splinternets”. For years the governments of
Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran have been pushing for changes
to the Internet that would make it easier to control. China is
developing a new Internet protocol, unimaginatively called the
Internet Protocol
“, that will allow it to more effectively spy
on its citizens and ban those it decides are engaging in too much
online freedom. In 2020, the Russian government passed the latest
of a series of measures collectively referred to as the
Internet law”
that, among other things, allows it to disconnect
Russia from the rest of the Internet.

In the United States, in fact world-wide, we have had many
Internet outages
that have been blamed on increasing
centralization of the Internet but also look suspiciously like
governments testing key infrastructure in preparation for placing it
more under their control. Of course, I cannot prove this, but the
US congress has publicly proposed putting in place laws to make
down the Internet
easier, should they deem the need to have
arisen. Since a case for the Internet being necessary for national
security would be widely believed, more than likely, they have
already secretly put measures in place and have merely been trying
to get them approved publicly.

The Old Internet Shows Signs of Quietly Coming Back

Despite the new gatekeepers’ best efforts, the old Internet never
completely disappeared. Personal websites created by individuals
that have always been the meat of the old Internet are still
around. They are still about exploration, innovation, fun, and all
the rest. Try as the new gatekeepers have, they simply have not
had the power to eradicate the old Internet completely. All they
can do is pretend it does not exist. And, that is exactly what they
do. This means that one does not pursue, peruse, or pour over the
old Internet on mainstream search engines like Google or explore it
on FaceBook or other mainstream social media platforms. One does
not stumble upon the old Internet by chance. If one is to locate
it, one must ordinarily go looking for it. Fortunately, the
practical difference between the old gatekeepers and the new
gatekeepers is that we do not need the new gatekeepers. We
can still speak freely and be heard on the old Internet without the
permission of any gatekeeper standing guard over the mainstream

Despite the best efforts of the corporations that control the
mainstream Internet, in fact because of them, the old Internet seems
to be slowly and quietly coming back, and it is coming back even
better than before. Now it has better technology and an additional
well-defined purpose that it never had before.

Some people have begun to refer to personal websites as the “indie
web”, the “small Internet”, or the “smol Internet”. Some seem to
reserve the last two terms exclusively for the Gemini Network,
which nearly
quadrupled in size last year
. But, I think all three terms
should also apply to some of the other networks that use
alternative networking
–the Gopher Network, the Tor network, and the ZeroNet
network, to name a few. I choose to think of all of these as being
part of the re-emerging old Internet, because they are composed
almost exclusively of personal websites run by individuals.

Some people use the term “Web 3.0” to refer only to decentralized
blockchain-based networks without considering that all personal
websites have essentially the same goals, be they on the regular
Internet or on the new blockchain networks. Those who use the term
“web 3.0” seem to have forgotten that self-hosted personal websites
that run on home servers and are accessible over the regular
Internet are inherently decentralized. Unfortunately, despite
common goals, some on today’s old Internet are hostile to blockchain
technology. I am not sure why. Perhaps this is because we seem to
be hard-wired to focus on the new and ignore the old, and owners of
personal websites on the regular Internet feel ignored. Perhaps
they feel the presence of the new blockchain technology only helps
to obscure the fact that personal websites on the regular Internet
are likely to become a larger more important part of the Internet of
the Future–regardless of whether we call it the “old Internet”,
“Web 3.0”, or something else. Perhaps someone should come up with a
more descriptive name. Maybe a name like “The Cyberfreedom
Network” would attract more attention.

An increasing number of Internet users are revolted by the current
corporate-and-government-controlled Internet, and those who create
old-Internet websites are doing something about it. They are
bypassing the gatekeepers by building their own mini platforms for
free speech, where they have a voice that cannot be silenced. I
have with some difficulty assembled some of their own explanations
of what they hope to accomplish. The difficulty came in culling
their words without dulling the spirit of their messages.
Hopefully, the remainder, though somewhat lengthy, is an adequate
representation of the full spectrum of their thoughts and

“The internet has become:

   a marketplace (and we are the product)

   a one-sided social experience

   a capitalist hellscape

We, the people of the internet, have the power to transform the
internet. The goal is not to go backwards, but to forge a new path
forward.” –Sadgrl Online

“Few are the websites that respect the user enough to make it
actually intuitive, actually easy–to–use and easy to access, and
have that philosophy built into the core of its being. … I create
beautiful, verifiable code, because this webpage is more than just a
vehicle to deliver content on as soullessly and dispassionately as
it can. It’s a living, breathing, constantly–evolving entity, and
the code is the sole reason it exists. I pay my respects by giving
it the dignity it deserves. I respect my audience enough to give
them the way a website should be built.”

“While commercial websites display more and more agressive messages,
target and track their users, the indie web respects the individuals,
their intelligence and their privacy; it’s an open forum for thoughts
and debate. While purely commercial websites turn into information
and entertainment magazines, while tycoons of media, telecom,
computing and military agencies fight for the control of the
Internet, the indie web offers a free vision of the world, bypasses
the economic censorship of news, its confusion with advertising and
infommercial, its reduction to a dazing and manipulating
entertainment.” –Lulu in Cyberspace

“These days, the Internet is contained, reduced to a smaller number
of places that people may visit every day. Boring.

It’s time to take it back.”
–Flamed Fury

“I offer up Hell on the Web not as a tribute to the Internet as it
is or as it was, but as it could be. I want to share my ideas
online, but I don’t want it all to be a vain sacrifice at the altar
of The Algorithm. The last haven for genuine online creativity is
the personal, hand-crafted artisanal Homepage. I can’t promise that
my products will always be quality, but I can promise that they were
created with love and sincerity. That’s the Hell on the Web™
guarantee.” –Hell on the Web

“Other than now, as a 31 year old woman, I don’t think I’ve ever had
as many friendships with women as I did when I was a teenager
spending all my free time on the Internet. Not only were other teen
girls super into self-expression via blogging in a pre-WordPress
era, they really wanted to help each other out!…

For 2017 I really hope that those of us who are trying to make the
web / tech / design a more inclusive place will keep on encouraging
those just starting out and those wanting to try something new.
Don’t allow egos to crush inspiration!”
the Internet Weird
, by Rachel White

“Our creativity is stunted by closed walls, limited tools, and
stupid algorithms. My social media account isn’t a personal museum
– it’s just a lifeless husk of a personality who’s forced into this
structure, like a bird stuck in its cage. We’re at the hands of the
people who run these platforms. No longer is it about sharing that
cool thing one has created to friends and strangers, but trying to
beat the system, and trying to beat others.

Social platforms should aspire to be flexible, open, and fun. A
place to share our humanity, not merely a place to sell a product or
to take people down in an attempt to rise to the top. When social
platforms reduce to cold, rigidly structured competitive bloodbaths,
that’s no longer a social platform – that’s a bloody colosseum.”

“The web as we know it today, web 2.0, stifles creativity,
exploration, and community. The web of today is a capitalist hell,
that is actively hurting everyone on it. It hurts and hinders our
ability to discover things via surfing the web, and it constantly
harms the art of creation as a whole, regardless of medium or art

It is things like this and so much more that lead me to getting off
my ass and begin working on my neocities [website] out of spite and
frustration of the new web…

Together we can forge our own spaces on the web, and create an
environment that fosters creativity, passion, exploration and
discovery like the old web.”

“I don’t know why, but for a while I’ve held a fascination with the
old Internet and its values. And so when I made this Website, I
decided that I wanted it to harken back to that earlier time.”

“My work is heavily inspired by the myth of early technology, ‘80s
CGI and the ‘90s web, a messy, inexplicable place, full of unknown
possibilities and innocent ideals. The folk revival of the web is
still out of sight but very much in reach. I see it as an antidote
to the miasma the internet has become today, or at least a promise
that tomorrow can be better.”

“I think that social media is the problem, and that we can take the
internet back by making it a place for art, inspiration, learning,
expression, science, math, basically anything anyone wants to share,
at the pace anyone would like to learn it, read about it, hear it,
or see it. I think we have to remember, because we now have two
generations that grew up on this corporate internet, that you don’t
need the man to communicate on the internet. You don’t need to
depend on a corporation like Facebook or Twitter or whatever to get
your message out there.”

“…but first and foremost my grief for the internet is sensory. it’s
about texture. It’s about the emotions it made me feel, vs the
emotions I feel now. It’s mental images of kinds of people that I
idolised and associated with the fabric of the web itself, and the
sense that a whole kind of person has now disappeared.”

“Here, then, are the principles I’d like to see applied to the

   Passion over professionalism.

   DIY over Insert widget A into container B.

   Awkward individuality over faceless consistency.

   Connection over commerce.

   Every link a leap into the unknown.”
Retro Web Corner

“I miss when the internet was a wonderland. I don’t mean that it was
perfect or utopian, because it wasn’t. Of course, neither was
wonderland, when the Queen of Hearts got ahold of you; she was a
master of concern trolling before it really existed. There’s always
been someone in a hurry, who’s running late, but not too late to
tell you tl;dr. There’s always been the already-in-progress party
that only makes sense if you’re already part of it.

What I mean is: I miss rabbit holes.

I miss starting with one site and getting led to more. It used to
happen on personal websites, and then it happened on wordpress
blogs. Sometimes it still happens on blogs or on tumblr, but mostly
services want to keep you in their garden…”

“The truth may or may not be out there, but the web we once knew…
some of it is still there. Some of it can be reclaimed. And some of
it we can rebuild, block by block and snippet by snippet.”

“It’s a sad state of affairs that we’re in – gone are the days of
Web 1.0 where the humble personal blog and the likes of GeoCities
reigned supreme.

Instead we’ve been left with Web 1.0’s rotten remains where
centralisation, monopolies and tracking are the order of the

The rise of social media flipped content creation on its head.
Instead of deliberately creating and editing content for static
sites, people were now empowered to quickly and easily vomit their
passing thoughts out to the world…

Firstly, as with social media, it’s all about money. The humble
personal blog is often left out of search rankings, and is replaced
by corporate entities who have teams of people on-hand that can
manipulate the search rankings to their will.”
–The Web Is Fucked

“What we need is the opposite of Big Tech. We need Small Tech –
everyday tools for everyday people designed to increase human
welfare, not corporate profits.”
–Aral Balkan

“the internet once was a place for creative expression, vastly
customizable; a space for people, by people! not controlled by big

this lasted all up until mid-2010s, when they decided to take away
any creativity and customizability we once had, they threw it all
away, in favor of adverisers and investors. alongside big
corporations, clout-chasers and quasi-celebrities, also made
everything about the money. its the main reason the internet is so
boring nowadays, because if its crazy, weird, and colorful,
advertisers won’t like it. its time for the individuals like you and
me to shine once again, and make internet ours. it’s time to make
internet enjoyable again! it’s time to make internet weird

apparently, nowadays, they’re trying to ‘fix’ the internet by slow
introduction of the ‘decentralized’ internet aka web3.0. which is
bunch of bullshit. they want us to belive this will make internet
free again, cos we’ll be away from corporations. but how can it be
free, when blockchain is involved?”
–Rina’s Fun Place

“As we were exploring the new magic of the internet, we often didn’t
wonder if our fun side projects would make money. Most of us knew
they’d do absolutely nothing. Why make them, then? The act of
creation itself is fun!”
–Bryan Robinson

After these moving statements, I wish I could call for a standing

For those who are interested, I found most of the above
sites from a list of links
to Internet manifestos

Final Words

The battle for the right of individuals to be heard on the Internet
is largely a quiet one. Behind the scenes, governments are
intimidating social media companies into putting in place ever more
onerous moderation. Corporations and large social media platforms
are silently fighting to keep users on their sites using whatever
means they have at their disposal, including addictive algorithms.
They call the contents of personal websites “blog spam” (as if their
own advertisements were not spam) and ban personal website owners
from posting links to articles on their personal websites. They
shut down the accounts of individuals who receive too many
followers, unless those individuals are surreptitiously working for
them as “influencers”. Corporations rig their search engines to
largely ignore personal websites, and they
de-index sites they
especially dislike. They try to prevent users from
exploring the larger Internet beyond their walled gardens by telling
them that non-corporate websites and alternative networks are filled
with hackers, thieves, malware, child pornography, and illegal
drugs. All this occurs largely without the general public having
much more than an inkling that they are being duped.

All indications are that this battle may well last as long as the
Internet. Just like other public movements, the tactics will change
over the years. Both sides will likely advance and be pushed back
at times. The losing side will scream about it, and the winning
side will remain silent. I expect that, as always, many Internet
users will never even know or care. The battle will continue until
perhaps the powers-that-be finally find a way of killing the old
Internet completely and permanently through restrictive website
certification or licensing, the creation of more easily controllable
Internet communications protocols, improved filtering or blocking
technologies, or more effective laws against free speech. Until that
time arrives, you will continue to be able to visit the old
Internet, assuming you know
how to find it.

If you have found this article worthwhile, please share it on your
favorite social media. You will find sharing links at the top of the

Related Articles:

Hunting the Nearly-Invisible Personal Website

Escaping from the Mainstream Internet and Leaving the Web Behind

How to Take Back the Internet by Choosing the Internet Less Traveled

Peer-to-peer Networks will Probably Not Soon Become Internet 3.0

Social Media Sites Undoubtedly have Shared Blacklists, and You may be on One.

Embrace the Splinternet without Flinching

Toward a Technological Cage for the Masses

Seven Reasons for having a Personal Website

Going Dark: Looking for the End of the Internet, Part 1

Going Dark: Looking for the End of the Internet, Part 3: The Gemini Project

Gopherspace in the Year 2020


said on Jan 25th 2022 @ 07:00:02am,

This is a nice post Cheapskate. You are moving toward quiet

optimism. 🙂

You know, more vinyl records are produced today than at any time.

Most people who describe themselves as “music lovers” own an analogue

turntable, CD player, cassette player, DAT or other pre-internet audio

reproduction system. Long after iTunes and Spotify are dead, the world

will be full of robust physical media and serviceable devices for

playing them. Legacy media is expensive, because manufacture of tape,

CDs or mini-discs is a boutique venture, but that hasn’t stopped it.

By this analogy, let’s think about what’s really going on with the

Internet. As you say, the “old” Internet never went away. It has grown

year on year at about the same rate it was growing when the commercial

internet arrived.

The Internet-2.0, what eventually became the unholy, trinity of

“Social Media”, “Big Tech” and “Smartphones“, is a different thing.

It’s inhabited and run by different kinds of people than those who

comprised the early participatory network. They are predators and

prey. It grew so quickly it seems as though it destroyed the old

Internet. That is part of the story it tells itself. In fact it

simply eclipsed the old net, which is not the same thing.

As you say, there will be no “return” to Internet-1.0. and the

corporate internet will get uglier, devoid of mutuality, hate-filled

and ever more infested with sad little authoritarians trying to manage

it and turn it to their ends. Corporate Internet will keep growing

along with all of its arrogance, ignorance and indifference to truth,

humane technology or interpersonal life.

Without contradiction, the old Internet will also continue to grow,

existing largely beneath the interest of the new one. We’ll be left

alone because the gangsters and governments can’t be bothered to make

extra effort while there’s votes and money to be made at the cattle

ranch. The more anybody tries to interfere with the independent,

participatory net, the more it becomes an Ideal, a “movement” even a

“religion”. So don’t poke it if you’re wise.

Our old Internet will take on new guises, but remain a place where

people can post long-form accounts of their mountain hiking, recipes,

poems, stories about their grandmother and things not related to

money, narcissistic vanities, false ideals or creation of false


This will be a slow, quiet opportunity to grow some remarkable

technologies that will outlast the “new Internet” by centuries. Future

technologies to do with pseudonymous but responsible identity,

reputation, support, clean energy use, clear and accessible

information presentation, verifiability, shared ownership and

responsibility for hardware, censorship resistance, resilience

against cult leaders, demagogues, agitators and feudalism, and

projects for stability and long term archiving will grow in this

fertile ground.

All of this will fail in the new internet, because it must happen by

diktat, at enormous scale, in a hostile and ugly environment and for

motives of profit. The new internet must remain shallow, ephemeral and

glib to function at scale.

We may end up with two very distinct cultures or classes in the

digital future. Perhaps we ought to start giving them quite distinct


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“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

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