21st: What's new is old

A time capsule from the Web's infancy offers intimations of technological mortality.

By Andrew Leonard

Published March 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Once upon a time, a geek named Martijn Koster posted the takeout menu for his favorite Indian restaurant on a personal Web page -- and the world took notice. Of course, this was back in the summer of 1993, and the world -- or at least the part of the world on the Web -- was a good deal smaller then.

Today, the Web is famous for its boundless wealth of irrelevant and useless information. But in July 1993, when the number of Internet-connected computers capable of delivering Web pages totaled mere hundreds, any addition to the Web's corpus of knowledge was deemed a major event. Koster's takeout menu was soon memorialized in the Web's first chronicle of record -- the NCSA What's New list.

The NCSA (the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is the birthplace of the Mosaic Web browser, the single piece of software most responsible for initiating the Web era. The What's New list -- which was originally Mosaic programmer Marc Andreessen's bookmark list -- documents the first baby steps of that era. As a primitive community bulletin board, it exerts a strange fascination. Amid dry accounts of a university here or a laboratory there converting Gopher menus or ftp servers into Web sites, the budding Web archaeologist can discover outbursts of adolescent glee at the signs of a brand new thing being born -- at being witness to the creation.

Treating the What's New archives as fossils waiting for Web paleontologists' perusal may seem a bit silly. After all, 1993, rationally speaking, just isn't that long ago. The Clinton presidency had just begun and "Seinfeld" had already been on the air for four seasons. A child born in the summer of 1993 isn't even in kindergarten yet.

But archaeology is not as ludicrous a parallel as it may sound: A review of these pages does conjure up a kind of lost world. The What's New archives are not simply an account of the beginning of the Web -- they're also testament to the fundamental impermanence of cyberspace.

The first thing one notices as one scrolls through the months following the debut of the What's New list in June 1993 is the barely submerged exultation of its contributors. I personally did not begin checking into the What's New list until March 1994, but even still, I can well remember the kind of wet-behind-the-ears puppyishness that would consider the simple posting of a cartoon a "major breakthrough for the Web." Or that wouldn't blink at taking the time to announce that the frequently-asked-question file for alt.fan.blues.brothers had been converted to hypertext.

Following close on the heels of newfound Web-making glee is a pervasive sense of surprise at how fast the Web became more than just another toy for the online cognoscenti. The webmasters (a title that no one bore at the time) at Carnegie-Mellon and UC-Berkeley and MIT simply had no idea that their geekly exploits would end up enjoying such massive crossover appeal.

But the numbers soon told the story. As documented in the What's New list, the Web Wanderer robot operated by MIT undergraduate Matthew Gray charted an astonishing growth rate. In June, the bot counted no more than 100 Web servers. By November, the number was up to about 600, and then in January 1994, 2000. Two years later, the number was 200,000.

"Maintaining this list is a full-time job," wrote Andreessen on the What's New list for Dec. 10, 1993. A few weeks later, Andreessen left the University of Illinois for the warmer environs of Silicon Valley. You couldn't ask for a better metaphor of what was happening to cyberspace that Christmas: Andreessen was leaving college early to go pro.

The historical importance of the What's New archives has not been ignored, either by the online press or by the rest of Web. At least 20 sites around the world now mirror the archives of the What's New pages. But while the pages themselves appear set to live forever, the information contained therein has lost a good deal of its original luster. The vast majority of links presented in the What's New archives are broken.

That's not to say everything is gone. On the Web, URLs change all the time, but much information still remains the same. The cartoon that Andreessen crowed over, Doctor Fun, is still on the Web, for example, even if it has moved around more than once.

But much is lost. On Oct. 21, 1993, Andreessen reported breathlessly that GNN (the Global Network Navigator, the Web's first real magazine) "scooped" the print world with its report of Rep. Ed Markey's announcement that the "SEC's EDGAR Database is coming to the Internet." And, of course, there was the pointer for all the world to follow.

That was a moment of true historical significance -- the first online news scoop. Unfortunately, GNN no longer exists. After being sold to America Online by its creator, computer book publisher O'Reilly & Associates, GNN was eventually shut down, the victim of AOL's ever-changing business model. And GNN's founder, Dale Dougherty, says that as far as he knows, no online-accessible copies exist.

GNN's role in the birth of the Web is usually ignored. As just one part of that role, GNN bought the What's New list from the NCSA and began selling advertising on it -- a true "major breakthrough for the Web." The gap created by its absence -- and by extension, the gap created by all the many absences so poignantly documented by the chain of broken What's New URLs -- demonstrates just how flimsy the fabric of Web history is. What does it mean to maintain multiple copies of a set of pointers to nowhere?

Martijn Koster's menu is no longer anywhere to be found, either. Koster, who jumped on the Web bandwagon early while working as a programmer for the British software company NEXOR, moved to San Francisco in 1995 to work on the Webcrawler search engine.

I can understand why he may have thought that a takeout menu for a local Indian restaurant in England lost its relevance to his life and his Web pages. But I still miss it. I miss it because I miss the heady days of the Web's infancy. And I miss it because I miss all that is being lost, every day, as data is deleted or forgotten or unplugged.

But then again, if I'm hungering for Indian restaurant info, I just have to thank my lucky stars that I'm alive in 1998, and not struggling through the empty waters of the ancient Web. There was a reason for all that glee, after all. For starters, I now have access to scads of Indian restaurant information (at least here in the U.S.): All I have to do is point my browser at the Indian Restaurants Web site.

That's right -- more information than I could want or use. So what else is new?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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