30 Years Later: A Look at the Phenomenon That Made the Internet

I remember sometime in the mid-90s, though I can’t remember exactly when, a friend of mine telling us about his uncle’s new business. It was a hot dog joint – dogs, burgers, fries, gyros, the works – that was going to be called Hotdogs.com. It wasn’t an online business, it wasn’t an internet cafe/restaurant, and, indeed, it didn’t even have a website. But the uncle thought this was going to be huge. He was capitalizing on the internet craze and assumed that people would associate the name with something cool and pick his place over the thousand other similar places. As my friend told it, the main concession other than the name would be that “the decor would be cyber, somehow.”

Obviously, this was laughable then and seems awesomely ridiculous now, when we look back at a time when the internet was becoming ubiquitous and changing our lives while still remaining a source of curiosity, with some people even thinking it was a fad.  Hucksters and grimy businesspeople assumed that summoning up its name was enough to latch onto it and ride the wave. It was the peak of the DotCom Bubble, the heady days before the crash. Like most phenomenons, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Here, 30 years after the first dotcom was registered, we look at how it shaped the web and our commerce.

The internet before the first dotcom
Back when these were the only connections, dotcoms weren’t needed. The explosive growth of the internet was based largely on dotcoms. Image from Wikimedia Commons

1985: The Very First Dotcom

In 1985, a company called Symbolics, which was unsurprisingly a computer company (out of Massachusetts), registered itself through a new process and took the domain name symbolics.com. It is a mark of how the internet has distorted our sense of time that 1985, in internet terms, seems impossibly long ago, while at the same time it seems incredible that we didn’t have a dotcom until then.

Of course, that didn’t do them much good right away. The final restrictions on commercial use of the internet weren’t lifted until 1991, and that’s when things really began to kick off. The transition from ARPANET to the Internet as we know it today was essentially complete in 1995, and that’s when it seemed like the idea of being online really began to seep into people’s consciousness. That’s when companies began touting that you could find them on the web, although it was still secondary to phone numbers. In retrospect, the amazing thing is that it wasn’t inevitable that all businesses would seek an online presence.

EDUs to $$$s

There’s a way to talk about history called “teleology”, which is essentially the idea that there is a path – spiritual, moral, or whatever – that history has been progressing down, and we are at the end of it. It also dovetails with the idea that progress was inevitable, and because we are at a point, it could never have been any other way. We sometimes look at tech history this way and think, “Of course dotcoms would dominate the internet!”

But if you were looking at this in 1985, or even in 1995, that wasn’t as obvious. The internet was a place for science and research, and .edu was the dominant surname. Indeed, the governing ethos of the time was, well, an ethos free of governance or of corporate domination. The web was going to be a place where ideas were asserted and commercialism was to be shunned. Dotcoms changed that.

Now, of course, we see the internet as many things – a place to learn and a place to shop, often in the same axis. There are so many domain options signifying so many things, from location to entertainment. It isn’t fair to say whether it is good or bad, and I tend to think it is both, and that it will sort itself out on the side of good. What we have to remember is that we are barely at the beginning of the internet revolution and that 1985, while it seems part of the murkiest and atavistic analog past, is barely yesterday.

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