This is the Modem World: The internet used to be better

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

This is the Modem World The internet used to be better

Back in the ’90s — before many of you were born — the internet was much better than it is today. I’m only halfway kidding, too. Let me explain.

At the time, we were sure anything was possible. We were also pretty stupid. We launched sites that just sold socks. Others sold balls. Social networking was just something we did — we didn’t need a site or a name for it. We were happy to go out at night and create real-life memes over drinks regarding the 2-minute video that took all afternoon to download.

Every site was new and fresh and daring. Two of the most shameless sites of the time introduced something that I am afraid we will never get back. Those sites were Kozmo.com and Urbanfetch.com. Some of you will remember them fondly. Others might recognize the names. Others, well, sit down and listen to a story of yesteryear when unicorns roamed the earth and virtually anything was available to your door within an hour at any hour.

Both Kozmo and Urbanfetch — we’re still not really sure which one came first — would deliver items to your place within an hour. If they didn’t get it to you within an hour, you got a discount or a gift certificate code. You could rent a DVD that was returnable to any mailbox-like receptacle on street corners. You could order a pint of ice cream that came sealed in its own freezer bag. You could order a stereo and make some poor soul carry it up five flights to your walk-up apartment on the Lower East Side. You could order a case of beer.

And we did.

Oh, how we did.

We ordered frozen pizzas in the afternoon, shampoo at midnight and boxes of fresh coffee in the morning. We were crazy addicts, sucking at the teat of ridiculous convenience. We were sure this was the future. We didn’t step inside real stores. Who needed real stores when it all came to you?

And then it all ended. Someone realized that selling stuff at a discount, warehousing it, paying couriers to carry it around major cities and doing it at little to no cost to the consumer wasn’t a very sustainable business plan.

The first few months without our citywide concierge services were rough. We were incredibly spoiled by the whole thing, and walking into regular drug stores to buy cold medicine felt foreign, ancient and wrong.

We didn’t know it then, but we had emerged from the magical era of the internet and into the rational, present one filled with marketers, social networking experts, advertising schemas that made money and business plans that placed a premium on profitability rather than straight-up awesome. The sorcerers were gone, replaced by search engines and cookies.

Some other reasons the internet was better:

  1. Not everyone was on it. While there were plenty of trolls and not-so-smart people already, there was a certain headiness to it all. Maybe it was pretentious — who knows — but there was a lot more interesting experimentation going on. Sites like Word.com, Charged.com, Suck.com and Slate.com were changing the way we were entertained.
  2. There was no social networking. Your high school friends weren’t online, weren’t posting pictures of their children and weren’t announcing their relationship status.
  3. It was slow. As much as we love instant streaming video, the slowness of the internet forced people to return to the real world and find other forms of interaction.
  4. Cool Site of the Day. The internet was so small that we looked to this one DJ-like site to tell us what was new and noteworthy. It was exciting, surprising and sometimes amazing.
  5. It was innocent. The world was still super optimistic, the economy was irrationally on fire and criminals hadn’t yet realized that the internet was a great place to do all sorts of nasty things.

Yes, it was a silly era, and yes, it had to end. But we enjoyed it while we could, and someone out there like me still keeps a Kozmo bag in the back of a closet just for memories. And because it’s great for picnics.


Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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