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MapQuest, Chat Rooms, Encarta: Reddit Users Remember the 'Ancient' Internet

Newsweek 3/14/2022 Nick Mordowanec
The internet of 20-plus years ago was like a different world than what people are used to today. Reddit users recalled what made the web both adventurous but also a slog. © iStock/Getty Images The internet of 20-plus years ago was like a different world than what people are used to today. Reddit users recalled what made the web both adventurous but also a slog.

If you're a millennial or older, you recall the days of the Internet that included dial-up modems, AOL chat rooms, or printing directions to reach your destination.

A recent Reddit thread including over 41,000 comments explored the "ancient" days of the online world, where things were, frankly, different than "the urban sprawl" of today's digital age, as one user described.

AOL, or America Online, was prevalent in the thread's responses. It was nearly impossible to be an adult or child in the 1990s and not remember installing the AOL 4.0 disc on your desktop computer, or receiving discs in the mail offering 500 free hours of internet usage to get users hooked on the concept.


One would eventually hear various robot noises as your phone line was used to "dial in" to a web service that looked synonymous for everyone. But in 1998 you couldn't connect if someone was using the phone, so households were often full of arguments over who could be online and when and how long.

"When I set up our internet for the first time mid 90s I accidentally had it calling a long distance number," one user said. "Dad received a phone bill for $2800. We no longer had the internet in our house after that."

Successful users were greeted with a cheery message of "You've Got Mail!" prior to jumping into chat rooms full of strangers from around the world. Reddit users recalled how chat rooms contained ubiquitous messages that read "A/S/L," asking other users for their age, sex and location.

If users weren't booted from the capped chat rooms for inactivity by a moderator, they saw messages that were akin to the modern-day version of "trolling."

"Going into AOL chat rooms and saying, "Hey! They put a fireworks show into the chat! Hold Alt and hit F4 and you'll see it!" one user said. "Then watching as, one-by-one, chat room participants disappeared."

And if you actually wanted to visit websites, users had to type in the entire web URL, including "www" at the beginning of the web address or the site wouldn't load. That's a practice that has faded into obscurity the past decade.

If you did reach your virtual destination, it was often a barebones-style webpage on Angelfire or Geocities with simple text and little-to-know interactivity. The sites often included guestbooks for users to say they stopped by, as well as web counters that showed how many users overall had visited the site since its inception.

"I was taught in school that you could check the credibility of a website based on the counter," one Redditor said.

Not every website was a breeze to navigate, either, because pop-ups were everywhere and programs didn't exist to stop them. Early users of the internet recall loading a webpage and being bombarded with so many pop-ups it was lucky if your computer with little RAM didn't freeze.

Wikipedia didn't exist, but Microsoft Encarta was, and it was everywhere. It was a digital multimedia encyclopedia—and an online subscription was necessary. Users inserted discs into the CD-ROM to learn languages or other content in interactive ways. Microsoft eventually made the full content library available to subscribers in 2000, only for Wikipedia to blow it out of the water about a year later.

"I loved encarta," one Redditor said. "We didnt have internet until 2003 so me and my brother were mostly using the computer to play AoE, making pixel art in Paint and reading Encarta. Occasionally our dad gave us CDs with demos."

Before Google or Quora, people opted to "Ask Jeeves" for help. Instead of looking at memes on Reddit, people visited Ebaum's World or Newgrounds to play games or access soundboards. When downloading music became ubiquitous, everyone and their friends had Napster, Kazaa or Limewire programs that (illegally) downloaded music that was played on Windows Media Player, Winamp or Real Player—the latter of which seemed impossible to uninstall.

And if you were a kid in the 90's, you most likely saw at least one of your parents carrying sheets of printed directions from MapQuest for a car trip to an unknown destination. Google Maps and car GPS were still years away.

"Idk how my parents' marriage survived the time my mom dropped the stack of directions printed from MapQuest on the passenger floorboards and got it all out of order," one user said.

In a bridge from the past to the present, initial Gmail users had to be invited to even have the opportunity to create their personal email addresses. There were only a finite number of invites available when Gmail launched April 1, 2004, so users had to pick and choose who would usher in the internet's new frontier.

"I remember getting in a fight with my then boyfriend because he wasn't sure if I was worthy of one of his gmail invites," a Redditor recalled. "He's long gone but still using that account."

Gmail has over 1.8 billion users today and counting, according to Tech Jury.

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