What Is Your Earliest Memory of the Internet?

What is your earliest memory of the internet? The Web Archiving Team and our colleagues in the Digital Content Management Section asked this question during an open house for attendees of the American Library Association’s annual conference, where we had a table set up to share information about our work. As an ice breaker, we asked everyone who visited our table to write down their earliest memory of the internet on yellow post-it notes, and by the end of the night, we had over a hundred. 

Five Library of Congress staff members posing at a table in the Jefferson Building

DCMS members present at the Open House, including (from L-R) Abigail Shelton and Carlyn Osborn representing By the People, Hana Beckerle and Kate Murray representing FADGI, and Lauren Baker representing the Web Archives

The question is a good starting point for thinking about how the internet has a history– chronologically, the answers ranged over fifty years from ARPAnet to YouTube, and the internet that people remember from their childhood or young adult years is often quite different from the internet they use today. The question also revealed the varied ways in which the internet is enmeshed with our personal histories, tied to memories of spending time with family, forming social connections, learning new things, working, and having fun. While the internet is constantly changing, your stories reinforced why it is important that we preserve aspects of our digital past.

We loved hearing your stories, reminiscing and laughing with you. Here are some of the memories people shared with us…

The internet went through many transformations.

Post-it notes from attendees with written responses that include Lynx, Mosaic, Arpanet, Telnet, Usenet, BBS, Prodigy, Dialog, Netscape, and Compuserv.

We were surprised to meet two early adopters of the internet that remembered using Arpanet in the military and at NASA. Arpanet, considered to be the forerunner of the internet, was invented in 1969 by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the United States Department of Defense. Three visitors also remembered using Telnet, which was developed that same year. Other names we heard were Compuserv, Mosaic, Prodigy, Lynx, Bulletin Board System (BBS), and Netscape. How many of those do you remember? 

Many visitors also pointed out that you used to have to go somewhere to use the internet, like the public library, the computer lab at college, or an office building. This is in stark contrast to today, when many people carry smartphones in their pocket and feel that the internet is an almost constant presence in their lives. 

Do you remember when the internet looked like this?

An Interface Message Processor

This Interface Message Processor, the equivalent of today’s routers, was the first node in the ARPANET network. It is now on display at UCLA. Photo credit: Andrew Adams, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Or how about like this?

Bulletin Board System (BBS) displayed on the screen of an Amiga 1000 computer

Bulletin Board System (BBS) on an Amiga 1000. Photo credit: Blake Patterson, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The internet was noisy.

The most common memory, by far, was the shrill, screeching noise of a dial-up modem. In the 1990s and earlier, the internet wasn’t something that you could connect to instantaneously– it required logging in and waiting while your modem dialed another modem over the telephone line. Did you know that the screeches and staticky sounds that followed weren’t just noise? They served a purpose  in communicating data via sound waves that enabled the modems to make a connection. A detailed chart created by programmer Oona Räisänen, breaks down the entire nineteen second process. The sound could be irritating, but for some it now inspires a feeling of nostalgia.

Do you still have the sound of dial-up stuck in your head two decades later? Is there another tech sound you miss hearing? (It might be in the Museum of Endangered Sounds.)

Fifteen post-it notes that describe the sounds of AOL and dial-up internet

The internet required patience– and sometimes negotiation.

Not only did people have to wait to log on to the internet, many people also remembered it taking a long time to load. We heard stories of waiting between fifteen to forty-five minutes to load a webpage or download a single image. Many households only had one phone line to use for dial-up, so people recall getting knocked off the internet when a family member picked up the phone, fighting with brothers and sisters over whose turn it was to use the internet, or having to negotiate with parents who needed to make a phone call. 

Did you ever have an interaction like this one?

Post-it note with text that reads: "Goodbye" - AOL | Me: MOOOOM! | Mom: I HAVE TO USE THE PHONE

Or did you ever make a face like this while waiting forever for a page to load?

Post-it note that reads "Dial-up Internet" and has a sketch of a face with clenched teeth

The internet came in the mail

AOL promotional disc

An AOL CD in the Internet Archive’s collection

Others recall first encountering the internet in the form of AOL free trial floppy discs or, more commonly, CD-ROMs. These promotional discs were part of a direct mail campaign to introduce the internet to a wider audience of people, many of whom had little or no knowledge of what the internet was or what it could do. At a time when people paid for internet usage by the hour, these CD-ROMs offered a number of hours for free, and advertised the internet with lines like, “Hook up to a word of fun and excitement!” The approach worked, as AOL grew from 200,000 accounts to over 22 million, many of them new internet users.

You can view 380 of these discs in the Internet Archive’s AOL CD-ROM Collection. For people who felt bombarded by these discs in the 1990s and probably threw them away a long time ago, it might also be surprising to know that one is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

The internet helped you connect.

For many people, their first memory of the internet was using instant messaging to chat with friends. A lot of visitors remembered AOL Instant Messanger (AIM), introduced in 1997, and a few remembered earlier chat services like Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and ICQ (derived from the phrase “I Seek You”). Instant messenger was a rite of passage for some, as they waited impatiently for their parents to decide they were old enough for an account. Having an account also meant being able to pick a username. Abigail Shelton, a Digital Collection Specialist at the Library, remembered “As silly as it sounds…it seemed like a big and exciting decision–what would you choose? How would you represent yourself in a catchy and clever way?”

Post-it note that reads "Wanting an AIM account in middle school and not being allowed," followed by a frowning face

But the internet didn’t just connect you to friends– our visitors also recalled the internet being a connection between family members. Several people remembered first learning about the internet from a more knowledgeable family member or teaching another family member how to use it. A few also remembered using the internet alongside siblings to do things like play games or look up trivia when there was only one computer with internet access in their home. Also, in one of our favorite memories, a visitor remembered receiving “singing e-greeting cards from grandma.”

Post-it note that reads "singing e-greeting cards from grandma"

The internet helped you to learn–and have fun.

For many, their first memories of the internet involved school, research, or educational activities, like “searching for lizard pictures,” “using [the] ‘Dogpile’ search engine during a Science Olympiad competition,” playing Oregon Trail, or using Encarta Encyclopedia online. Others first encountered the internet in college, before having the internet at home was common. Just as many also used it for fun to play games or to look up information about your favorite television shows. Web Archiving Team member Lauren Baker remembers learning about the internet from her mother, a fellow librarian. She remembered checking out books like The Internet Kids and Family Yellow Pages, to get ideas on sites to visit, and she recalls that the internet seemed much smaller back then– like something you could summarize in a book or track via lists of the “newest websites of the week.”

Post-it notes that include memories of Oregon Trail, Encarta Encyclopedia Online, Dog Pile, Jump-Start games, Library Britannica, and other educational uses of the internet

What’s the first website you remember visiting? Can you find it in our web archives?

For some, the internet has always been a part of their lives.

Some of the younger visitors to our table told us that they didn’t have any defined “earliest memory” of the internet because the internet had always been a part of their lives. And this made us feel very old. 

At the Library, the Web Archives have preserved over two decades of internet history, and we continue adding new content to the collection every month. Reading visitor responses and hearing your stories gave us a new perspective on why the work we are doing to archive the web is important and meaningful. If you want to learn more about why we archive the web, check out “Why Web Archiving?“, a virtual panel the Library held in May. During the event, which you can also watch on video, library subject experts and researchers offer additional reasons for preserving the web and describe how our web archives are created and used.

What about you? What’s your earliest memory of the internet?