Scrambling to put together Web sites with no guidelines or precedents, early Web developers tossed together a salad of old-media forms and genres, graphic and interactive design and both esoteric and offhand document organization schemes. In this experimental time, all of today’s principles of cross-platform design and site navigation were devised. “Survival of the hittest” determined what types of sites worked. Universities found the Web an easy and money-saving way to provide information to different groups: prospective students, enrolled students, alumni and others. Hardware vendors such as Dell and Cisco found that Web sites perfectly suited their technically proficient buyers. Even the Web’s losers made interesting advances in interactive design, online writing and business development, some of which were simply before their time. Security First Network Bank launched in 1995 as the first Internet bank, for instance. The vice president of Chase Manhattan’s e-commerce division denounced it as “a dismal failure” in 1998, when it was sold, along with an associated software company, to the Royal Bank of Canada for $29 million. Yet major players like American Express are now starting to offer similar Internet-only banking services.
The innovation that characterized the mid-1990s is a thing of the past. It has been replaced by many different forms of creative development, of course, as designers refine the fundamental advances made during the Web’s early era. But by the end of 1996 the Web’s basic conventions had been established, in only three post-Mosaic years. For the printed book, this early developmental period-in which “incunabula” were printed (and things like page numbers and tables of contents were figured out)-lasted about fifty years.
What has happened to the actual Web pages that were marked up during the Web’s salad days? Some are still around, but for the most part they are changed beyond recognition, and the original versions exist only on some obscure and offline hard disk. The online novels Delirium and As Francesca and the early Web serial The East Village can no longer be seen-and those works were offered on major Web sites whose parent companies are still around. Some concerted attempts are being made to preserve material from this era: The 1996 presidential election Web sites, for instance, are the target of a current Internet Archive project. (That organization also plans to maintain copies of the whole Web, stored at various points in time.) The election sites have popular appeal as candidates for preservation. They’re considered notable by the offline world and are of some importance to this country’s political history. But they’re not relevant to the development of the Web as a medium.
Consider instead the first daily Web magazine, the cranky and crack-joke-filled Suck-an exemplary first-wave site (to which I contributed some pseudonymous items). Suck, which appeared in August 1995, put fresh daily content right on the home page instead of burying it within the site. Each elegantly laid-out column of text tore into many of the day’s sillier Web experiments: Turner Entertainment’s Spiv, Web soap operas like The Spot, the subscriber-based model of Microsoft’s Slate. In the early days, this edgy text was illustrated with images lifted from the sites it panned, presented at a characteristic tilt. Suck’s writers figured out how to use the hypertext medium cleverly. They linked to pages not to refer the reader to further information, but to lampoon absurdities and recontextualize Web pages humorously. For instance, a link to the Netly News (a publication of Time Warner, presented as part of the Pathfinder site) wasn’t there so the reader could actually learn more about some newsworthy topic. It was to point out how the tone and daily release of the Netly News was weakly ripping off the Suck concept.
Suck is still up and twitching. It has gone through expansion and reduction, and been sold twice-first to Wired Digital and then, along with other Wired Digital properties, to Lycos. The original simple and direct design has been made more convoluted by upgrades, but catchy illustrations have been added. The writers now take on a broader range of pop-culture targets, humiliating TV programs and youth subcultures, not just Web sites. The site has stayed irreverent and somewhat relevant, and has not become as thoroughly encrusted with features and rimmed with “portal” links as has most of the Web today. But looking through an early Suck article now reveals the fate of many mid-decade Web pages. The writers, complaining about how stupid and doomed to failure many of the early attempts really were, were largely right. Many witty links are now dead, leaving the wry hypertext without its digital straight man.