20 of the Most Important Moments in Internet History10 min read
The internet is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Believe it or not, it’s been around in the form that we now take for granted since the mid-1980s, and more primitive versions existed for two decades before that. All of which is to say, its evolution, and its ups and downs, are full of some fascinating details, detours, and events. Check out this list of the 20 most important moments in internet history.
1. ARPANET Goes Online (1969)
The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was a precursor to the internet that allowed computers across the country to interact with each other and share information on a single network via telephone lines. It was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense early on, according to History, and was mainly intended for communication within government agencies and universities. On October 29, 1969, the first ARPANET message was sent from a computer at UCLA to one located at Stanford University—well, part of a message, anyway. The computer at UCLA managed to get an “L” and an “O” to Stanford before a bug crashed the network—in a more perfect world, the first message from ARPANET would have been “LOGIN.” Though comparatively simple compared to today’s tech, ARPANET served a purpose until 1990, when it was officially decommissioned.
2. The First “.com” Debuts (1985)
On March 15, 1985, the first .com domain name was registered to a computer company out of Massachusetts named Symbolics. As Venture Beat points out, Symbolics.com planted its flag in the ground a year before HP and IBM and two years before Apple decided to take the .com plunge for themselves. Today, there are well over 150 million .coms registered online. Symbolics went out of business in 1993, but its historic domain has since been purchased and now acts as a quaint online museum dedicated to the history of the internet.
3. The World Wide Web Goes Live (1991)
First proposed by British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 to find a better way for scientists to share data, the World Wide Web is a collection of web pages that are accessible through the network of computers called the internet (World Wide Web and internet aren’t interchangeable terms). To achieve it, Berners-Lee wrote three technologies—URL, HTML, and HTTP—that would help create a user-friendly interface for the internet that allowed it to enter everyday use within two or three years. In 1991, Berners-Lee published the first-ever webpage, which was basically just filled with instructions on how to actually use the World Wide Web. You can still view it here.
4. The First Webcam Is Put to Use (1991)
In 1991, when a group of researchers working in the computer lab at the University of Cambridge wanted a hands-off way to keep track of whether or not the community coffeepot was full, they rigged up a camera to monitor it for them. The rudimentary webcam—along with some programming wizardry—would take three live images of the pot every minute and send the 128×128 grayscale pics to a shared server that all the researchers could access from their computer network. By 1993, as the World Wide Web was beginning to connect the globe, the live coffee pot feed gained its own website, and by 1998, more than 2 million people had visited to see if the researchers were being properly caffeinated. When the live stream was shut down in 2001, it was featured on the front page of The Washington Post. As for the coffee pot itself, it was sold at auction that same year for £3350, or about $4700.
5. AOL Mailed the Internet to People’s Homes (1993)
To get the country hooked on the internet for life, executives at AOL knew they first had to offer a taste to let people know what they were missing. That’s exactly why the company printed untold millions of internet trial CDs starting in 1993, allowing people to go online for hundreds or thousands of hours, free of charge. It was an absolutely massive undertaking by the company—CDs were mailed to homes, included with purchases at Barnes & Noble and Best Buy, and even stuffed into cereal boxes. But despite many of these disks winding up as coasters, Frisbees, or landfill fodder, the campaign helped AOL turn into a $150 billion company with more than 25 million users within a decade.
6. Yahoo! First Exclaimed (1994)
Electrical engineering students Jerry Yang and David Filo created a human-edited web directory they initially dubbed “Jerry and David’s guide to the World Wide Web” in January 1994. Two months later, they shrewdly renamed it “Yahoo,” an abbreviation of “Yet Another Hierarchically Organized Oracle,” and a new way to browse the web was born. Yahoo’s directory offered a hand-chosen list of sites for users to head to, broken down by categories like sports, art, news, and more. In the days when people were feeling their way around the web, Yahoo’s personal touch was invaluable. Though Google firmly rules the roost now, back in 1998, Yahoo’s sites were getting nearly 100 million hits per day as users decided which virtual destinations they wanted to head to next.
7. Hotmail First Ignited (1996)
Billed as one of the world’s first free web-based email providers back in 1996, Hotmail gave users an opportunity to access their inbox anywhere in the world. It wouldn’t be long before Microsoft acquired the company in December 1997 for $400 million—and by 1999, the service registered more than 30 million active members. The brand itself was on borrowed time after the sale, though: By the early 2010s, Hotmail was rebranded as Outlook.com, which now boasts more than 400 million users.
8. Wi-Fi Cut the Cord (1997)
When Wi-Fi first became commercially available to consumers in 1997, it gave people a look at a world without pesky cables tethering them to their modems whenever they wanted to browse the web. Simply put, the technology allows digital devices to exchange data via radio waves, according to Scientific American, and it’s now a standard feature on everything from tablets and phones to video game consoles and robot vacuums. Unsurprisingly, it was Apple that really catapulted Wi-Fi into the public consciousness by using it in their 1999 iBook laptops. (To get a sense of how big this tech was, just listen to the applause Steve Jobs got when he demonstrated wireless internet browsing to a crowd in 1999.)
9. Napster Upended the Music Industry (1999)
The music industry would never again be the same after Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker created Napster, the peer-to-peer internet software that allowed users to share digital audio files for free. Although the company was eventually done in by a plethora of lawsuits over copyright issues, millions of consumers flocked to the service, fundamentally changing the way people valued their favorite music. Physical record sales were forever impacted by the program, but Napster did offer an early blueprint for (legal) digital storefronts like iTunes and Google Music.
10. Wikipedia Started Crowdsourcing (2001)
On January 15, 2001, Wikipedia began as a free online encyclopedia for people looking to research new topics, cram before a big test, or just settle a bar bet. But the very same open-platform nature that allows the information to be accessible for all also means people can add their own revisions and edits to pages, without the rigorous fact-checking you get from a traditional encyclopedia. While it’s credited with helping democratize knowledge, getting a second source for all of that newfound trivia can’t hurt, either.
11. Facebook Launches (2004)
On February 4, 2004, Facebook debuted as Thefacebook, an online directory created by Mark Zuckerberg strictly for Harvard students that became the most powerful social network in the world. Not only has it connected people across the globe and, more importantly, reunited high school friends who share a love for cat videos, but it precipitated an ongoing reckoning about the harmful effects of social media on individuals, politics, and societies around the globe.
12. Google Makes Its Initial Public Offering (2004)
Though other search engines beat it to market, Google has outlasted pretty much all of them, (sorry, Ask Jeeves) and has since morphed into an all-encompassing tech company that includes mapping technology, email systems, a music service, a streaming video game platform, and almost anything else you can imagine. And much of this success can be traced back to the company’s decision to go public on August 19, 2004. Back then, The New York Times wrote that Google was valued at $27 billion—today, the conglomerate (now technically known as Alphabet, Inc.) has a market cap of more than $2 trillion.
13. YouTube Debuts (2005)
If not for the Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake Super Bowl halftime show that culminated in an infamous wardrobe malfunction, we might not have YouTube today. In an interview with USA Today, company co-founder Jawed Karim revealed that this event is partly what spurred a group of ex-Paypal employees to create the video-streaming platform in 2005. Their goal was to allow people to capture and upload moments like that—we’d later call them “viral moments”—and spread them across the web for people to watch without needing a TV. The platform has attracted viewers by the billions in the years since, not just to watch existing content but to create and share their own, eventually prompting an entire generation to turn to their computers instead of other technologies for entertainment, news, and more.
14. ‘Shoes’ Sets the Standard for Shared Videos (2006)
It’s hard to pinpoint the first viral video, but one possibility that gets thrown around is 2006’s comedy sketch “Shoes” by Liam Kyle Sullivan, about a disappointed young woman and her search for footwear. Though it seems almost quaint in comparison to the stuff that gets sent around now, it racked up more than 68 million views on its official channel alone, offering the world a glimpse into the future of overnight viral sensations.
15. Jack Dorsey Sends the First-Ever Tweet (2006)
Uniquely engineered for engagement and use on the go (at least in comparison to Facebook and its predecessor, MySpace), Twitter would change the way we react to world events, both large and small, by enabling us to comment in real-time and eliminating our collective need to “think before we speak.” It simultaneously elevated meme creation to an art form and created a platform to validate everyone’s voice equally, from marginalized communities to hate groups. But before it went on to impact the globe, Twitter—originally known as Twttr—was just in the prototype stage in March 2006 when creator Jack Dorsey sent out the first published tweet, which read: “just setting up my twttr.” A few months later, Twitter launched to the public.
16. Netflix Transitioned to Streaming (2007)
In early 2007, Netflix started offering a small selection of TV shows and movies online for its users to stream straight from their devices, in addition to the DVDs-by-mail rental service that first put the company on the map. Today, Netflix is a full-fledged TV and movie studio with a $300 billion market cap that pumps out original dramas, blockbuster movies, and addictive documentaries that regularly earn critical acclaim and viral clout across social media. The company’s success hasn’t just changed the way we all consume content—it’s altered the direction of studios like Warner Bros., Paramount, and Disney, leading to an influx of competing streaming platforms like HBO Max and Disney+.
17. Apple Releases the iPhone (2007)
Apple’s release of the first iPhone on June 29, 2007, more or less transformed the way we engage with the internet—and everyone else—overnight. Its sleek portability and continuously expanding list of features made it possible to talk, work, shop, and do just about everything else with a swipe of the finger. The iPhone has continued to advance its capabilities with each new iteration, further making the internet something that dominates our moment-to-moment existence.
18. Instagram Forces You to Sign Up for Another Social Media Platform (2010)
By 2010, the social media world had migrated from Friendster to MySpace to Twitter, so Instagram—a new image-based platform co-founded by former Google employee Kevin Systrom—felt like a reduction in services when it launched on October 6, 2010. But in its infancy, Instagram allowed people to share photos (mostly of food and cats) without all of the more detailed interactions of those other platforms, which is probably why it has become one of the most popular social media apps of all time, leading to its $1 billion sale to Facebook in 2012.
19. A Dress Made People Lose Their Minds (2015)
Over the course of two or three days in February 2015, everyone on social media, and then everyone on the planet, saw a photo of a dress that either looked black and blue or white and gold, based on some viral-friendly physiological phenomenon. According to The Guardian, the photo began its life as a simple social post about a dress that a woman in Lancashire, UK, was planning to wear to her daughter’s wedding. Arguments about the color broke out on the wedding participants’ private pages, and the photo soon found its way onto Buzzfeed’s Tumblr page, where more than 25 million people viewed it within 24 hours. And it only got bigger from there. There actually is an explanation behind the color confusion that’s too long to go into here, but the bottom line is that half of the world thought that dress was white and gold, and those people were wrong.
20. Pokemon Go Annoys People IRL (2016)
Building on the premise of the long-running animated series, gaming company Niantic created Pokémon Go using augmented reality that placed the iconic Pokémon into the real world (viewed through a smartphone) for players to capture as they went about their daily business. Faster than you can say “Pac Man fever,” this became everyone’s obsession, whether they were taking the dog for a walk or coming home from work. Within a month of its July 6, 2016, release, the app had been downloaded 100 million times, on its way to grossing around $950 million in revenue by year’s end. It also became a shared experience, with fans taking to social media to share Pokémon gym locations and organize meet-ups for in-game events (though there are some places you definitely shouldn’t play it).