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When the Web Was Young

In the beginning there was text:3 the line mode browser.4 It has a black screen with green text (Figure 1.1). You know, it was the kind of program hackers use in the movies.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 The line mode browser as re-created in 2013.

The line mode browser supported basic formatting such as indentation, centering, and the like, but that was about it. But it didn’t matter. It was 1990. The Web was an infant and was all about publishing and reading text-based content, so it didn’t need to look pretty.

By the time I got online five years later, things were a bit different. The National Center for Supercomputing Application’s Mosaic had brought the graphical side of the Web to the masses two years earlier, and Netscape’s Navigator was already a year old.5

But my experience of the Web in 1995 was not graphical. I was attending New College in Sarasota, Florida, and had to dial in to the campus’s server in order to access the Internet. It was all done over the command line, and I saw my first website—sony.com—in stark black and white (Figure 1.2).

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2 My best approximation of what I saw the first time I used Lynx to access sony.com: a black screen with white text saying nothing.

I thought to myself This web thing is bullshit! and quickly disconnected my modem in disgust.

You know what? I was right: That experience was bullshit! Here was a website whose purpose was to disseminate information about Sony products and musicians and it had—effectively—no content. In other words, its purpose was lost.

How did this happen? Well, the folks who designed that version of sony.com had used images instead of actual page content. All the page text was rendered in JPEGs and GIFs. When they assembled the images onto the page, they failed to author alt text that provided access to that content. Anyone who couldn’t partake of what I’m sure was the pinnacle of mid–1990s web design was pretty much screwed.

And so there I was, taking my first tentative steps onto the Web and I was denied access to a site because the technology I was using to access it was not advanced enough. I felt like the short kid at the amusement park, feigning disinterest in the Tilt-a-Whirl because I was the only one of my friends who was too small to ride it.

And just like my childhood height, my browser choice was not something I had control over. I couldn’t have just downloaded Mosaic or bought a copy of Netscape at my local Babbage’s and been on my merry way. Our school’s server didn’t support Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) at the time, so I could browse only on the command line via Lynx.

That experience colored my perception of the Web and has stuck with me ever since, guiding my decisions as a web designer. I always think about my experience and the lack of accessibility the Web—well, sony.com specifically—had for me at the time. It sucked. I never want to make someone else feel like that.

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