The Web at 25: How it changed my life

Do you remember the first time you saw the World Wide Web? I do, and it changed my life.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Web, or at least Tim Berners-Lee’s initial proposal for it. In that spirit, many folks have been reminiscing about the early days of the Web and speculating on its future.

For me, my first encounter with the Web was in January 1995  in a classroom University of Missouri. I was using an IBM computer that was running OS/2, the now defunct operating system. I don’t know exactly what site I surfed to first, but it was probably the university’s home page or that of its journalism school, whose computer I was using.

At the time, I had just begun a master’s program at the school. After taking a year off after graduating from college trying to figure out what I was going to do next, I had settled on journalism, specifically broadcast journalism. It seemed the best match for my interests: writing, public speaking, ongoing learning and interacting with others. But after seeing the Web, I knew that what I wanted to be was not a broadcast journalist, but a Web journalist, whatever that was going to be.

I had heard about the Web before I arrived in Missouri. Newsweek had sometime before then started running a feature that highlighted and gave the addresses to cool new Web sites. America Online, of which I was a subscriber, had come out with a Web browser add-on for its service. Although I tried to download it, I couldn’t get it to work.

So, when I saw that the Missouri computers already had Web browsers running on them, I was eager to see what there was to see. And it was a revelation.

I had been on the Internet before then. These days, we tend to conflate the Web and the Internet, because most of what we do online these days we do through a Web browser. But there’s a lot more to the Internet than just the Web. And in those days, most of it was text-based, difficult to use and ugly. I had an email account through my college as an undergradaute and hated to use it, because you had to type in arcane text commands to access your account or to check or respond to messages.

That’s why I used AOL at the time. It was easy to use and graphical; while the Internet looked like a 1980s DOS computer, AOL looked and worked like a Mac or Windows 95. I was convinced at the time that the Internet would never take off until it became as easy to use as AOL.

And then I saw the Web. By the time I saw it, it had already embraced pictures and graphics. And while the Web addresses were often difficult to type or remember, it was often easy to use, thanks to the back and forward buttons, hypertext links and bookmarks. I loved looking up the sites promoted by Newsweek or just surfing around. I discovered Yahoo soon after logging on and used its directory — which is what it was at the time, a directory of Web sites — to find links to lots of other information. I was entranced.

It was clear to me that I was seeing the early days of a whole new medium. It was like the early days of radio or television.  I decided then and there that I wanted to be a part of exploring what it was going to mean to be a journalist in this new venue. And I wasn’t the only one; there were a whole group of us at Missouri immediately before, during and after that time who wanted to become Web journalism pioneers. One of them, Meredith Artley, is now the managing editor of CNN Digital. Another, Bob Sullivan, had a long career as a reporter for MSNBC.com and is now a successful book author.

Like some of my colleagues, my encounter with the early Web led me to design my own course of study, taking every class I could think of that might prepare me to work as an online journalist — newswriting, copy editing, magazine writing, graphics, photojournalism, multimedia production (think interactive CDs — this was the 1990s) and digital journalism. It also led me to numerous online journalism projects and internships; in my case I worked on the online version of the schools’ newspaper, called the Digital Missourian; worked on a project that Microsoft had on campus that became the foundation for MSN, the company’s answer to AOL; and worked on side online projects for the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

All that work led me out here. While friends who were graduating from journalism school with specialties in newspaper writing or television reporting were going to publications or stations in small towns in places like Alabama or Kansas, folks who knew something about Web journalism were in high demand. I had my choice of either Chicago or the Bay Area. I chose here and haven’t looked back since.

Although I no longer work solely online — I am a “newspaper” reporter, after all — my job today incorporates many of the things I explored in journalism school. I write stories (like this one) that are intended for an online audience. I link to other articles and other online sources to amplify my stories. My stories often include pictures and videos, some of which I take or edit myself.

In short, I’m doing what I prepared to do in journalism school. And I started down that road thanks to an encounter with the Web more than 19 years ago.

I can truly say that I wouldn’t be where I am today if that hadn’t happened.

How about you? When did you first encounter the Web, and what effect did it have on you? I’d love to hear your stories.

Screen shot of the University of Missouri’s home page, circa 1996, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (274 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.