20 websites that changed the world
10th Oct 2008 | 09:39
Sites that revolutionised the way we lead our lives
20 websites that changed the world
If there was one site that would change the world for ever, it would be the first ever website, created by internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee.
It went online on 6 August 1991 offering people help with using the brand new 'World Wide Web', rather modestly described as a "wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents".
If Berners-Lee had known what was to come, he might have added: "This is going to be awesome!"
Fascinating as it was back then, the web wasn't a whole lot of fun and after four years of pages created by scientists and academics, David Bohnett and John Rezner, who ran a web directory called Beverly Hills Internet, turned their company into GeoCities, giving anyone the ability to create their own site for free.
"There was a time when half the internet seemed to be on GeoCities and I don't think that this can be underestimated," says Rob 'CmdrTaco' Malda, founder of Slashdot. "GeoCities made it possible for anyone to put something online for nothing. This was a huge deal."
GeoCities made it easy for anyone to build their own site, but in August 1999, Blogger made it even easier. Now anyone could post a diary of what they had for dinner or why they hated their parents. Acquired by Google in 2003, Blogger continues to enable everyone to document their lives without needing to get their hands dirty with HTML. As does WordPress, TypePad, Tumblr and a million other services that have since appeared. GeoCities was purchased by Yahoo! in 1999 and lives on as Yahoo! GeoCities, though we've never heard anyone say "Check out my Yahoo! GeoCities page."
One thing that Yahoo! will be remembered for, though, is its search directory, without which most of us would never have found GeoCities in the first place. Founded by Stanford University graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo in January 1994, Yahoo! was a manually compiled directory of sites. "Remember when you bookmarked Yahoo! indexes because they were actually comprehensive sources on a subject?" says Rob Malda. "Good times."
But those good times weren't to last. Computer-compiled search listings from AltaVista and, later, Google, were to rise in popularity, leaving Yahoo! behind, perhaps distracted with building its community features such as chat rooms, email and message boards. "They were an early leader but went down a path of being more marketing- oriented than technology-oriented," says Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. "I hope they recapture the idea of pushing the forefront of technology."
5. The internet-connected coffee machine
When you're chatting with friends on your webcam, who'd have thought you owe all that to a coffee pot? The internet-connected coffee machine from Cambridge University went online in November 1993, so university staff could check on whether there was coffee in the pot before walking down several flights of stairs.
A year later, student Jennifer Ringley installed a webcam in her dorm, giving viewers a regularly updated window into her life on the JenniCam. Usually mundane, but not shying away from appearing nude or having sex, Ringley attracted an estimated three to four million viewers, some of whom were paid subscribers. But on 31 December 2003 Ringley shut her site down to lead a quieter life, out of the public eye.
Cambridge University's coffee machine is also living a more private life these days, but you can read more on its history at www.cl.cam.ac.uk/coffee/coffee.html.
6. Danni's Hard Drive
So the early 90s were an innocent time, but that all changed when, in the spring of 1995, model Danni Ashe created Danni's Hard Drive. Ashe started out in newsgroups after hearing her pictures were being posted there and soon after that she hired some programmers to build her site.
Not satisfied with the result, Ashe studied HTML and built her own site, which she ran single-handedly for over a year before bringing in extra staff. Ashe went on to become the Guinness World Record holder of the title 'Most downloaded woman on the Internet', in December 2000, when it was confirmed that her image had been downloaded over a billion times.
It wasn't just photos that we'd be downloading, though. In 1998, along came MP3.com, without which there would have been no Napster, and no iTunes. MP3.com was to popularise the MP3 format of digital music, offering downloads of unsigned bands, which people would have downloaded and transferred to their iPods, had the iPod actually been around at the time.
"I remember downloading my first few MP3s from MP3.com while ripping my own CDs. It took something like eight hours to rip and encode a single CD," says Slashdot's Rob Malda. "A year or two later, tiny devices like the Rio paved the way for the iPod. I can't tell you how powerful it felt to browse what felt like an infinite number of songs."
In September 1995, programmer Pierre Omidyar founded AuctionWeb, later renamed eBay. It's been responsible for turning stay-at-home mums into successful businesswoman, and lists Damon Albarn, Gordon Ramsay and Meg Matthews among its sellers. It's also known for a decommissioned nuclear bunker and the image of the Virgin Mary in a decade-old toasted cheese sandwich.
Brian Groth, product manager for Windows Live at Microsoft is a fan: "Not many sites can claim to have created and ridden their own zeitgeist, but eBay did – and it still is! Its simplicity is its genius and the feedback system is a shining example of how seamlessly self-regulating internet communities can work. A further testament to its success is that it's the only website on this list that's created a viable new career choice – the professional eBay trader." eBay was ahead of its time, adds Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales. "It really was Web 2.0 before Web 2.0 was cool. eBay is all about having ordinary people contributing the vast majority of what's going on at the website."
Another company that was Web 2.0 before the term was coined is Amazon, founded by Jeff Bezos in 1994. Bezos had originally planned to call the site Cadabra, until in a moment of clarity he realised it sounded uncannily close to 'cadaver'. And so Amazon was born, initially offering books but now selling everything from watches to lawnmowers. Not only did it popularise online shopping but its focus on user reviews paved the way for sites such as TripAdvisor and Epinions.
Match.com's Jason Stockwood says of Amazon: "Many people had huge reservations about using the internet, and even more about ecommerce. Amazon led the charge, and continues to play a crucial role in encouraging a wider demographic to feel comfortable surfing."
Not every site was as successful. Boo.com was set up at the end of 1999 selling branded fashion clothes, but went into receivership just six months later, after burning through more than £100 million. The site was big on Flash, with its 3D views of clothes and virtual shop assistant Miss Boo. 56k modems weren't ready for it and shoppers stayed away in their droves. But perhaps Boo was just before its time: does a 3D view of the product you're browsing really sound so ridiculous now?
Wikipedia, Slashdot, YouTube and more
If Amazon championed user reviews, Wikipedia was to take user-generated content to another level, with an online encyclopedia anyone could edit. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but where errors or downright lies appear, they're quick to be corrected by the site's users. "Yes, the information is imperfect," says Jason Stockwood, "but the rigidly democratic nature of the site means that Wikipedia is a true embodiment of what the internet revolution originally promised."
If you'd rather comment than review, then you owe a debt to Slashdot, a site where people submit news stories for discussion. Created in September 1997 by Rob Malder, it continues to be a must-read destination for anyone interested in technology. Drew Curtis followed up with FARK.com, and Kevin Rose with digg.com. Commenting on stories has become so widespread that it now seems odd to arrive at a site where there are no comments.
13. The Drudge Report
It's hard to believe now, but it used to be that the mainstream media was where you went for serious, trusted news and the web didn't get a look in. But on 17 January 1998 The Drudge Report was to change that, when it broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the public after Newsweek decided not to publish the story.
Reporting on the event on 25 January 1998, BBC News said, in what sounds obvious and naive all these years later, "In the future, academics, politicians and journalists aren't likely to dismiss the internet so quickly."
Now news is regularly broken by specialist blogs before you read about it in the morning paper. That's assuming you even buy a morning paper any more.
And where do you watch your TV? Started in a garage by three former PayPal employees, one site went on to shake up the TV industry, and was acquired by Google for $1.6 billion. All that for a company that's less than four years old. You've probably heard of it: it's called YouTube.
"You used to find a text search result for every keyword you could think of," says Torsten Schuppe, marketing director at eBay. "Now you find a video for every keyword you can think of! I've been told people upload 10 hours of video content every minute – that's huge!"
Until Flash came along in 1996, the web was much like Ceefax, with a few animated GIFs and PC-crashing Java applets thrown in. But the arrival of Flash was to herald a new era in web design. The sign of things to come appeared in 1997 in the form of Gabocorp (archived at thefwa.com/flash10/gabo.html). Suddenly the web was no longer static.
"This was the equivalent of TV going colour," says Rob Ford, founder and principal of Favourite Website Awards. "Gabocorp made us realise we could now make things move, add sound and generally be far more creative than the days of blue hypertext links that turned purple on-click. Animated GIFs took a body blow while lake applets took the knockout punch. Gabo Medoza, for me, is a true web pioneer: we all owe his creativity and vision for where we are today."
16. Legal & General
On the accessibility front, an encouraging early example of accessible web design produced by a commercial company was that of Legal & General.
Julie Howell, director of accessibility at digital agency Fortune Cookie explains: "Legal & General were concerned that their website was needlessly excluding disabled people, so undertook a site refresh that took into account the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0). While the company's main intention was to make the site easier for disabled people to use, the business returns were quite astonishing and proved that accessible design can be good for everyone: conversion increased by 300 per cent, maintenance costs reduced by 66 per cent, natural search listings improved by 50 per cent and page load time reduced by 75 per cent. If Legal & General can do this, what excuse do other companies have for not doing it?"
Free email for all, accessible anywhere – that was the promise of Hotmail. Founded by Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia, it was launched in 1996 and sold to Microsoft in 1997 for around $400 million.
Hotmail helped us keep in touch with people we knew, but Classmates.com, launched in 1995, helped us get back in touch with people we hated at school and never kept in contact with. Four years later, the UK followed suit with Friends Reunited, which made the mistake of charging a fee to get in touch with old school pals. Then Facebook stepped in, offering the same service for free – and now we can all see that the person we fancied at school isn't quite so hot any more.
Having exhausted old school friends for potential mates, where to turn? Match.com opened the entire internet community up for grabs. Going live in 1995, it was the first popular online dating site, and is also notable for being one of the first sites to persuade internet users to part with their cash for a subscription. Today, online dating is rapidly becoming the new, natural way to meet and (hopefully) fall in love.
And finally, if you haven't fallen in love, how about something to hate? In 1994, web magazine HotWired pioneered banner ads. Bastards.
Liked this? Then check out Getting connected: a history of modems
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