The History of the Internet, From MP3s to MySpace Tom

A new online museum explores the digital artifacts that defined the internet’s early days

Old computer
An early Minitel terminal made in France and introduced in the early 1980s Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images

The internet has come a long way since the World Wide Web became publicly available in the 1990s. Now, a new virtual museum with a catalog of 57 “internet artifacts” demonstrates just how far.

Neal Agarwal, a 25-year-old coder known for virtual projects such as The Deep Sea or The Password Game, created the site, which functions as both a history lesson and a memorial to the internet’s early days.

“He is very, very impressive,” Josh Wardle, the creator of Wordle, tells Insider’s Brian Barrett. “There is a joy to his work, and a levity, which I think reflects how Neal sees the world.”

Hampster Dance Artifact
Published in 1998, this Geocities webpage drew 17 million visitors by the end of 1999. Internet Artifacts / Neal Agarwal

Agarwal takes visitors back in time to when the web still felt novel, unexplored and optimistic. One of the featured artifacts is a 1994 Today Show segment in which the bewildered hosts try to understand the mysterious new technology, debating whether the “@” symbol meant “at,” “about” or “around.” 

“What is internet, anyway?” asked co-host Bryant Gumbel. “Do you write to it, like mail?”

Agarwal’s earliest internet artifact is a 1997 map of ARPANET, the internet’s precursor. The site also features important origin stories, such the first recorded use of “LOL” in 1989 or the birth of the emoticon in 1982. (Computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposed using happy and frowny faces to help distinguish between serious and humorous text.)

“When I was just a kid, the internet felt like a Wild West, at least more than it is now,” Agarwal tells Insider. “I would always go down these long rabbit holes. Almost all the sites I visited were by solo creators or small teams of people. It felt like much more of an independent web. As I watched all that go away, I kept feeling that this probably isn’t how it should be. There should be more people creating fun stuff on the web.”

Space Jam Artifact
An early website promoting the 1996 movie Space Jam is featured in Agarwal's collection. Internet Artifacts / Neal Agarwal

For internet users of the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of the selected artifacts will come with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Agarwal spotlights plenty of artifacts from the days when the internet was ruled by Adobe Flash, and viral texts and images spread via word of mouth. The popular Helicopter Game, for example, debuted in 2002. The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny, a parody video and song by Neil Cicierega (also the creator of the Harry Potter Puppet Pals), came out in 2005.

Agarwal’s own internet artifact, the site, launched six years ago. In addition to Internet Artifacts, it is home to a number of games and digital experiences that capture the spirit of the early internet. One tool, Absurd Trolley Problems, encourages users to reflect and vote on the best decisions in a series of ethical scenarios. Another, The Auction Game, allows players to guess the value of various artworks.

The last artifact in Agarwal’s collection dates to 2007, when Steve Jobs stood on stage to introduce the first iPhone. “It forced a redesign of web interfaces to become responsive and minimalistic,” writes Agarwal. “Flash began a slow death as it wasn’t supported. Social media went mobile-first, and became all-encompassing.”

He adds, “An era of the internet had ended, and a new one began.”

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