The Data Explosion | The History of the Internet, Part 3

The Data Explosion | The History of the Internet, Part 3

Giant companies like Google and Facebook and
Amazon dominate today’s internet, with hands in just about everything you can do online
— from search, to advertising, to storage. And love them or hate them, those companies’
websites get more than six hundred million visitors a year, with hundreds of millions
more seeing their ads or using their apps. But it wasn’t always like this. We last left our history of the internet series
in the mid-nineties, when the U.S. government had just given up control of the internet
that they’d been in charge of since 1969, and Tim Berners-Lee’s World-Wide Web was
starting to get popular. The internet was finally open to the public,
and it seemed like a new frontier where anything was possible. Just twenty years later, the internet is an
essential piece of the modern world, with the public side mostly commanded by a few
powerful companies. Getting from then to now took a little bit
of economics, a lot of fast computers, and a couple of fundamental changes in what we
expect when we come online. With society still figuring out how it feels
about that last one. The Web of the mid- to late-nineties was a
little bit like the Wild West. It was a huge new world of people and companies
popping up everywhere you looked, and it seemed like there was plenty of room for everyone
to have a piece of the pie. Rich investors started piling money into companies
without worrying about whether they were making a profit — or even whether they had many
customers. They figured that on the internet, old rules
for being cautious about investing in young companies didn’t apply any more, and that
all anyone with a good idea needed was enough money to reach an audience. But the honeymoon didn’t last, and what’s
known as the dot-com bubble started bursting in March of 2000. Stocks in tech companies plummeted for the
next couple years, and over half of them declared bankruptcy, eventually losing trillions of
dollars in total. And while stocks were falling, a couple famous
court cases against Microsoft and the music-downloading service Napster put new boundaries on what
companies could do with the internet. Napster had been one of the fastest-growing
businesses in history, but it went bankrupt paying back musicians for copyright infringement. And Microsoft narrowly avoided being broken
up after violating antitrust laws. The internet might’ve been a whole new world
back then, but the turbulent early 2000s left a tamer, steadier Web in its wake, where a
few well-run companies could quietly become empires. One of the dot-com bubble’s casualties was
GeoCities, one of the first social networking sites. Today’s Web is flooded with social networking:
Just about every website constantly encourages everyone to use their personal profiles and
share everything they see with everyone they know. But things were different back in 1994, when
GeoCities first came online. The first websites mostly had a clear divide
between creators and users. Creators — well, created. They wrote the computer code and assembled
the different documents and files and hyperlinks and pictures that made the website what it
was. The users just visited the website and looked
at whatever the creators had put on there. But GeoCities worked on a different model. Anyone and everyone could make a GeoCities
account and create their own website, with all their own stuff and formatting and backgrounds
and interests. GeoCities mixed together users and creators,
because everyone with an account was both at the same time. Users could also send each other messages
and join communities — or “neighborhoods” — of pages with similar topics and interests,
creating whole sections of the site that focused on just about everything imaginable. Its nineteen million users made GeoCities
the third-most popular site on the Web in 1999, behind AOL and Yahoo!. Yahoo! bought GeoCities that year for 3.6
billion dollars, but it fell on hard times after the dot-com bubble burst and never managed
to regain its former glory. Yahoo! finally shut down most of GeoCities
back in 2009, when it had long-since been surpassed by other sites that took the idea
of social networking and ran with it. Now, we’ve spent a lot of time in these
last couple videos talking about things you might never have heard of unless you worked
with them directly: ARPANET, TCP/IP, CompuServe — all that stuff. But GeoCities gave way to some sites that
pretty much everyone recognizes, whether you used them or not. Friendster launched in 2002, giving each user
their own profile and a way of seeing different networks of friends on the site. It quickly became enormously popular, with
three million accounts in its first three months. But it was plagued by technical troubles,
and after only a couple of years, it had fewer users than MySpace, which was itself passed
in 2008 by a blue-themed site started in a Harvard dorm. You … might’ve heard of it. Facebook now has almost two billion active
users, and that number just keeps going up. But it’s far from the only social networking
site out there. There’s Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn,
YouTube — and that’s not even counting all the Disqus comments sections and Digg
share buttons and WordPress blogs sprinkled all over the Web. All those sites, big or small, are descended
from GeoCities: the first site to mix users and creators in a completely new way of using
the internet. Most people still used dial-up to get online
in the heydays of GeoCities and Friendster. But by the time Myspace took over around 2005,
there was something new on the market. Instead of using dial-up, most people had
switched over to broadband. See, dial-up has a built-in speed limit. Because of how phone lines were made, the
fastest dial-up connection could only receive or transmit about 56 kilobits per second. That’s 56,000 ones and zeros in or out of
the computer every second. Which might sound like a lot, but on dial-up,
downloading a single song off Napster would take about ten minutes, even at top speed. And downloading a whole movie could take days. Even just loading a site with a few images
took forever. So once the internet started getting more
popular, companies came up with better ways of getting online that weren’t so limited. Like DSL, which transmits digital data along
phone lines instead of analog signals like dial-up does; and cable, which uses the wires
for a cable box to connect to the internet. These and a bunch of others all came to be
known as broadband, which is really just a broad term — get it? — for all the ways
of getting online that aren’t dial-up. Depending on the type of broadband, the connections
can be tens or hundreds or even thousands of times faster than dial-up is. People started using broadband in the early
2000s, and in 2005 it overtook dial-up for the most popular way Americans got online. With more people on faster connections, it
wasn’t as big a deal for sites to have a bunch of images, or even video. But all the data on those sites needed to
be stored somewhere. Another legacy of the dot-com bubble is the
place of data centers in today’s internet, where hundreds of computers work together
for a single company to give users a better, faster experience. The earliest computers could be big enough
to take up entire rooms, but those dedicated computer rooms stuck around in a lot of places
even as computers got smaller and faster. Eventually, they’d have something like ten
computers in them, all connected together to act like one big computer with the combined
speed and memory of all ten. These computer rooms or even computer buildings
became known as data centers, and lots of tech companies had them in the eighties. But a lot of companies would also rent computers
in a data center nearby. And that model became really popular as the
dot-com bubble inflated. Lots of those startups needed computer space
to store all their data, and computer speed to handle all the users on their websites
— at least, the lucky ones who had lots of data and users. And data centers were perfect for the job. Instead of owning, powering, cooling, and
maintaining your own computers, and reliably connecting all of them together and to the
internet, you could just pay a data center to do it all for you. And even after a lot of those startups went
bankrupt, data centers held onto their role in handling a lot of the traffic for the big
Web companies. Today’s websites have more than a hundred
and fifty times as much data on them as they did in 1995, and a lot of that information
comes from rooms or buildings or whole complexes full of computers. After all, Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t keep
everyone’s Facebook status on his own personal computer. They’re on an army of Facebook’s computers
that are all working together — and the same goes for Google, or Amazon, or your bank,
or your email provider, or even your college. Today’s Web relies on these huge collections
of computers to work like we all expect it to. And with all that speed and storage available,
today’s websites can do things they couldn’t dream of in 1995. Just think about going on a site like YouTube. Even if you’re not signed in, you’re the
only one in the world who sees that exact YouTube homepage, with those exact recommended
videos. Because no one’s watched the same videos
you have, in the same order, for the same amount of time, from the same places in the
world — all stuff that YouTube uses to choose what to recommend. Or think about Facebook, where it seems like
you only ever see pictures of weddings and babies and puppies instead of the hundred
other status updates people have posted. Or when you see banner ads everywhere for
products you were just looking at on Amazon. Just about everywhere on the Web has this
sort of algorithmic filtering, where the website decides what you’re probably interested
in and shows you more stuff like that. This is somewhere else those data centers
come in. They don’t just store all the website’s
data; they run special programs to look through that data and use information that they have
saved about you to decide what you want to see next. Sometimes, that might be a video that has
four views but is exactly the sort of video you’d like to see. And sometimes, it’s the kind of Facebook
status that gets lots of likes and comments, like wedding and baby photos. And in a lot of ways, this is great. I mean, who hasn’t binge-watched YouTube
when those recommended videos are just what you’re looking for, and who doesn’t love
pictures of babies and puppies? But just like any technology, there are tradeoffs
to this new responsive Web. Facebook ran a study on some of its users
and found that what people see on their News Feeds can strongly affect their moods, which
means that algorithms are helping determine how we feel about the world without us even
knowing it. And figuring out what you want to see can
involve tracking you around the internet. So a lot of people are worried about their
privacy — especially because some companies aren’t shy about selling what they learn
about people to the highest bidder. And it can seem like every day there’s another
news story about governments tracking people around the internet in a similar way. Or maybe it seems like there’s never a story
about government tracking. Whatever the algorithm decides to show you. ….Which just about brings us to the present. In fifty years, the internet’s grown from
four computers to billions, and from the western United States onto every continent and even
into outer space. But it’s still pretty new, and it’s still
evolving. No one knows what pieces of today’s internet
are going to keep being central to the story when we look back in a few decades — or
in a few centuries. Will it be remembered for all the amazing
communities who do things like the Project for Awesome, where millions of dollars are
raised by people who just want to decrease worldsuck? Or will today’s communities and social networks
fade into the footnotes to bigger stories about privacy concerns and government influence? Ultimately, it’s up to us. The citizens of the internet get to decide
what our priorities are, and we get to choose what kind of internet we want to be a part
of — now and in the future. Because it might not be the Wild West anymore,
but the largest collection of knowledge and ability in human history is still just getting
going. Thanks for joining us on our journey through
the history of the internet! This mini-series wouldn’t have been possible
without our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, just
go to And don’t forget to go to
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14 thoughts on “The Data Explosion | The History of the Internet, Part 3

  1. This is the thing which helps me escape from the guilt of wasting time watching cat videos on youtube🤣🤣🤣🤣😂😂😂😂

  2. this guys appearance distracted me and i didnt learn anything the first few minutes.
    who looks in the mirror and says "yeah this is the look im going for, this shirt looks good, my hair is sick, my "beard" is nice"

  3. Cool show. How about doing a story on the Real History of online video – nearly a decade before youtube.

  4. Good content. I am surprised that AOL was not mentioned. It had a huge impact on people connecting to the internet for the first time; myself included.

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