25 years

4 minutes estimated reading time

March 1998 – 25 years ago

My consumer internet usage goes back 25 years as a celebratory email reminded me in my Yahoo! account earlier this year.

25th Yahooversary

had started using the internet back in early 1994. I had access to email whilst working as a research technician for Corning in their optical fibre manufacturing business. The account was for solely for professional reasons (for the most part).

After Corning, I went to college and had access to the web for the first time. At that time, people in my year and the year above me mostly didn’t bother with the internet. I had found it useful for getting Mac software and researching material for college essays.

I set up an Excite.com webmail account before leaving college, but it wasn’t that reliable. In the immediate aftermath of leaving college I worked long hours for the first few months in the call centre at MBNA the credit card company. So a rare day off was spent catching up on sleep or catching a video from the local Blockbuster store.

Coffee, cake and email

Over time, I got a temporary role in their marketing department. I was writing sales scripts for payment protection insurance and keeping a tally on salesperson performance. This meant that I moved to a role that was more 9 to 5 and I could start looking for my first career role. I even got to go shopping for sports cars that we were given away to the top performing sales person.

(Aside: The Lotus Espirit Turbo and TVR Griffith were unpleasant driving experiences; the Toyota Celica GT-Four ST205 and fourth generation Toyota Supra were great cars to drive.)

Yahoo in 1998
What Yahoo! looked like in early 1998, about the time when I set up my email account.

So one wet Saturday morning in March I set up a Yahoo! account in a cyber cafe around the corner from James Street station in Liverpool. I had found the address for Café Internet on North John Street in the Yellow Pages directory – there were only a couple of cyber cafes at the time in the Merseyside area and this one was the easiest to get to. Of course that would all change a year later with the launch of the easy group’s easyInternetCafe chain.

(Aside: in the process of writing this article I found out that Café Internet was the first cybercafe in the North West of England, originally opened in 1995.)

The connection that I enjoyed at Cafe Internet was slow and expensive.

I had a weekly ritual of working during the week and then heading over to Liverpool on Saturday morning to do a bit of record shopping, check my email and apply to jobs with some of the best coffee and carrot cake available at the time. I used to bring my emails that I needed to send, pre-written up a floppy disk as plain text files, along with a copy of CV to send as an attachment for jobs.

Eventually, I got my friend Andy online with his first email account and showed him the basics of web browsing. I don’t drink and we got accustomed to doing a spot of web surfing with good coffee and carrot cake prior to going window shopping in Liverpool city centre while chatting about everything and nothing. While we were online this was 25 years ago, so there was no UK e-commerce beyond shareware software on Tucows, so going shopping was not ironic.

My front door to the web

Yahoo! and other web portals like Lycos and Excite borrowed design cues from a newspaper page with their multiple columns of news snippets, horoscopes and weather forecasts. But it lacked the salacious content and gaslighting of the modern web.

Yahoo in 1998

My job search weekly cycle

Week day evening: Monday looking at The Guardian for marketing jobs. At the time The Guardian was a good source of entry level agency roles. Thursday meant going through Campaign and PRWeek. By going through, I mean looking at their print copies.

The library had a network that allowed PCs to do printing to a laser printer. In addition there were terminals that the librarians used to arrange inter-library deliveries. This ran on a command line interface connecting to a common database shared by all Wirral libraries. So my job search was analogue.

Saturday morning: over to Liverpool to check for email responses and send new applications in.

Given that most people applying for the jobs would be sending applications through via post, using email even on a weekly provided me with an advantage as a job seeker.

The internet in print

Given that it was expensive to get online. I spent more time reading MacWorld, Byte magazine and Wired magazine talking about online life than I spent online at the time. I noted down websites to check out next time I visited the cyber cafe, after I had sent my emails.

My internet consumption mirrored a wider consumer patten 25 years ago, many people were excited by the idea of the internet before they had managed to get online. Getting online would follow a year or two later, partly due to the heavy direct mail campaign by early ISPs including AOL and CompuServe who sent CD-ROM discs to my parents every six weeks.

Even by pre-internet standards that was a direct mail campaign of unprecedented scale.