Writing for Slate, Jack Schafer describes "How Newspapers Tried to Invent the Web But Failed." You new kids should read it carefully. Then get off my lawn.
Schafer, who reveals he was offered a job at the Washington Post's first online service but "turned the job down because I had no idea what job was being offered to me," concludes that "From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions."
That's close, but not quite right. Many of us in the 1993-1995 era loudly declared (mostly to ourselves) that we absolutely, positively were not going to do that. And then we did it anyway, because it was who we were. Human mothers don't give birth to alien babies except on the Sci-Fi channel. It took newcomers to create the real Web. So "sought to" isn't the right language, but ultimately it didn't matter.
I was at the Star Tribune back then, and we built our pre-Web service on the Interchange platform along with the Washington Post, the Ziff-Davis magazines (which had started the project), and a couple of assorted others including the Gartner Group. Interchange was a stunning piece of work. It had precise layout control through a combination of SGML, templates and stylesheets. It had awesome forums, the best I've ever used. You could use it offline and sync periodically with the service. It was a Macintosh-like experience, all thoroughly and brilliantly planned and then locked down. (It also crashed regularly. We named one of our office goldfish General Protection Failure.)
We tried to open it up. We worked with several community organizations -- charities, nonprofits, churches -- and gave them tools and training to run their own areas on our platform. But they didn't create the future, either. The future gets created by individuals full of fire and passion, not institutions.
Then came the technology shift. I remember a quote from Scott Kurnit, who at the time was Prodigy's VP/marketing: "OK open systems beat great closed systems every time." And he was right more quickly than anybody had expected, because we all bailed from Interchange just months after launching it. While we were building Star Tribune Online, we went from one or two to about a hundred local mom-and-pop Internet service providers. We tried to convert STO into an ISP, running Netscape on top of the Interchange client, but it was too late.
The Web had arrived, pathetic and weak but open and extensible.
Many of us who were there at the time knew that human interaction, not newspaper reading, would be the most powerful motivator of online usage. Certainly I knew it; I had run a dialup bulletin board for years as a hobby. But as hundreds of newspapers rushed to "go online," few even bothered to ask basic questions about content strategy. It was, many declared as of they were saying something wise, "just another edition."
But it's not.