Farhad Manjoo remembers the unrecognizable Internet of 1996:
It's 1996, and you're bored. What do you do? If you're one of the lucky people with an AOL account, you probably do the same thing you'd do in 2009: Go online. Crank up your modem, wait 20 seconds as you log in, and there you are – "Welcome." You check your mail, then spend a few minutes chatting with your AOL buddies about which of you has the funniest screen name (you win, pimpodayear94).
Then you load up Internet Explorer, AOL's default Web browser. Now what? There's no YouTube, Digg, Huffington Post, or Gawker. There's no Google, Twitter, Facebook, or Wikipedia. A few newspapers and magazines have begun to put their articles online – you can visit the New York Times or Time – and there are a handful of new Web-only publications, including Feed, HotWired, Salon, Suck, Urban Desires, Word, and, launched in June, Slate. But these sites aren't very big, and they don't hold your interest for long. People still refer to the new medium by its full name – the World Wide Web – and although you sometimes find interesting stuff here, you're constantly struck by how little there is to do. You rarely linger on the Web; your computer takes about 30 seconds to load each page, and, hey, you're paying for the Internet by the hour. Plus, you're tying up the phone line. Ten minutes after you log in, you shut down your modem. You've got other things to do – after all, a new episode of Seinfeld is on. [...]
Repeat after me: the Web is not the Internet, dammit!
I know Usenet is a backwater nowadays, but there was no shortage of extremely lively and entertaining user-generated content and community activity to be found in newsgroups in the early- and mid-1990s. Even better (in those days of priced-by-the-minute internet access), it was pretty straightforward to jump online, batch download updates to your favourite newsgroups, then go offline to read new posts and compose replies before going back online for a couple of minutes to upload your newsgroup posts and responses.
Apart from ignoring Usenet, I think Manjoo mistakes a lack of medium-to-large-scale media sites for a lack of interesting online activity. Quite apart from the volume of text-based activity going on over email and Usenet and even gopherspace, there were likes of the (Cardiff) Internet Movie Database and web hosts like Geocities, all providing online spaces for users to publish and organise content.
There's no question that there's a lot more content online nowadays, much of it (courtesy of widespread takeup of broadband) in multimedia formats that would have overwhelmed our puny 28Kbps modems back in 1996, but there was no shortage of worthwhile content online in the mid-1990s. By 1996 the days when one person could keep up with Usenet were already long gone.