Mind-Numbing Titillation to Speedy Web Mail
A nation turned its lonely eyes to Jennifer Ringley and watched, stupefied. Oddpost made the experience of using a Web-based mail system feel as fast and efficient as working with a desktop app. Here are four more milestones in the development of the Web.
11. Candid Camera
For more than seven years, Jennifer Ringley trained the unblinking eye of a Webcam on her life--first as a free art project, later charging subscriptions of US$15 a year to cover bandwidth costs for the site's 20 million visitors. Though she occasionally appeared in the nude and had sex on camera, the content tended to be less pornography than a window on a tedious round of unexceptional experiences shared with everyone.
(Ironically, the once extremely public Ringley is now something of a recluse; e-mail messages we sent to her last known address went unreturned.)
But JenniCam paved the way both for a burgeoning X-rated cam industry and an entire generation of Web exhibitionists (see MySpace.com). It turned Orwell's notion of Big Brother on its ear: Instead of a government spying on us, we'd spy on each other (and maybe make a few bucks along the way). Reality TV shows like The Real World, Survivor, and Big Brother and viral video sites like YouTube owe a debt to Jennifer Ringley, who at least for a while made the mundane day-to-dayness of her life seem fascinating.
10. You and 3,255,620 of Your Closest Friends
MySpace is huge and Facebook is the flavor of the month, but neither of them--nor the gazillion other social networks that have sprouted up like kudzu--would be here if it weren't for Friendster. Opening its digital doors to the public in March 2003, the site was the first to reveal the interconnections between its users.
Founder Jonathan Abrams says he came up with the idea for Friendster after being put off by the creepy anonymity of online dating sites. "I wanted a different kind of online experience that would integrate the online and offline worlds and bring your real-life social context with you onto the Web, something where you could network with people like we do in real life," he writes in an e-mail missive.
The idea caught fire. By July 2003, Friendster had over 1 million users. But connecting the dots between that many people brought the site to a virtual standstill, and Friendster was soon surpassed by more-nimble competitors. A series of bad business decisions didn't help. The story of Friendster became a textbook case of how not to manage a startup.
Ironically, Friendster is enjoying something of a comeback, riding the social networking wave that it helped create. In addition, Abrams has launched Socializr, a site that helps people plan social events in the real world instead of merely the virtual one.
9. Act Globally, Think Locally
Like many seminal Web events, Craigslist started out as a quirky side project seemingly devoid of commercial possibilities. In March 1995, Craig Newmark quit his job as a software architect for Charles Schwab in San Francisco and started a mailing list where subscribers could share information about interesting cultural events in the Bay Area.
"I was reflecting on how much people helped each other out on the Net, in those days, on the WELL and usenet news groups," he says via e-mail. As the list grew, people began posting messages looking for apartments, jobs, and other topics. In October of that year, Craig turned his private list into a public Web site at Cnewmark.com.
In September 1997, Craig's list became Craigslist.org. In early 1998, the site began charging a nominal fee for job listings (though the vast majority of ads remain free), and in 1999 Craigslist.org incorporated and began paying its employees.
Today, there are 450 local versions of Craigslist in 50 countries, and more than 25 million people visit them each month. The service has been credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) with taking the classified ad market away from established newspapers. But Craigslist's greatest contribution may be in proving that, like politics, the greatest global movements are always local.
8. Odd Pioneers
In 2003 anyone who used Hotmail or Yahoo Mail probably had a desktop e-mail program as well. That's because using Web mail services was torturous. Making any change to your inbox--such as filing a message in a folder or deleting spam--required lots of clicks and a round trip to the service's servers, while you drummed your fingers and waited.
Oddpost managed to make a Web mail service feel as if it were running on your hard drive. You could drag and drop message files to organize your inbox and preview messages instantly. Yahoo liked it so much that it bought the company and used the technology as the basis for its new mail service.
Oddpost powerfully illustrated what could be done within a browser, and soon that kind of functionality (based on programming platforms like AJAX and Ruby on Rails) began showing up in Web-based word processors, spreadsheets, photo editors, and pretty much anything else a venture capitalist could shake a few million dollars at.