The internet turns 30 today. Or does it? We take a look back at how we went from Cold War military secrets to cat pics on your phone.

This blog post is meant to mark the thirtieth birthday of The Internet as we know it. But since The Internet loves to point out inaccuracies, ineptitude, and incidents of foot-in-mouth, let’s get something out of the way.

You won’t have a hard time finding plenty of people who claim that The Internet was born on March 12, 1989. You also won’t have a hard time finding people who claim those people are wrong. (And there you have it — the story of the internet.)

This blog post isn’t taking sides because, as you’ll soon see, both sides are both correct and wrong, and both sides win and lose. (Insert obligatory Al Gore reference here.)

tl;dr: This isn’t the article that’s going to make everyone agree on things that don’t actually matter. So either way, happy birthday, The Internet! We got you yet another listicle.

Without further ado, here are a few important historical milestones that show how the internet has shaped the world.


1. The Cold War Communication Plan That Launched a Trillion Cat Videos

30 Years of the World Wide Web — An Origin Story — Cold War Communication Plan
Image via roompoetliar.

The Internet was born on March 12, 1989. Just kidding. The internet goes even further back, to a Cold War USA that, technologically speaking, was falling behind the Sputnik-launching USSR. According to History.com, the U.S. government tasked the proto-geeks of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to create a computer-based communication method that could keep government leaders in communication should Soviet nukes destroy the nation’s telephone system.

In 1969, the first computer-to-computer message (“LOGIN”) was sent across the government’s new high-tech connected network, the ARPAnet. The network crashed immediately. (Leading to another important milestone: the first use of the phrase, “I don’t know, maybe turn it off and on again?”)

By the end of the 1970s, university and government networks all over the world had become connected by the ARPAnet.

Fun Fact: It was during this early era of “Wow, these technological breakthroughs are amazing” that the first spam email was sent by a marketing guy named Gary Thuerk. Thanks a ton, Gary.


2. The Tangled Web Is Weaved. Woven? Anyway, Here’s the World Wide Web.

30 Years of the World Wide Web — An Origin Story — The Tangled Web
Image via RRice

The Internet was born on March 12, 1989. Just kidding. That’s actually the day the World Wide Web was born. Except not really. It’s more accurate to say that March 12, 1989 was the day the concept of the internet as we know it — the World Wide Web — was first introduced.

As reported by The Washington Post, March 12, 1989 is the day when British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote a paper titled “Information Management: A Proposal.” With a title like that, I’m sure you’ve already opened another tab to read it immediately. If not, spoiler alert: Berners-Lee basically spelled out the ins and outs of the World Wide Web as it exists today. The Washington Post explains it a little better: “It basically laid out the structure and theory of the Web as we use it now” (emphasis mine).

But in this case, all this birthday stuff rings false. As the writer says, “The World Wide Web (and its predecessor, the Internet) evolved over a series of years — and over a wide, dispersed network that included thousands of computer scientists and engineers.”

Fun Fact: The World Wide Web’s first website went live in 1991. The World Wide Web’s second website followed soon after.


3. E-commerce: Finally, a Way to Shop for Pants While Not Wearing Pants

30 Years of the World Wide Web — An Origin Story — E-commerce
Image via Ryan DeBerardinis.

The very first secure online retail transaction involved something called a “compact audio disc.”

On August 12, 1994, The New York Times explained the milestone: “At noon yesterday, Phil Brandenberger . . . went shopping for a compact audio disk, paid for it with his credit card and made history. From his work station in Philadelphia, Mr. Brandenburger logged onto the computer in Nashua, and used a secret code to send his Visa credit card number to pay $12.48, plus shipping costs, for the compact disk Ten Summoners’ Tales by the rock musician Sting.”

Indeed, the mid-’90s was a banner era for e-commerce — and not only because the first banner ad introduced the world to paid online advertising. It was in 1994 that young Jeff Bezos traded his Wall Street job for life in Washington state and founded Cadabra, Inc. in his garage.

According to Inc.com, when Bezos read a report that projected a 2,300 percent growth in web commerce, he researched twenty retail markets primed for disruption by e-commerce before opening “Earth’s biggest bookstore.” It was around this time that Bezos changed his company’s name to Amazon.

Plenty of additional e-commerce stalwarts found their way online in the mid-’90s, including eBay and Craigslist in 1995.

Fun Fact: In 1994, the Yahoo web portal launched under its first name — Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.


4. Social Media: All You All the Time

30 Years of the World Wide Web — An Origin Story — Social Media
Image via Katjabakurova.

The internet was first described to me in the ’90s as “a stadium full of filing cabinets that are full of filing cabinets full of everything about everything.” That was a compelling description to a kid known to spend hours rereading the family encyclopedia set.

While the filing cabinets are still there, they’re now buried beneath a massive steaming pile of, well, you and all the things you share, like, steal, hate, join, and block.

Depending on where you rank on the Clint Eastwood Curmudgeon Scale, social media is either an amazing tool for delightful personal contributions to the zeitgeist or pure unfiltered narcissistic noise. One thing is certain — it isn’t going anywhere. But where did it begin?

We’re going to skip over the earliest social stuff like bulletin board systems and chat rooms, and jump to the 1997 launch of a social network called Six Degrees. As detailed in a 1998 Dallas Morning News piece, “With an architecture that builds ever-widening rings of business and social associations, Six Degrees allows users to exchange information with a growing database of more than 1 million people worldwide.”

While the following info might seem a little “Okay, and . . . ?” at first, it’s important (and quaint) to keep in mind that this was all groundbreaking stuff at the time.

According to founder Andrew Weinreich, a Six Degrees membership included “No-charge bulletin boards, e-mail service, and online messaging for those who fill out a brief information form and list e-mail addresses for 10 friends, relatives or business associates. They comprise your first degree. The entire Six Degrees network of people is the sixth degree.”

Weinreich spelled it out, “We know networking works between people. We’re just making it more efficient.” While Six Degrees didn’t change the world, Weinreich certainly wasn’t wrong about what social media and networking would eventually become: “You can get a movie review from Siskel and Ebert, but wouldn’t you rather hear it from friends you trust?”

At its peak, Six Degrees employed roughly 100 people in NYC, and boasted more than 3 million users. YouthStream Media Networks purchased the site in 1999 for $125 million.

Fun Fact: Shockingly, it looks like you can still sign up to become a Six Degrees member! (Uh, you go first.)


And there you have it. The story of “30 years” of The Internet on The Internet. Probably on your phone. And we didn’t even get to phones. Or Napster. Or Netflix. Or the all-seeing Zuckerberg. Or Star Wars Prequel Memes. Or “You’ve got mail.” Or . . . You know what? It’s fine. Just keep scrolling, clicking, liking, subscribing, etc.

(And if you think we all need a few more memes, ads, and apps, we got you covered. Advanced search filters, a powerful mobile app with on-the-go creativity, next-gen “composition aware” search, our Adobe plugin that instantly connects you to the entire Shutterstock library — these are just a few of the things we’ve brought to The Internet recently. And for a bit of inspiration, check out this year’s creative trends.)

We’ll see you at 40.


Cover image via Alex Kednert (From “Yesterday’s Tomorrow“).