The State of Digital Communication 20 Years After the Web Exploded

After years of wondering where it went, there buried in a tub of old papers in my basement, I unearthed a once-prized graphical map to the digital frontier as it existed 20 years ago.

Unfolding the poster-sized 1995 map of the then-nascent World Wide Web, I am instructed to “Just rev up your modem and pick your destination.”

Looking over the map once more, I realized its time-frozen simplicity allowed me to bulldoze away the avalanche of digital information and new technologies that have buried us during the past 20 years to see the long-since paved dusty digital trails that remain today.

Organized along category-based trails like Business & Finance, Government & Law and Education, Travel & Leisure, the map caused me to consider as a professional communicator how far we have come in just 20 years and how much of society must still accept and adapt to how digital and interconnected the world has become.

Map of the World Wide Web in 1995 Source: PC/Computing Magazine

Image: Map of the World Wide Web in 1995. Source: PC/Computing Magazine

To take stock of where we were just two decades ago and where we are today, consider:

Question: How many websites were there globally on the World Wide Web 20 years ago?

Answer: Roughly 2,700 websites by the end of 1994

Question: How many websites are there today?

Answer: About 1 billion websites (Yes, billion!)

Then consider this:

Question: What percentage of the world’s population used the Internet 20 years ago?

Answer: Less than one-tenth of 1% (.08%)

Question: What percentage of the world’s population uses the Internet today?

Answer: More than 40% (40.4%)

Now think where the pioneering organizations and digital trailblazers, highlighted below, have gone since 1995 when these now humorous blurbs were attached to the map produced by PC/Computing magazine (closed in 2002).

  • Citibank – “Large technology-oriented bank features Web site to support its high-tech reputation. Much of the site is under construction, but it looks extremely promising.”
  • Apple – “Apple has had an educational gopher site for quite a while, but its Web site is growing more quickly. It even addresses the issue of Mac evangelism.”
  • Microsoft – “Microsoft was late in coming to the Internet party, but it has dedicated a nice bit of Bill’s pocket change to making its Web site sing. Really ugly graphics, but good material”
  • PCTravel – “The first service on the Internet that lets you reserve and buy tickets although it works as a TELENET link out of this Web site. Still very useful.”

Consider that in the same year of the map’s release, Amazon.com opened for business by billing itself as the “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” with a website that looked more like a book report by today’s standards. Yahoo and eBay also were both launched in 1995.

The birth of Google was still two years away and Wikipedia did not come into existence until six years later.

And while social media conversations existed in a basic form through computer bulletin boards accessible through Internet Service Providers (ISPs), YouTube would not be launched for another 10 years.

I can still hear the whirring sounds and feel the emotional shock I experienced at the size of the huge phone bills I accumulated in the early 1990s exploring the digital frontier from the remote reaches of West Central Florida where I was an early practitioner of what we then called computer-assisted reporting, later known as online journalism. When working in the newly-opened digital world, I was a curious and somewhat computer savvy 20-something journalist armed with by-the-minute dial-up access, a phone modem and a computer. I loved my Gophers and FTP sites, and eventually my Netscape browser and WebCrawler and AltaVista search engines that turned the digital frontier into an explorer’s wonderland.

The World Wide Web Then vs. Now

Today, the online journalism I practiced while helping launch one of the first newspaper websites in 1995 is evolving into content marketing/brand journalism. This trend is being driven by the growing number of companies and organizations seeking to connect with audiences more directly. These institutions are forming their own open and closed digital networks by becoming their own digital publishers.

This is a result of the world being digitally connected 24/7 and almost anyone having the power to instantaneously search for “Google” or “Wikipedia” information. And even if the answer happens to be in a foreign language, we can still get a rough idea of what it means with just a few clicks.

Still, despite this evolution in communications, far too many companies, organizations and institutions continue to communicate by relying on a largely analog mindset that existed in 1995. As a result, they continue to fall further behind in a world where paternalistic-based communication (developed using an analog-based mindset pushed to the masses) grows less and less effective. The digital frontier has evolved and along with it the way society organizes and communicates.

What has occurred is not unlike how pioneer settlers evolved their habits from initially going to bustling cities to stock up on supplies to then relying on new settlers to serve individual communities through local shops. As time progressed, the goods and services went directly to the settlers rather the settlers going to the goods and services.

Think about it this way: In the developing digital world of 1995, you were called upon as an Internet pioneer to set up an outpost on the digital frontier and wait for settlers (audience) to discover the right path on the frontier and eventually pass by. In contrast, today, you must take your company or organization’s brand and message to where the settlers (audience) are congregating, because those once-digital frontier outposts have grown into full-fledged communities of the like-minded who now enjoy traveling and congregating in the same communities and along the same digital roads and networks to obtain what they require.

Similar to the days when settlers moved west to find a home, caution must be taken when venturing into unknown communities – or digital technologies – to find an audience. You must take steps to protect your image and reputation. Like anyone venturing to places unknown, companies and organizations must realize that there are rules of etiquette and engagement that should be followed if you are to be accepted.

Back in 1995, the digital frontier was largely a journey undertaken by Americans following American customs of communication.

Today, in a world with more than 7.2 billion people in it, more than 90% of all Internet users today live outside the United States. More than 20% of all Internet users today – 642 million of them — call China home, while just 9.6% of them – 280 million – hail from the United States.

Bottom line: You can no longer just put a stake in the ground and expect the world to find your outpost along some digital trail. The masses who have settled the digital frontier during the past 20 years no longer come to you for what they need. Instead, they expect you to go to them offering something they want.

Companies, organizations and institutions should recognize that this is the digital world that now must be travailed and communicated. The time has come to saddle up, seek out those settlers (audience), build relationships and provide them with a reason they should invite you into their communities.

Below is a list of some best practice examples where companies and organizations have ventured beyond their frontier outposts to engage with their audiences across the business, non-profit and government sectors:

The digital map may be a bit more complicated to read than 20 years ago, but there are many more people out there today like our team at Lumentus who have been on the digital trail for a while and are only a click away from being able to help guide institutions and individuals in need of assistance safely forward onto the right paths they must travel to reach the places they want to go.