If Amazon championed user reviews, Wikipedia was to take user-generated content to another level, with an online encyclopedia anyone could edit. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but where errors or downright lies appear, they're quick to be corrected by the site's users. "Yes, the information is imperfect," says Jason Stockwood, "but the rigidly democratic nature of the site means that Wikipedia is a true embodiment of what the internet revolution originally promised."
If you'd rather comment than review, then you owe a debt to Slashdot, a site where people submit news stories for discussion. Created in September 1997 by Rob Malder, it continues to be a must-read destination for anyone interested in technology. Drew Curtis followed up with FARK.com, and Kevin Rose with digg.com. Commenting on stories has become so widespread that it now seems odd to arrive at a site where there are no comments.
13. The Drudge Report
It's hard to believe now, but it used to be that the mainstream media was where you went for serious, trusted news and the web didn't get a look in. But on 17 January 1998 The Drudge Report was to change that, when it broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the public after Newsweek decided not to publish the story.
Reporting on the event on 25 January 1998, BBC News said, in what sounds obvious and naive all these years later, "In the future, academics, politicians and journalists aren't likely to dismiss the internet so quickly."
Now news is regularly broken by specialist blogs before you read about it in the morning paper. That's assuming you even buy a morning paper any more.
And where do you watch your TV? Started in a garage by three former PayPal employees, one site went on to shake up the TV industry, and was acquired by Google for $1.6 billion. All that for a company that's less than four years old. You've probably heard of it: it's called YouTube.
"You used to find a text search result for every keyword you could think of," says Torsten Schuppe, marketing director at eBay. "Now you find a video for every keyword you can think of! I've been told people upload 10 hours of video content every minute – that's huge!"
Until Flash came along in 1996, the web was much like Ceefax, with a few animated GIFs and PC-crashing Java applets thrown in. But the arrival of Flash was to herald a new era in web design. The sign of things to come appeared in 1997 in the form of Gabocorp (archived at thefwa.com/flash10/gabo.html). Suddenly the web was no longer static.
"This was the equivalent of TV going colour," says Rob Ford, founder and principal of Favourite Website Awards. "Gabocorp made us realise we could now make things move, add sound and generally be far more creative than the days of blue hypertext links that turned purple on-click. Animated GIFs took a body blow while lake applets took the knockout punch. Gabo Medoza, for me, is a true web pioneer: we all owe his creativity and vision for where we are today."
16. Legal & General
On the accessibility front, an encouraging early example of accessible web design produced by a commercial company was that of Legal & General.
Julie Howell, director of accessibility at digital agency Fortune Cookie explains: "Legal & General were concerned that their website was needlessly excluding disabled people, so undertook a site refresh that took into account the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0). While the company's main intention was to make the site easier for disabled people to use, the business returns were quite astonishing and proved that accessible design can be good for everyone: conversion increased by 300 per cent, maintenance costs reduced by 66 per cent, natural search listings improved by 50 per cent and page load time reduced by 75 per cent. If Legal & General can do this, what excuse do other companies have for not doing it?"
Free email for all, accessible anywhere – that was the promise of Hotmail. Founded by Jack Smith and Sabeer Bhatia, it was launched in 1996 and sold to Microsoft in 1997 for around $400 million.
Hotmail helped us keep in touch with people we knew, but Classmates.com, launched in 1995, helped us get back in touch with people we hated at school and never kept in contact with. Four years later, the UK followed suit with Friends Reunited, which made the mistake of charging a fee to get in touch with old school pals. Then Facebook stepped in, offering the same service for free – and now we can all see that the person we fancied at school isn't quite so hot any more.
Having exhausted old school friends for potential mates, where to turn? Match.com opened the entire internet community up for grabs. Going live in 1995, it was the first popular online dating site, and is also notable for being one of the first sites to persuade internet users to part with their cash for a subscription. Today, online dating is rapidly becoming the new, natural way to meet and (hopefully) fall in love.
And finally, if you haven't fallen in love, how about something to hate? In 1994, web magazine HotWired pioneered banner ads. Bastards.
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After watching War Games and Tron more times that is healthy, Paul (Twitter, Google+) took his first steps online via a BBC Micro and acoustic coupler back in 1985, and has been finding excuses to spend the day online ever since. This includes roles editing .net magazine, launching the Official Windows Magazine, and now as Global EiC of TechRadar.