The web most miraculous
May 18, 2005 9:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for surprises about the web that few would have expected 10 years ago. Like Google maps, with satellite images. Or that "view your block" option on Amazon. There are indeed many marvelous benefits on the www. What is a most unexpected feature on the web today that would have seemed 'unrealistic' to expect just 10 years ago? I'm looking for the non-obvious.
posted by kk to Computers & Internet (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Blogs. They required no technical wizardry; in fact they would have been an easy application during the early days of mainly-text web sites. The first, RobotWisdom (suspended of late), launched late 1997; the floodgates didn't open until around 2000.
posted by beagle at 10:12 AM on May 18, 2005

Sorry, actually, Jorn seems to have relaunched Robot Wisdom in February, I had not noticed.
posted by beagle at 10:25 AM on May 18, 2005

Online shopping is kind of obvious, but the ability to find very specialized goods online may be a bit more subtle. For instance, I was able to by a heater/ac control assembly online for less than $30 shipped after I struck out at local junkyards (the dealer wanted $300 for a new one).

Expert advice also-- like here at AskMe,, etc. These seem obvious, I suppose, but think back 10 years.

We're not writing your next book for you, are we?
posted by Doohickie at 10:26 AM on May 18, 2005

Hosted applications- from consumer stuff like Flickr and LiveJournal to enterprise ASP stuff like
posted by mkultra at 10:34 AM on May 18, 2005

Being able to order food for delivery with your credit card from your computer, i.e. I still get a kick out of doing that.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:46 AM on May 18, 2005

Being able to order food for delivery with your credit card from your computer

Not unexpected 10 years ago. According to the timeline on this page, Pizza Hut began taking online orders in 1994.
posted by beagle at 10:58 AM on May 18, 2005

The deeply and instantly interactive nature of the internet as it now exists I think would have been a surprise. I'm thinking of stuff like live access to public data, like the census. Also things like hotornot rating type sites where the feedback from other users is instanly available to all.

I think ways in which shopping models differ from physical shopping is a surprise too. I remember how business consultants used to slam amazon for expanding beyond books - the conventional wisdom was that small niche markets would be the way to go. But with advances in searching technology, the amazon brand, for instance, extends *way* beyond books at this point.

I think the spread of porn is not a surprise - from way back when (was danni the first?) it seemed clear that the internet offered privacy and a kind of anonymity that would be ideally suited to porn distribution - cam whores and such kinds of interactivity seemed like very predicatible from the early days.
posted by jasper411 at 11:03 AM on May 18, 2005

I think the idea and runaway success of eBay and other auction sites (and even the end-user=reseller aspect of Amazon) would be the main thing that I didn't foresee a decade ago. Eleven years ago, it was all email, ftp, and usenet for me. By this time in '95, I had my own web site. At that point, I saw the web as a student-only thing, but when I saw the web site go up, I realized online commerce would explode, and the .edu sites would quickly be overrun by the .coms. Online auctions, though, while obvious once someone points it out to you, never would have occurred to me.

Flash would have been unimaginable to me at the time as well. Remember, in May 1995, substituting a gif for a bullet in an unordered list was pretty much cutting edge!
posted by kimota at 11:29 AM on May 18, 2005

Wikipedia, a website that anyone in the world can instantly edit anonymously, becoming one of the eminent reference sources online. It sounds like crazy talk, but it's true. (Still in debate, but give it five years before its reliability is fully established.)
posted by waxpancake at 11:35 AM on May 18, 2005

Pervasive wireless access. Phishing attacks.
posted by Caviar at 11:37 AM on May 18, 2005

The booming online t-shirt market.
posted by rfordh at 11:38 AM on May 18, 2005

The ability to combine Megan's Law databases and Google Maps to show sex offenders in your neighborhood.(haven't seen this yet, but if it's not out there it's only weeks or months away)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:38 AM on May 18, 2005

Oh, and Netflix! What a fantastic idea. Same with the niche followers (Nicheflix, that anime one, Gamefly, the porn rental place...)
posted by rfordh at 11:39 AM on May 18, 2005

Frankly, I don't think any of the stuff already named was unexpected or necessarily even untried. Long before widespread Internet access, there was a Media Lab project (the Aspen Movie Map) to take pictures of every block of a city so that you could navigate it in virtual form--putting something like that on the web would be a no-brainer. In fact, the book "The Media Lab" by Stewart Brand is a good slice of information-technology history. Food purchasing? I remember trying out Peapod to buy groceries in 1991.

Technologically, blogs are a kludge compared to Tim Berners-Lee's original ideas, in which every page is editable directly in the browser. As a cultural phenomenon, though, they probably would be surprising.

What might have been more surprising would be how good Google is. Back in the old days (to use Mark Pilgrim's metaphor), technologists would have expected we'd need "million-dollar markup" to find stuff. Google invented "million-dollar search" that finds useful nuggets in crappy markup.

The intense "parasitic market" -- sites that essentially republish Google links, DMOZ directories, or ebay listings, with a little advertising sprinkled on top, or pagerank gaming, etc -- has been surprising to me, at least, though it might not be to others.

Wikipedia--I'm not surprised it exists, I'm just surprised it's as good as it is.

P2P, both as a technology and a cultural phenomenon, does seem new. It's one of those things that wasn't really feasible to try before there were a huge number of people connected. And the idea behind bittorrent, of uploading a file as you download it to share the load I think is pretty new.
posted by adamrice at 11:47 AM on May 18, 2005

If you're including bad stuff as well as good, I'd say spam. In 1995 you could still put your unmunged email address on a web page--in a mailto: link, even!--without receiving a hundred spams within a week. Perhaps not unforeseen, but unexpected by the average internet user of the time.

Google calculator, perhaps. Not so much that something like that would be unforseeable--probably even in 1995 it would/could have been noted that it wouldn't be that hard to do--but that it would actually be a reasonable alternative (sometimes even more convenient) to using either an actual calculator, or a calculator-type program on your own computer. Perhaps I'm just impressed with it because of my own recent real-world experience. I was browsing around eBay looking at various pieces of tungsten (nearly twice as dense as lead, and about as dense as you can get without getting into precious metals) and was interested in estimating the density of a bar, given the weight and dimensions in the listing, to see if it was reasonable for tungsten. Ten years ago, I would have gotten out my scientific calculator, converted the weight in pounds+ounces to pounds alone, then to kilograms (as I don't have the English-to-metric conversion memorized, and pounds-to-kilograms is the only one already on my calculator), then to grams; convert the dimensions, given in inches, to centimeters; then calculate the density. With Google calculator I just did this (numbers made up; I don't remember the actual numbers)--considerably easier than it was to do it with a calculator.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:27 PM on May 18, 2005

What's the "view your block" option in Amazon?
posted by forallmankind at 12:53 PM on May 18, 2005

Distributed computing.
The original idea that the personal computer would create independence for a user/buyer became inverted when organizations such as SETI or United Devices saw Moore's Law in action and followed ideas set in motion by mainframes. It's another form of "on-line community" except that one does not have to be at a keyboard to participate.
posted by Heatwole at 1:17 PM on May 18, 2005

The fact that I wouldn't bother remembering things because it's easier to Google them than to commit them to memory.
posted by kindall at 1:26 PM on May 18, 2005

Well, it's obvious in retrospect, but I gotta say porn. I mean, I read science fiction up the yin-yang, read all the digital futurist magazines (boy, mondo 2000 seems silly now) and they all talked about how everyone was going to live in this huge age of digital information. Some people talked about cybersex, but it was always this virtual reality kind of thing.

Noone I ever read said that there would be more pictures of people having sex than you thought there were people in the world. That just really boggles the mind. I'm pretty sure the arapnet guys might have traded some dirty jokes, but didn't say "Boys! What we have here is a grade A porn system. Everybody's going to make porn! We'll have porn coming out our damn noses!"

(All puns intentional)
posted by lumpenprole at 1:34 PM on May 18, 2005

Yeah, what is the "view your block" option on Amazon?
posted by louigi at 1:48 PM on May 18, 2005


Go to and type in something logical. It'll show you a picture of the places it finds, and let you "walk up the block." It ain't perfect--not everything is in there, and many pictures of businesses are obscured by passing vehicles, but it's pretty nifty.
posted by adamrice at 2:00 PM on May 18, 2005

The ability to combine not just a Megan's Law database but almost ANY kind of geographic data with the google API to get things like crime statistics, directions, restaurant reviews, rental notices, rainfall and temperature data, house price information ... People find a new use for the google maps tech every week it seems like.
posted by luriete at 2:04 PM on May 18, 2005

All the mashups we've seen lately - via scraped data, or officially distributed APIs, or clever user-side scripting ala Greasemonkey. To me, it feels like the "true spirit" of the web - all the sharing/linking of information - is finally starting to take shape.

Having spent a few years of my web career mired in "brochure-ware" sites, it's been great to experience the overall trend towards functionality and shared databases. There's been a big shift from just "reading stuff" to "doing stuff" online, and I'd say that's where most the surprises have been.
posted by Sangre Azul at 2:48 PM on May 18, 2005

so how to you remember to Google what you can't remember what you can't recall? Not a snark man, just curious over the process of what you think and what you think that you cannot remember.
posted by Heatwole at 3:37 PM on May 18, 2005

so how do you...
posted by Heatwole at 3:41 PM on May 18, 2005

Ask Metafilter is pretty cool.

I'd have to say the biggest revolution to my material quality of life is ebay. And it is a revolution. I now buy with ease the kinds of things I could never find, or never afford before. It's completely changed my consuming, a huge improvement. And that's just half of it.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:44 PM on May 18, 2005

RSS is going to be much more huge than it already is.
posted by ontic at 5:52 PM on May 18, 2005

I still don't know what RSS is... Seriously.
posted by Doohickie at 6:05 PM on May 18, 2005

I'd say just the general ubiquitousness of the internet. Ever simpler devices are becoming internet-connected, even with always-on connections. More and more people have an always on connection available and handy most of their waking hours (at work & at home) and think nothing of googling a question, checking their email, or just surfing whatever - and doing it at anytime. No waiting to connect, no waiting until you get to a computer with a connection - it's near-instant. Back when a computer took 5 minutes to boot, a minute and a half to dial up your ISP, and a minute or two to load any given web page, not to mention common per-minute charges for access, the internet was not used as unthinkingly as it is today. It has become something we take for granted, like television - flip on the tube anytime, and get weather reports, sports scores, whatever - the TV's always on, whether your set is on or not. The internet, of course has always been "always on", but in the last 10 years, we have moved to being always on it. "Everyone" has an internet connection - if not at home, at the library or a friend's house. (Of course this probably isn't statistically true, but walking down the street and talking to people, I think it'd be hard to find many that have never used the internet, or very rarely use it.) "Everyone" has got an email address and/or a webpage and/or a blog. Think of all the aspects of daily life that would be radically different or even non-existent if the internet had never developed beyond what we had in 1995 - a relative handful of websites that were laborious to access. Who knew it would get to be so prevalent?
posted by attercoppe at 6:32 PM on May 18, 2005

I find the stratification of different web user types has become much more apparent to me recently. The amount of change in the browsing experience even in the past couple of years is huge.

High level users - people who use the web with firefox and the greasemonkey plugin to do client side transformations of websites. Also consume many times the average amount of information through RSS feeds. Also, for the vast majority of sites, after a few weeks of putting url patterns into adblock, you can have a 95% ad free browsing experience.

Compare this to the experience of mid level users who have figured out that IE isn't the best thing out there, and compare those with people like my wife's parents who are still browsing the net on an earthlink branded version of IE.

I think browser rewritable web technology is going to get even bigger in the next 3-5 years, with people coming up with all kinds of plugins (ex. scan all web pages for street addresses and automatically rewrite them into a google maps link, or a hovering satellite picture grabbed through googles API).
posted by freshgroundpepper at 1:50 PM on May 19, 2005

I hereby virtually mark all the answers above as fitting and perfect for what I was looking for. Thanks to all.
posted by kk at 6:13 PM on May 20, 2005

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