The Internet (You Know and Love) Turns 20 Today

On November 4, 1994, the first internet marketing conference kicked off in San Francisco. It was more interesting than it sounds.

The modern internet turns twenty years old today.

Though attempting to define the internet is like sailing on a sea of caveats – which is also a decent description of what it feels like to use the internet – November 4, 1994 was undebatably the critical moment in the creation of the ad-driven, social media-centric, porn-loving web you’ve come to know and love. It was on that day that the First Internet Marketing Conference kicked off in San Francisco. And if that doesn’t sound exciting (it doesn’t) keep this in mind: Within the following month, the first commercial web browser was released and the first banner ad was sold. The web moved out of its parents’ house in a hurry.

For a certain Silicon Valley species (the sort of guy who describes himself as a “Founder” on his LinkedIn profile) the keynote speech given by Ken McCarthy, an early email marketer, is a classic of the genre. If you consider that the keynote had not yet become a mainstay of tech events, it’s pretty hard to quibble with that argument – even if the actual substance of the talk now reads as trite. McCarthy’s speech was interesting for two reasons: He became the first person to publicly make the case that content should live online and because he introduced Marc Andreessen, a recent college grad with a brand new company that had just changed its name from Mosaic Communications Corporation to Netscape Communications.

Andreessen, who was about to make a fortune on ur-browser Navigator, spoke in far from grandiose terms as he discussed the business he’d co-founded only months earlier. “We tried not to do two things,” he told the crowd, dozens of marketing and tech types in what would now seem like oddly formal clothing. “Invent anything new; solve any hard problems.” That statement sounds slightly odd, but it has been, in many ways, the governing principle of Silicon Valley for two decades. For every Google – there is one Google – there are thousands and thousands of solution-oriented companies. Andreessen Horowitz, the investment firm Andreessen founded in 2009 with former Opsware CEO Ben Horowitz, has bankrolled a number of them.

But if Andreessen is known for getting in on the ground floor with Airbnb and Lyft and Skype, his business has taken a bit of a turn of late. The most interesting companies he’s currently working with are probably the virtual reality hardware firm Oculus (now owned by Facebook) and Quirky, the crowdsourced invention engine. Neither of those companies are fundamentally about “facilitating communication,” which is pretty much all Andreesen wanted to talk about 20 years ago. Both seek to solve – in vastly different ways – hard problems through the invention of new technologies. 

In other words, 2014 Marc Andreessen and 1994 Marc Andreessen operate in very different ways. That’s no surprise given that they operate in very different worlds, but it’s also indicative of where the future lies. Internet marketing is a thing (witness the advertisements on this site) and Silicon Valley heavies are happy to let the content makers talk about it while they move onto the next opportunity. The fact that Andreessen is helping fund Walker and Company, which makes shaving products for black men, is indicative of the apparent consensus on Sand Hill Road that the internet has realized its potential as an engine of commerce. The future, as predicted in 1994, has happened. Everything old is now again.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that there cannot and will not be a modern analogue to that 1994 conference in San Francisco. The internet did allow for communication and that communication atomized the world, creating technological tribes exploring myriad territories with myriad intents. The future is no longer a cohesive idea. Sometimes, when you’re trying not to “invent anything new,” you do precisely the opposite.

Photos by Netscape / AP Images