How did a food blog shaped the way we use the internet?

When Epicurious launched in 1995, there were few websites on the Information Superhighway where you could find recipes for chocolate cake and shrimp scampi. There were very few websites, period. The Internet was an infant, crawling ever so slowly (remember dial up?) into our lives.

Jump forward two decades, and my, how things have changed. Epicurious is thriving, and so much faster, too. The site turns 20 this week, which in Internet years makes it old enough to get an AARP membership card in the mail.

But as they say, with age comes wisdom, or at least some hard-earned lessons. Epicurious just published a massive oral history of its origin story, and it offers some fantastic When I was your age moments that remind us of what life was like on the Internet in the mid-90s. Which is to say barely working, and a little lawless. As Kevin Slavin, a first-hire designer at the online magazine and now a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, remembers it, “It was clear, not in a bad way, that nobody knew what they were doing, including me. We were going to make this up.”

That uncertainty was in many ways a blessing. Without a definitive guidebook dictating how to design for the web, Slavin and his colleagues (including art director Mark Michaelson) were more or less free to create a website from scratch, exactly the way they wanted to. It’s a freedom echoed in other accounts of the early web: With no rules to abide by, you made them up as you went along. With that in mind, I sifted through Epicurious’ oral history to reveal some of the most enlightening bits.

Today, most websites follow basic navigational rules, but in the early days of the web, typical website architecture was non-existent. Epicurious designed its website like a tabloid. It looked like a newspaper with clickable links. Slavin says this wasn’t a nod to a familiar format but an effective way of presenting and organizing a ton of information. Hyperlinks still were a challenging concept—you can just click on that? And why were they blue? This was years before best-practices crystalized into user-interface givens.

It was so limited. The Internet was mostly ASCII text. An Internet designer was really like an icon designer, designing little envelopes and little symbols. And then there was the whole content thing. You couldn’t just upload your words to WordPress and click publish. In the early days, getting content online was a manual process. Perhaps the most mind-boggling nugget from the oral history is that a group of cybermonks (WIRED wrote about them in 1996) was responsible for digitizing much of the early web’s content.

A lot has changed in the last two decades, for Epicurious and for the Internet. The web is a different place today. It’s faster and more reliable, but also a little bit … boring. The improvisation of the early web has turned into efficiency, and we should be grateful. Ain’t nobody got time for content-digitizing monks. Still, it’s hard to not feel a pang of nostalgia for a time when people felt like they were creating something totally new. So keep blogging guys.

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