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   Daniel Rosario

I discovered the Internet exactly one year ago. Since I hadn't surfed before that, I'm accustomed to seeing many Web sites at the peak of their popularity. But I often mull over what they might have looked like in their teething stages.

Now, the Wayback Machine has allowed me to find out.

It's called 'Wayback Machine' probably because it wants users to implicitly associate it with the fantasy of a time machine. The project has archives of many widely accessed Web sites from 1996. So, all you do is enter the URL of a site you want to visit, and press the button to travel back in time.

The interface could very much resemble the button panel of a time machine: A steel grey surface with rows of months and dates. Select the date of your choice, and you will see the site as it was back then. Allow me, for instance, to give you a tour of Rediff.com. This is how it looked on June 10, 1998. By October 9 the following year, there was a noticeable difference. Visit it as it was on November 19, 2000 and trace its progress until it acquired the swank look it currently sports.

But while the casual surfer may delight in using the Wayback machine to trace the roots of various sites, there are more serious uses: The chief advantage being the ability to recover information long after it was deleted from the site's servers.

There would have to be a whole lot of data. Brewster Kahle, archive director and president of Alexa Internet, which have helped with this project, says: "Currently there are 10 billion Web pages, collected over five years. That amounts to 100 terabytes, which is 100 million megabytes."

The archives will give people an insight into history, culture and events of the past -- something like what the millennium capsule is supposed to do. Years from now, you will be able to recapture the horrors of the September 11 terrorist attacks, view a list of pioneering Web sites when they had just begun or watch an online movie collection.

If the Wayback Machine takes you as far back as 1996, the Usenet Archives do better, since it predated the Web. Google Groups now holds Usenet archives for the last 20 years. They claim to have "more than 700 million messages dating back to 1981. This, they say, will provide "a fascinating first-hand historical account."

And their claims seem justified. Read Tim Berners-Lee's "short summary of the WorldWideWeb project" or Linus Torvalds ' first-hand account of Linux. Google has a timeline of messages and threads that became milestones in the history of the Web. They include the first mention of the name Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, early posts about emoticons and about "a program called irc".

These archives help us see things anew, and realise the excitement caused by major developments that we now take for granted. Like Torvald's happy comment that Linux "has finally reached the stage where it's even usable . and I am willing to put out the sources for wider distribution."

For people who have been posting messages on dial-up bulletin boards (BBSs) rather than Usenet, there is yet another facility. Textfiles.com, manned by Jason Scott, has archived thousands of such messages.

You can browse the archive at random, or go through the top 100 messages in Scott's opinion. They serve as a sampling of the mindset and culture as people began getting online in the 80s.

Scott says on his site, "I realised I had been a part of many great things, and the perspective I had gained since that time gave me ideas. If you were there, we'll reminisce together. And if you weren't there, do I have a story to tell you."

Textfiles offers a better way to remember the good old days, and relive early experiences. "There's every manner of feeling being crammed down and posted for the world to find. It's a spectrum of humanity, and this is what I hope you'll find, buried there, among the text," says Scott.

It certainly was an eye-opener for me.

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