The day we all rushed online to read a description of President Bill Clinton's private parts, was the day that mainstream media really started to worry about the impact of this Internet thing.
1998 saw the release of the Straitjacket Fits Best of Compilation, so it seemed fitting to re-visit the title track from their debut album. Here, one of our greatest guitar bands scream; “your head will explode, will explode” and do their best to ensure that it does just that. From the start the momentum builds from the initial wrangling guitar through to sneering vocals and into a maelstrom of dueling, clashing and colliding guitars anchored by a precise rhythm section thumping out the bumpy bits. And there is a nice reference to Wellington with “… it’s hailing under your umbrella, but it’s clearing overhead”.. - Roger Shepherd
[ Watch Video ]
Track of the Year by Records
Our television and newspaper media had all started to dabble in online presences by 1998, with varying success. The Press in Christchurch had pushed their stories online since 1996 to some acclaim. Up in the Big Smoke it took until a second refresh in 1998 for the New Zealand Herald Online to live up to the promise of its name and win fans from the various local online tastemakers and award sites.
The site won the ‘Most Improved’ award in Aardvark's website accolades in the year of its relaunch. In the same ceremony, Russell Brown's contributions were recognised by awarding him ‘Netizen of the Year’. He was becoming a well-known bridge between the Internet and mainstream media, writing early articles about getting online for the family-friendly Listener and then for the business-focused IDG.co.nz site (now the online Computerworld magazine). As was to be expected, it was IDG’s irreverent ‘Friday Fry-Up’ that merged rumours with gossip and personalities that attracted the most attention.
Mainstream media were transforming from covering the Internet offline with quirky or scary stories, to becoming fully-fledged online publishers themselves. Republishing offline content online was still not biting into their existing revenue streams, but upcoming events would prove the value of the new medium over the old – for the consumer if not for the papers and their advertising revenue.
In 1998 that is all that online news media consisted of - republished offline content. While around them a ragtag collection of bloggers were growing to represent alternative views points, for now the mainstream media doors were very firmly closed on allowing the reader to add their voice to the story. Our strict defamation laws have been blamed by the media over the years for why basic features like comments on online news articles were unavailable for so long while being common overseas.
To emphasise this, in 1998 the High Court case of "International Telephone Link Pty Ltd v IDG Communications Ltd" found that simply publishing the web address of a defamatory piece of content in print constituted defamatory re-publication. Two years later this would be compounded by "Alan Brown v Patrick O'Brien" in which ISP director Brown was found to have defamed O'Brien by posting mistruths to a website and via email. It would scare some, but far from all, off publishing their opinions online.
In 1998, the wait to get your site listed in Yahoo!'s manually reviewed Internet directory was nearing six months and it was clear that this Internet thing was too big for mere humans to handle. Various technologies were offered as a solution – but none were as successful as the system nicknamed ‘BackRub’. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin dubbed it thus because it relied on which sites linked to yours to decide whether you were worthy of returning in search results.
It would be a couple of years before this site, which went live with the name ‘Google’, would feel as influential as it does today. Even in 1998 it looked and felt very much like the Google we now know – starting the trend of calling new websites ‘beta’ to preempt any cries of, "but, it doesn't work!". Google did work though – immediately amazing, and spooking people with exactly what it could find.
One piece of content the world needed no help in finding online in 1998 was Kenneth Starr's report on President Bill Clinton’s affair with Whitehouse intern Monica Lewinsky. A turning point for mainstream media and journalism, regular web surfers were able to read the original report at the same time as journalists. With none of the editorial filtering, biases or time delays that existed for newspapers and television, news organisations were briefly completely disintermediated.
In one fell swoop both politics and the news media were demonstrably changed forever. In New Zealand the recently implemented MMP system compounded the effect that people and politicians being brought closer together by the Internet was having. Minority parties in particular had a reason to reach out and gather together pockets of support across our country.
It would be a number of years before anyone would consider seriously reading a book online – but the second version of the big book, the Yellow Pages online, won the NetGuide ‘Site of the Year’ award in 1998. Reports soon surfaced from within Telecom's inner-sanctum that ‘hackers’ were attempting to ‘download’ the entire phone book and that measures were being put in place to protect all those valuable names and numbers.
The nation breathed a sigh of relief – but then gasped again when it heard that Telecom had been giving out easy-to-guess passwords with each Xtra account – a real concern with 150,000 of the purported 400,000 Kiwis online through our largest ISP. This provided easy stories for the media who were keen to showcase the new medium's failings as it started to compete with their offering.
With web pages becoming ever more rich in content and reports from our overseas contacts about the joys of broadband, voices for a local fast Internet solution were becoming louder.
Dial-up modem speeds are now 56kbit/s - the fastest they will ever get. Everyone’s waiting for Telecom’s digital subscriber line (DSL) copper network enhancement technology to roll out.
Wellingtonians were in luck with Saturn offering a ‘triple play’ package of voice, cable Internet and pay TV to many suburbs in the same year that Sky TV launched its now ubiquitous satellite dish service for Digital TV. Telecom was still experimenting with a trial of DSL broadband for a lucky 200 Wellington customers, the broadband solution that was to finally win out.
Of course, then as today, slow connections didn't stop many people from getting on and making great use of the Internet. In fact some credit our slow speeds with driving creativity and technical adeptness by forcing them to eke the most out of what they did have.
All of the talk of the speed of our Internet links failed to take into account the other advantage of broadband – that it was always on. For those lucky enough to have it, their phone line was no longer tied up with Internet calls. No more picking up the phone to hear squelching tones followed by a cry from the other room, "I'm on the Internet!".
With an always-on connection came a deeper integration into our lives. Taking advantage of this, Woolworths launched an online shopping site in 1998 that allowed us to do our errands without leaving the house. And the TAB brought online gambling to our Internet to give us cause to wonder if we should order those groceries or have another flutter.
Tomorrow: The final year of the millennium dawns and doomsday predictions are rife. The music industry seem oblivious to the arrival of technology that will cause a much greater upset than the Y2K bug. And who knew pigs could fly? Briefly.