Some Thoughts on “How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone” by Brian McCullough

Writing a history of the Internet is almost a fool’s errand. As an entity it’s so diffuse and diverse as to defy summary, and as a topic it’s so broad as to render any sufficiently comprehensive account incoherent. Furthermore, the Internet changes so rapidly that any attempted history risks becoming outdated by the time of publication. For example, Wendy M. Grossman’s Net.wars (NYU Press, 1997) devotes much of its page count to Usenet newsgroups and relegates search engines, then still an emerging technology, to a few off-hand mentions. Within a few years, Grossman’s version of the Internet would be almost unrecognizable to someone who had just gotten online.

It is perhaps wise, then, that in the introduction to How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (Liveright-W. W. Norton, 2018) Brian McCullough limits the scope of his narrative. “This is not a history of the Internet itself,” he writes, “but rather a history of the Internet Era, that period of time from roughly 1993 through 2008 when computers and technology itself stopped being esoteric and started becoming vital and indispensable” (p. 3). It’s a depiction of an era of the Internet which has come and gone, yes, but one that has the benefit of hindsight. McCullough knows, for example, that Usenet’s direct influence on the Internet Era is minimal, and so he gives it about as much attention as Grossman gives to search engines. The question is what McCullough deems worthy of inclusion.

One could say that How the Internet Happened presents the reader with a twenty-first century update to the great man theory of history, in which tech companies take the place of individuals. Corporations like Google, eBay, and Apple are the ones driving the development of the Internet in this telling of the story, and McCullough lavishes much attention on events such as Netscape’s initial public offering and the immediate reaction to Facebook’s News Feed feature. Given how tech companies can exercise near-governmental control over their platforms, there is more logic in McCullough’s framing than I’d like to admit.

However, a company-centric history of the Internet will necessarily omit many key aspects of the story. Consider the role of the state. While McCullough acknowledges the role of public universities in the development of the first web browsers, the government almost vanishes from the narrative soon afterwards. Beyond the Microsoft antitrust case and the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the state appears as bit player in McCullough’s history. Yet governments surely have a much larger role in the plot; just think of the many legal battles that emerged over Congressional attempts to regulate pornography on the Internet, or the political debates over whether to codify network neutrality into law. Neither topic gets much notice in McCullough’s book.

Alternatively, consider the role of the end users. The Internet has been an absolute breeding ground for new communities, but to the extent that How the Internet Happened concerns itself with such communities, it considers them as a general, almost unified mass: “we” now act a certain way thanks to the Internet. But this rather flattens the unique cultures that sprung up in the various corners of the Web; each site has its own customs, mores, language, and so forth. It’s not as though McCullough interviews individual eBay sellers or Redditors to give a sense of the user experience. The reader much be content with the abstract knowledge that such user communities exist.

I could go on about what is missing from How the Internet Happened, but I’m afraid that I’m reading this book in bad faith. It’s unfair to demand a comprehensive history of the Internet from a single work by a single person—I mean, didn’t I say in the first paragraph that such a project would be doomed? And how can I be surprised that this particular person wrote this particular book? McCullough’s background is in the field of tech start-ups, so of course his version of Internet history skews corporate. It’s for the same reason that Grossman, a journalist embedded in early Internet culture, focused on political and cultural issues surrounding the Internet in Net.wars. “Write what you know” doesn’t just apply to fiction.

And, in fairness to McCullough, he’s often insightful as to how various companies have shaped Internet culture. I found his account of eBay’s reputation system especially compelling. The reputation system, which scores buyers and sellers based on other users’ experiences with them, allows people to gauge whether someone they have no relationship with will prove to be a trustworthy transaction partner. According to McCullough, this system has proven to be quite influential:

This is a key evolution. In so many ways, over the last twenty years, the web and the Internet have slowly trained all of us to get comfortable interacting with crowds and, often, crowds of strangers. eBay was one of the first websites to show that a largely anonymous community, carefully constrained by a few guidelines and regulations, but invested in a system of online reputation, could actually work. Today, this key ingredient of ratings and reputation continues on sites like Yelp and Reddit—and especially on sites like Uber and Airbnb. It’s hard to imagine that the current sharing economy could even exist without the reputation template that eBay pioneered.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone, p. 115

McCullough certainly sounds more sanguine about the sharing economy than I am. Airbnb’s history of enabling racial discrimination, for example, shows that the sharing economy only “actually works” in the limited sense of successfully facilitating transactions, not necessarily in the broader sense of benefiting all users. (Again, the author’s background explains quite a bit here.) But at least in a descriptive sense, McCullough’s account seems accurate: we’ve become more willing to trust some rando with a weird username, and there is something inevitably unifying about that.

I feel that’s a microcosm for How the Internet Happened as a whole. It achieves what it sets out to do, and that is to document how tech companies shaped the Internet between the rise of web browsers and the rise of social media. It’s only fair to commend the book for accomplishing that goal. But, at the same time, it’s only fair to ask whether that’s the best goal to begin with.


That’s enough from me on the matter. What are your thoughts on How the Internet Happened? Are there other aspects of the history of the Internet that you believe deserve their own book? Let me know in the comments!

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on historical works, consider checking out this piece I wrote on Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, which examines how much biographers should speculate on the psychology of their subjects. And as always, thank you for reading!

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