Gadgetopia pointed their readers to a website hosted by Michigan State University with a number of screen captures for how the Internet looked like in 1996. Almost a year ago, I posted a screen capture of the first site I did in that era. I'm somewhat pleased that the appearance of my site was no worse than the sites of well known companies. The author of the Internet '96 article brings up the point that you have to consider the technology back then to why sites looked the way they did.
In their defense, the technology was different in 1996. Although Internet Explorer 3.0 could run Java applets and inline media, Netscape Navigator could not, and in any case nobody felt comfortable doing anything more complicated than making a few animated GIFs.
Most people who were quite active on the Internet in the 1990's shouldn't be surprised with the way the Internet looked back then. I can easily recall the controversy of whether to design sites for 640x480 or 800x600 screens. We were simply limited in how we designed our sites by the technology we were using. However, what was our excuse for not providing better content than what we did?
The technology of 1996 may have limited the quality of aesthetics for Internet sites, but there should have been no limitations for the content provided. Yet, even in my own site I recall that mostly it was a page of links and trivia...very little original content was provided. While we didn't have Web content management systems...we most certainly had the ability via FTP to push text embedded in HTML up to the server. So why didn't we provide more content for the sites? I think because back then we still saw the World Wide Web more as a novelty and less as a resource for real information.
In some ways, the history of the Internet has followed the very foot steps that film did. If you ever studied the history of silent films (I have six credit hours of watching just movies in college!), you know that before we had two hour movies people actually went to the theater to watch a 5 minute or 10 minute film. As the length of silent films and their complexity began to grow, producers and directors were concerned that people would lose interest in the film if it was too long. Now it only took a decade or two for the movie makers to "push" the envelope in the complexities and length of the movies (the 1927 Wings was more than 2 hours long), but at the introduction of the new technology...no one knew, even the audience themselves, what they wanted to see in a movie.
Back in 1996, we really didn't know whether or not people would come to the internet and read paragraph after paragraph of text. In fact many of us were focused too much on the looks of the site. While I was an advocate for the Internet, I wasn't sure if people were coming to the Internet to read (hey they already have books at home) or for the novelty of finding information through their 28.8K modems. We were concerned that if you gave them too much content...people would either be lost or get bored. Given the popularity of blogs, Wikipedia, and so many other Web 2.0 features we have today, thankfully we were very wrong back then on our ideas of what the public wanted to see on the Internet.