Internet content, a fancy name for information or entertainment, has been available since the early days of the Internet. At that time, though, the types and content of resources available were nothing like the wealth of resources we access today with the click of a mouse or a tap on a touch screen.
The Internet began as a project of the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1960s to create a comprehensive, indestructible computer network that could communicate even when under enemy attack. An internetwork (a network of networks) called ARPANET was created to meet this goal, although the networks were still not linked worldwide. Eventually, military and defense contractors, universities, science agencies, and other organizations were allowed to connect to this internetwork. In 1983, a new protocol (the way computers talk to each other) called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was integrated into ARPANET, and the all-inclusive network finally was realized. Many Internet historians cite ARPANET’s switching over to TCP/IP as the event that marked the birth of the Internet.
In the early 1980s, commercial Internet services and applications began to become popular as a result of the introduction of the personal computer and breakthroughs in integrated circuit technology, which made computers more affordable. But information was difficult to access because of poor computer interfaces. In 1989, a physicist named Tim Berners-Lee developed a way to organize information in a more logical fashion by using hypertext to link portions of documents to one another. He called it the World Wide Web.
It took another four years before Mosaic, the first Internet browser, became available. Mosaic, which used a “point-and-click” interface, made it much easier to access, retrieve, and display resources on the Internet. In 1994, Netscape Communications Corp. was founded to further develop the Mosaic browser. Soon thereafter, the Microsoft Corporation developed its Internet Explorer browser (which was initially based on Mosaic), and the Internet expanded rapidly.
The evolution of AOL is a good example of how the Internet content industry has grown and evolved. In 1985, the company began as Quantum Computer Services. Quantum was renamed America Online in 1991, and today it is called AOL. AOL was one of the first widely popular Internet service providers. It provided Internet access as well as content. People who were unfamiliar with the Internet used AOL as a gateway to surf the Web—and paid a monthly fee for the service. In addition to providing access to the Internet, AOL offered its users e-mail and messaging services and information. By 2000, AOL had become extremely popular and had tens of millions of subscribers. In the following years, many competitors emerged, people became more comfortable going online (and less reliant on the AOL gateway), and technology changed the way people connected to the Internet. AOL moved away from its Internet service provider role and focused on Internet advertising and content. AOL now offers a variety of free content to site visitors, including news and information, blogs, podcasts, videos, and music. In 2011, AOL purchased The Huffington Post, a popular news and opinion content aggregator. By 2020, it was one of several brands owned by Verizon Media, along with Yahoo and TechCrunch.
One of the most important factors in the rapid rise of Internet content during the past two decades is that the Internet is accessible to anyone. Individuals as well as large corporations can create and maintain Web sites, blogs, audio and video content, and many other types of online content. Many companies have emerged and launched platforms for people to generate and distribute content. Social media networks, such as Facebook, have also enabled this while helping people connect online. One of the first online content formats to gain popularity was the Web log—or blog.
Blogging, as we know it today, began sometime around 1994. At the time, all digital conversation took place among communities using systems and online services such as Usenet, GEnix, and Bulletin Board. Conversations were held with user comments and messages threaded together on a virtual corkboard. Other users were able to read messages separated by topic or content and add newer threads to the conversation. Blogs became extremely popular in the late 1990s due to the use of blogging tools such as browser-based software and Web hosting services. Microblogs have also become popular in recent years. A microblog allows users to send text that is limited to 140 characters or less. Users can also send photos and video. Twitter, the most popular microblog site, was founded in 2006.
The Internet also became a popular way for people to discover content and share it directly. Napster was one of the first peer-to-peer, file-sharing Internet services for music files. It was launched in 1999, but it operated only until 2001 after running into legal difficulties relating to copyright infringement. In 2003, Apple reached a licensing agreement with the major record companies, and it launched the iTunes Music Store, where users could purchase and download music (with videos, podcasts, e-books, and other content also becoming available over time). Streaming sites also became popular. Pandora (launched in 2000), Rhapsody (now Napster, 2001), and Spotify (2006) are popular audio-streaming services.
Video-streaming services and sites became popular in the 2000s. Netflix was founded in 1999 as a mail-based provider of DVDs of Hollywood movies and television shows to subscribers. By 2008, it had begun offering on-demand Internet streaming media to customers. YouTube launched in 2005, and today it is the most popular video-sharing site in the world. In addition to videos uploaded by the general public, YouTube now offers original entertainment content, as well as content provided by content farms. In 2007, NBCUniversal, Fox Entertainment Group, and the Disney-ABC Television Group founded Hulu, which provides advertising-supported on-demand streaming video of television shows, movies, and other content. The streaming services Apple TV+ and Disney+ both launched in November 2019.
Traditional media companies such as the Gannett Company and the New York Times Company have had an Internet presence for years. Most have offered their content for free, with the hope that advertising and other revenue-generating ventures would make up for the loss of print subscription revenue. The Wall Street Journal was one exception. In 1997, it became the first major newspaper to implement a paywall (an electronic system that prevents visitors from accessing content if they have not paid a fee). A small but growing number of media companies erected paywalls or otherwise charged for content that was formerly free. The New York Times implemented a paywall in 2011.
Many new media companies have been founded to deliver content solely online. For example, The Drudge Report (founded online in 1997) and Google News (2006) are popular aggregating sites that provide news and entertainment content. As of January 2020, Yahoo News and Google News are the top two websites for news coverage. Each site has more than 150 million visitors monthly. EW.Com (Entertainment Weekly) and Hollywood Reporter are leading entertainment news sites.