I started using the web back in the mid-90s, when the top search engine was Yahoo. I loved its “ontology,” the categories and subcategories into which it divided sites. I would sometimes click on a heading for a topic I didn’t know much about, then on a subheading that I knew even less about, and end up with links to a dizzying array of sub-sub-sub-categories I would never have dreamed existed. It was great fun. Long before the success of Google’s radically simple format forced Yahoo to scrap its ontology, however, I had tired of that little game, and simply typed text into the search window. So the switch to Google was seamless for me.
I’ve been wondering if people would use Google differently today, and if the web would therefore be structured differently, if the first generation of Google users had not included such a high percentage of people whose first experience of search engines had involved a lot of time monkeying around in the labyrinth of Yahoo’ old ontology. For people like me, the search window was a straightforward place for relatively serious business; the ontology was for goofing off. So when Google came along, we may have used it as a tool to find fun things, but we didn’t see it as a toy in itself, not at first.
The other day I passed a few idle minutes on Google typing in punchlines, looking for the jokes that went with them. I was surprised at how little I found. After a moment of thought, I was surprised that I didn’t run a series of searches like that the first day I used Google. Without the experience of the old Yahoo, I suspect I probably would have done so, and that a great many other people would have done so as well. That initial burst of inquiries might have led to the creation of any number of sites matching jokes with punchlines. Such sites might have become one of the major components of the web, up there with blogs devoted to people telling stories about their cats and conspiracy theories that begin in the 1960s and experiments with Photoshop.