Dissecting their seminal October 1995 feature, "How to Log On The Internet".
1995 was a hell of a year, wasn't it? I mean I don't know. I was eight and I was an idiot. But watch a flickering news compilation of the year and it looks amazing: supermodels everywhere, Porsches, bucket hats, Paul Gascoigne being chased by a thousand photographers while wearing a shellsuit, a kind of rampant, energetic excess, Oasis, drugs, the Union Jack, smoking in pubs, big massive mobile phones, an excessive amount of sunshine. As best I can tell, 1995 was just a load of men in oversized Umbro shirts shouting "LAGER!" 1995 was a kind of infinite summer where everyone was sleek and gorgeous and slathering their beautiful noses in cocaine.
Then the internet happened and turned us all into the grey unhappy nerds we all are now. Like, yes: we can leave a Yelp review for a Pizza Express that goes viral, but are we truly happy? Is the internet actually good for us, or is it just like sitting on a thin raft, floating desolately on a quagmire of data, drunkenly buying things on eBay, left hollow and empty by our underwhelming Instagram likes?
A question for another day, perhaps. Because the important question here is: "HOW TO LOG ON THE INTERNET"?
That is the headline from page 124 of the October 1995 copy of FHM, this one with Cindy Crawford on the cover:
Why do I have this? I do not know. But look how bloody laddy those headline sells are: the pleasures and pitfalls of going out with models! Hanging out on the British wave scene! Suggs! Is this not what every man wants? To have sex with a model while listening to Suggs, on a surfboard? But these days it seems we do not want that. Now we look at models rendered in startling 3D through an Oculus Rift. We listen to Suggs on a free trial from Spotify. We surf the web now, instead of the high and brutal seas.
But it was not always thus. We did not always used to be able to summon data out of the very air like a fucking wizard. Time was, you could not use a phone and be connected to the internet at the same time. Time was, you had to dial in using a modem that made a sound like a robot having a stroke that lasted up to and including a minute-and-a-half to connect. There used to be a time when Google didn't exist, so finding things was just guesswork. Snuff videos existed.
And so to "How To Log On The Internet", Tony Horkins' internet primer for lads, an internet primer before the internet was really ready to be primed. Sometimes it is nice to look back at things before they started, and see how we used to talk about the internet before we truly understood it, like cavemen describing a yellow sun. "How to Log On The Internet"? You log onto the internet, dude! Or, rather, we don't even log on any more: we are just constantly on, and the off switch only gets noticed when Virgin throttles our connection for no reason or someone trips over a router cable. The article is littered with oblique references to "the Net" and the "World Wide Web": reading this back now is like watching a granddad trying to buy smack off someone under a grim archway. "So you inject it do you, into your body, do you?" granddad is saying – he's given up now, he knows his life is over, he's doing smack when there's nothing left to lose – "which hole?"
Anyway, back to 1995, and what kind of person you have to be to use the internet. Not, apparently, a nerd. You do not technically have to be a nerd.
Seen some photos from some media tweet-ups that quite roundly prove you wrong there, Tony. Which is the thing, isn't it: who knew, back in the halcyon days of 1995, that we would be using the internet for Twitter beef and change.org campaigns, Harry Potter .gifs and Vine stars, for meeting a load of socially uncomfortable nerdlords at a pub in south London?
Look how innocent and full of hope this is: we've ruined that, now. We've concreted over this beautiful meadow and set fire to the trees. We built a high palace to knowledge and then filled it with porn and Phil Jones memes.
What were the concerns of the average internet used in 1995? That internet addiction would ruin their social life. This is oddly prescient, now, the destroyed social life, only now it's an inverted thing, where social life is internet, one cannot exist without the other, where people bombard you every second of every goddamn day via DMs or Facebook or WhatsApp asking you out for pints. Example: I know exactly one person who isn't on Facebook, and he's all the weirder for it. I once had to explain GamerGate to him. He works in GAME. He hadn't heard of it. Imagine living in this bubble. Do you know how many times you mention the internet in your day-to-day life? If you ever want that point hammering home, go out for a drink with my mate Matt, and watch his blank face when you say the word "trending" or mention that video of that kid eating that ghost chilli. He hasn't seen it. He won't have seen it. He has never seen a bulldog on a trampoline. What do you do all day, Matt? What do you do?
And then there are the five sites worth dropping in on. Imagine commissioning a thousand-worder on the internet now, and saying, "Can you just include, like, five good websites? Just to get started with? It's for a boxout." It's akin to asking for five especially beautiful grains of sand from a beach. The list here is Le Louvre Web Museum (2015 update: pretty good), Nostradamus (a thousand Google searches cannot get me any closer to finding this), Playboy Magazine (still good, looked at it so much the IT came over and said to stop), Twin Peaks (WHAT DO I DO, JUST TYPE "TWIN PEAKS" IN OR WHAT?), and Madonna (this is still a website about Madonna.). This was the internet in 1995: art, hope for the future, slow-loading titties, horror and Madonna. Is anything so different now?
What can we learn from this 20-year-old copy of FHM talking about the internet? On the surface: absolutely nothing at all. I mean there is a bit about getting a 28K modem-fax combo installed in the back of your Dell desktop ("You're looking at forking out between £150 and £300.") and that information is beyond useless now. There's a bit about finding the right service provider ("Compuserve. To join: free. Charges: £4.80 per hour, plus additional premiums.") that makes me wonder how the internet ever took off. But in a way it's a weird snapshot of how the internet used to be: an exciting domain where rich FHM-reading men with £300 modems could go and discuss Twin Peaks. An unknowable realm, soon to fold out like a flower, shaped by thousands of hands into what we have now.
Thing is, Tony Horkins is still an alive man and a writer. He is still a web user. Editor Mike Soutar is now a shouting bad bastard on The Apprentice. Deputy editor Grub Smith just won Pointless. All of them, to various different degrees, are in second-stage manhood, and here I am, some young buck with some words on a website, tearing at them for capping up the word "Net" in 1995. I mean, this was lads' mags in the '90s: we're lucky it wasn't just the words "GAK IS BRILLIANT", repeated 50,000 times and sandwiched between some adverts for Sega.
The slow realisation: we all age, we all die, we are all wrong, and 20 years' of hindsight will make fools of us all. Somewhere, right now, in a hospital in Walthamstow, there is a child being born who will one day find one of my circa-2015 pieces and destroy it with the power of a million suns on whatever future version of VICE they have then. They will dissect me with 2035-era next level hyper-banter. And I – 47 by this time, my ankles swollen with gout, long since irrelevant, my Johann Hari-style meltdown a full decade behind me, a living punchline on a Wikipedia page about life – I will just sit there, on my internet and listening to Suggs, I will just sit there and deserve it.