The World Wide Web is officially old enough for us judge what it’s produced. That’s right, it’s time for the world to start building a canon of the most significant websites of all time, and the Gizmodo staff has opinions.
What does a spot on this list mean? It certainly doesn’t mean “best.” A number of sites on this list are cesspools now and always have been. We’re not even sure the internet was a good idea—we’ll need another few decades before we come to any conclusions. In this case, we set out to rank the websites—not apps (like Instagram), not services (like PayPal)—that influenced the very nature of the internet, changed the world, stole ideas better than anyone, pioneered a genre, or were just really important to us. Some of these sites seemed perfectly arbitrary a decade ago and turned into monstrous destinations or world-destroying monopolies. Other sites have been net positives for humanity and gave us a glimpse of what can happen when the world works together. In many ways this list is an evaluation of power and who has seized it. In other ways, it’s an appreciation of the places that still make the web worth surfing.
Next year will be the 30th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s first proposal to CERN outlining what he originally called the “WorldWideWeb” (one word). Since then, Berners-Lee has had a few regrets about what’s become a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, and who knows what the future holds. Below you’ll find our somewhat arbitrary idea of the virtual destinations that mattered most, ranked and curated by the Gizmodo staff and illustrated with screenshots that exemplify their history, as we’ve played, shared, fought, and meme’d our way into the current millennium.
Blingee is a form of art. Who would we be, if not for the sparkles, shimmering text, and rotating pot leaves it allowed us to barf all over our MySpace profile pictures? It’s not a gif, it’s not a photo: it’s the Harry Potter photograph version of a scrapbook page made by your wine aunt and goth tween cousin. Inexplicably—but thank GOD—people are still making Blingees and uploading stickers to the site. We are all better for it.
The site that launched a million mom memes.
As far as startups go, MeetUp has to be at the top of the list of a good idea that turned out pretty lame. The concept of getting people with common interests offline and together in real life was a solid one, but it came at a time when people were getting far more comfortable with saying “fuck real life.” These days, it holds some niche interest for hobbyists and people who like to network in their profession. Though it’s one of the few sites that can make LinkedIn look cool, the promise it represented earns it a place in history.
One of the best games to play in the early 2000s if your parents refused to pay for video games or an expensive computer, the once browser-based MMORPG’s blocky, low-powered graphics and grinding gameplay gave it an endearing charm that distinguished it from the big boys on the block. Though better-looking versions, unshackled from the browser, have since debuted, more people still actually play Old-School Runescape, a version meant to resemble Runescape as it was in 2007.
WhoSampled’s mission couldn’t be simpler: identifying when and from where musicians sampled the work of others. When researching a single song or musical phrase, it’s a boon. Dive into the endless network of samples, remixes, and other connections that follow, and you’ll find yourself in the kind of internet k-hole that can only be escaped from by logging off entirely.
This trail-blazing fashion blog was among the first to use the internet to charge past the gate-keeping glossies. The Sartoralist showcased the street style of (mostly) non-models and pioneered the notion that regular, non-famous folks with great fashion sense were just as inspirational as polished celebrities on the red carpet. For better or for worse, this blog arguably paved the way for the social media-influencer fashion culture of today.
They finally flipped that goddamn iceberg.
This gem of a feminist satire site only lived for three years, but it launched careers, garnered an obsessively devoted fanbase, and saved a life (for real, someone matched with a live kidney donor in the comments section of The Toast). Founders Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Mallory Ortberg created a space that took the female experience seriously enough to then satirize it. The blog took on topics immediately recognizable to readers—imposter’s syndrome, male “feminists” who secretly believe they’re smarter than women, women having a terrible time at parties—and mixed them with truly bonkers blogs imagining the pitch meeting for PBS’s “Wishbone.” It was one of the smartest, kindest, purest places online, and we’re so sad it’s gone.
In 1994, Pizza Hut’s PizzaNet became what is widely credited as the very first place a consumer could purchase a physical product over the World Wide Web. Though that’s not exactly true, it was the first major push for an online market place and it foreshadowed the era of Seamless. Millions of drunk people looking at their bank statements the next morning have PizzaNet to thank for their regrets.
The website where you can find anything you need to know about building a website. If you have a question about coding, odds are the answer is already on Stack Overflow. And if it isn’t, some generous soul will get you a solution almost as soon as you ask for it.
While Something Awful had its moments as a host for various bits of comedy, rants, and reviews, SA’s community is its real legacy. From its forums, Something Awful members gave birth to the legend of Slenderman, an entire new genre of videos in Let’s Plays, and thanks to offshoots like the Goonswarm, SA was indirectly responsible for some of the most massive (and costly) space battles ever witnessed in video game history. It was also, uh, actually awful.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is probably best known for defending digital rights around the world since 1990, but the non-profit’s website, and its DeepLinks blog in particular, has also become a tremendous resource. EFF now does everything from publishing investigative journalism to distribute downloadable tools like the Privacy Badger. And the internet is better for it.
The internet’s Big Promise has always centered on its ability to give power back to the little guy. Bandcamp is one place that actually made good. By giving artists the ability to not only publish their music but to sell it straight to fans, Bandcamp has allowed independent musicians to earn more than $300 million. In the 10 years it’s been active, the site has also served as a beginning point for weird internet subcultures and microgenres, including vaporwave, computergaze, and future funk. Bandcamp is meant for artists, but it’s just as vital for music fans.
From its early days as a streaming site for East Asian dramas to becoming the western home of anime hits like My Hero Academia and Dragon Ball Super, Crunchyroll is pretty much the de facto source of Anime for many western fans. With the anime industry still struggling to deal with how to handle a global reach for shows, its role in offering official sources fans beyond Japan can use to support their favorite shows is vital. Shame their video player still sucks though.
Nobody with the capacity for self-awareness says they just “duckduckgo’d” something as shorthand for searching online. But the privacy-centric search engine, powered by a relatively small but growing dedicated user base, keeps alive a gleaming reminder that privacy is possible on the internet, that not every company is a data-sucking vampire, and that there is still a way to find what you’re looking for online without piling more money into Google’s gold-plated coffers.
You might not remember this, but before there was Facebook, there was a site that did many of the same things Facebook did, except it was more fun. That was Friendster. Even though it was basically just a copycat, Facebook killed Friendster, and now Friendster is dead. RIP Friendster.
After a series of major data breaches, security expert Troy Hunt decided to make a website where potential victims could check and see if their data had been compromised. Now, you just type in your email address, click “have i been pwned?” and see the hackers got you. (Fun fact: Gizmodo’s original parent company, Gawker, was one of the original five hacks indexed!)
It’s really difficult to name the best, most important, or most influential news website in history. It’s hard to even determine what the first news website was. News is simply one of the fundamental backbones of web content and it’s everywhere. The Times website has been a reliable place for news since 1996, and it has attempted new ways to deliver it along the way. It takes our honorary mention for the category until its op-ed board eventually pushes us too far.
If you’re wondering how to, say, cut a mango, wikiHow is a consistently useful resource, providing surprisingly detailed step-by-step guides. The genius of the site, however, comes from its innumerable, seemingly SEO-driven oddities. Want to know how to hold a dachshund properly or act like a mermaid at school? WikiHow has you covered.
Too good for its time, Ask Jeeves was an OG: the Original Google. Ask kids these days about Jeeves, though, and they’re bound to look at you all crazy. RIP.
Genius started as Rap Genius, a platform to annotate hip-hop lyrics. But in a spark of brilliance, it expanded in 2015 to allow people to annotate a wider scope of content, from personal blogs to the Washington Post. Unfortunately, it also created a new way to be a dick and kind of broke the internet. But it sure is nifty!
A year before Fox News injected conservative media with steroids, Drudge Report was outlining the propaganda playbook. It broke the news that Newsweek was sitting on the Bill Clinton-Monika Lewinsky scandal and kicked off a new age when gossip blogs nudged or sucker-punched stories into the public eye. Since then, Drudge Report has provided a glimpse into the raw, paranoid id of the American right-wing brain. We are in no way better off.
Fandom was once reserved for real-life meetups and zines printed in garages. The internet allowed fans to create stories and put them all over Usenet and in carefully cultivated repositories on sites like Geocities and Angelfire. Ff.net changed everything by creating a single repository for fic from every fandom. It’s never been perfect—fans revolted when it got rid of explicit fic (porn) to appease advertisers, but it proved that fandoms no longer needed to sit in walled gardens and could finally coexist.
In the days of the early internet, Rotten.com was where people went to see revolting images—both fake and real—of stuff like maggot-ridden cadavers, dead celebrities, and Tubgirl. Shit that would make your stomach churn, and because at the time people didn’t really have any expectations for what decency on the world wide web was supposed to be, there wasn’t really anyone around to tell them stop. (Though a handful tried.) Rotten was not a site you visited—just knowing that this repository of shocking and evil content existed was enough.
With 57,000 public domain titles and counting, Project Gutenberg was the first digital library, offering free e-books online decades before the Kindle Store was even a thought. And while Google Books has far eclipsed the volunteer-run archive in terms of volume, Project Gutenberg’s meticulously assembled texts are often much higher quality. Did we mention it’s absolute treasure trove of golden age sci-fi?
Pandora’s personalized internet radio service, launched in the early 2000s, marked the beginning of the streaming era. And in those first few years, its Music Genome Project, which customized users’ stations around the qualities of the music, felt revolutionary. Ultimately, however, Pandora may be remembered more for its failure to become Spotify than for innovating how we jam out. But it can always find solace in the fact that Apple Music will crush everything anyway.
There’s probably a TV trope page describing the seemingly endless pit you can find yourself in after clicking on one of the site’s many, many reference pages for genre tropes across popular culture. TV Tropes’ user-generated archives of examples of everything from categories like the Loveable Rogue to Color Coded Wizardry are so ridiculously maintained, you can’t help but find yourself reading one, only to click on another, and another, another, and another. Hours will pass like minutes, but hey, at least you learned about the historical prevalence of diving kicks in pop culture.
Before Flickr ate its lunch, Photobucket made saving, sharing, and hosting photos on the web dead easy—and free. It was the pit stop before your pics hit MySpace, and later, the official host of the images you tweeted on Twitter. Who knows if all your old photos are still there, gathering dust or rotting away—imagine what a treasure trove you’d find if you could only remember your login.
Created by American author Randall Munroe in 2005, xkcd is, as its tagline proclaims, a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” Munroe’s subject matter belies the comic’s minimalist presentation, addressing nerdy and heady topics with humor, irreverence, and insight. And sometimes, xkcd is just plain silly. No doubt, this webcomic has become an indelible touchpoint for geek culture.
The animated, musical Hampsterdance website of 1998 was one of the internet’s first memes. It was a time when a certain purer kind of internet humor could survive: impossibly wholesome, addictively repetitive, and completely inscrutable. Di-da-dee da dee da doh-doh…
Wikis have become a vital part of internet fandom over the past 20 years, and in terms of depth or fame, perhaps none can rival the unofficial encyclopedia for all things Star Wars. Known for its fearsomely dedicated community of archivists that can update relevant pages with new material mere hours after its official release, no matter how obscure, it’s one of the most enthrallingly nerdy resources you can find. Where else are you going to learn about the history of iconic, memorable Star Wars characters like Carlist Rieekan and… that guy with an ice cream maker from Empire Strikes Back?
Some might quibble over whether W3Catalog counts as the first search engine, but it’s as good of a pick as any. In 1993, web enthusiasts maintained hand-curated lists of websites and W3Catalog mirrored and reformatted them while adding a search function. Pointing to content, making it look like your own, and ensuring that it’s searchable all became defining characteristics of our online mess, and we have this little project to thank.
Famous for its message boards almost as much as for its countless user-made game guides, GameFAQs was one of the first petri dishes of internet culture. Many a meme and young troll were spawned from the crevices of its Life, Universe and Everything (LUE) social board, which first prompted heavy moderating and eventually a complete ban for newer members. Though GameFaqs still exists today, most people have seemingly moved on, even the trolls.
Most days on The Awl began with a New York weather report unlike any other. Poetic musings on the color of the sky mixed with observations of workers scurrying through sleet or basking in glorious rays of sunshine. And that’s how the now-defunct bloggers’ blog approached everything. It zeroed in on small parts of life that aren’t given the importance they deserve, then it just let good writers do what they do best.
One of the first free email services to grace the internet, Microsoft’s Hotmail was training wheels for email. It eventually wilted in popularity as competitors like Yahoo and Google released their own versions. But that didn’t stop your parents from using their accounts for as long as humanly possible. The rest of us just foisted our spam mail onto it, at least until 2013, when the service was formally folded into Outlook.
If you grew up alongside the internet, chances are the words “Alta-Vista” are still rattling around in some dusty corner of your brain alongside Netscape Navigator and that sound a dial-up modem makes. Google may be the indomitable search engine of the 21st century, but it owes no small debt to Alta-Vista, which kind of invented the whole indexing-websites-for-targeted-searches thing. Alta-Vista lived on in the Yahoo! search engine until 2013, but it’ll endure forever in our 90s-nostalgic hearts.
Try as it may to convince us it’s a social media platform, LinkedIn will probably never be anything more than an online resume service, to most users. Sure, you may get alerts and messages from spammers or people who take the platform way more seriously than you. And you may only check it when you’re looking for a job or snooping on someone—but it’s almost always at least a little bit useful, which is more than we can say about most things.
We live in an era of wild corruption as capitalist vampires sink their teeth ever deeper into our political system. With its huge database of donors, politicians, PACs, and how they’re all connected, Open Secrets is the sunlight working to keep the ghouls away.
You’ve likely heard of Pinterest and its users mocked. This is in part because the vast majority of its users are women and reflexive skepticism of things that appeal to women is baked into our culture. Pinterest is a nice, pretty social media platform that can be helpful in planning events or finding visual inspiration. The site popularized image-focused social sharing, paving the way for Instagram’s dominance. It’s also a social media platform that doesn’t have a Nazi problem.
Seamless is that one essential service for those lazy, rainy days when all you want to do is to tuck into an entire box of pizza and never leave your apartment again. This website survived the Dot Com implosion (back when it was called “Seamless Web”) to usher in a new era of app-based delivery services like Uber Eats—but at what cost? There are downsides to having a greasy bag of fries so easily whisked to your door at any possible moment.
As a democratized launchpad for creative careers, few sites can rival the track record of Newgrounds. A staggering number of animators, video game creators, voice actors, and YouTubers are counted as site alumni. Unfortunately, as the web’s reliance on Flash dwindled, so did the vitality of the community.
Launched in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber and owned by Condé Nast, Pitchfork gave rise to a new kind of music reviewing, one that elevated fringey and up-and-coming artists to a larger audience. Its reviewers have settled down in recent years, but the site was once known for its brutally scathing reviews. Love it or hate it, Pitchfork is hard to ignore.
Today, WikiLeaks is a shadow of its former self. Its founder’s legal troubles—including an unresolved investigation into allegations of rape—and an exodus of volunteers coupled with a series of questionable releases has left its name tarnished. But there was never a time that this publication didn’t piss people off. It pioneered a form of activism dedicated to radical transparency, and the ways in which we’ve seen political figures embrace it when it benefits them or condemn it when it doesn’t is a testament to the fact that it was onto something. Maybe it didn’t change journalism but, for better and worse, it changed the world.
Digg’s greatness is most evident not in how it succeeded but how it failed. “Digg version 4” remains one of the internet’s greatest blunders. Prior to this redesign, Digg was a go-to social news site, a place that had the power to make or break websites that had links appear on the wildly popular homepage. But Digg’s ranking system was broken, allowing a cadre of powerusers to game the site. Digg v4 was the final straw. Today, Digg is a mix of curated links, videos, and original articles—and honestly, it’s better that way.
There are about 10 million ways to book flights, hotels, and rental cars on the internet—some of them with fancy spokespeople (SHATNER!!), others with truly innovative ways of finding you a fare that’s four bucks cheaper than anywhere else. But Expedia has been at it for more than 20 years, and at the risk of sounding like a goddamn shill, it represents much of what we expect from an online business in terms of reliability and usability. It works, and you don’t feel ripped off or dirty after you book your flight. The downside is that booking sites have created a “race to the bottom” in terms of pricing, causing airlines to find new ways to cram as many people in as they can. So blame Expedia for your five inches of leg room.
OKCupid’s inclusive, free, match-by-questionnaire service made online dating finally feel like something you could use without seeming desperate. And unlike Tinder or Grindr, OKCupid lets you vet potential suitors (and threesome requests) using more than just an image and a potentially creepy message. The company has had its share of blunders—remember when it gave attractive people special perks, or when it forced people to use their real names?—but this is one example of an online service that has managed to evolve with the times.
Fake pets weren’t exactly new when Neopets launched in 1999, but a combination of community, world-building, and a full-fledged economy set the virtual world apart. Sure, you could log-in to play games, go on quests for faeries, or see how long it takes for your Cybunny to starve, or you could learn how to code and navigate the stock market. The site was a welcoming home to a majority of women, some of whom went on to careers in tech and unlike most startups from the ‘90s, Neopets is still alive and well today.
Come on and slam, and welcome to the jam. The promotional website for Michael Jordan’s 1996 flick Space Jam is dripping with datedness—terrible backgrounds, mismatched font, and Shockwave games galore. Amazingly, it’s still up today, a time capsule of everything beautiful and terrible about ‘90s websites.
Hate BuzzFeed all you want—it’s an internet powerhouse for a reason. With its mix of devilishly specific listicles, addictive quizzes, and churn of engineered viral content, BuzzFeed set the tone for mainlining a stream of pure internet straight to your brain. The upside is, it used that successful strategy to build out an investigative news desk that has reporters in the White House and made “pee tape” a household phrase.
As user-friendly as our computers and devices have become, some things, like setting up a home network, simply aren’t tasks your parents are ever going to figure out. That was the beauty of Dropbox when it first arrived: It made sharing files between computers incredibly easy, without the need for clogging up email inboxes, or having to sneakernet a flash drive between machines. It now has countless competitors, but we haven’t found a reason to switch yet.
You used to have to wait until the “8s” if you wanted your local forecast from the Weather Channel. Weather.com changed that, marking the beginning of having your forecast right at your fingertips. Though you can get your weather with a side of puppies or profanity on your phone nowadays, Weather.com is the brawn behind many of those weather forecasts, the one thing that unites us in our increasingly fractured hellscape.
Vimeo started as a streamlined way for creators to share their films and videos. The site is still affordable and user-friendly but now bills itself as a one-stop hub for “all your video needs”: uploading and sharing works in ultra high quality; livestreaming; a stock-footage marketplace; and other tools and features. And if you just like to watch, there’s a huge, free, community-built library of films to choose from.
In those moments when words fail you, a GIF can be the perfect way to get a point across. And Giphy’s done incredible work to make it infinitely faster and easier to find exactly the right GIF you want for any situation. More than that, though, Giphy’s focus on creating GIFs from content featuring women, people of color, and queer folks who oftentimes don’t get the chance to become immortalized by the internet is the kind of good-faith effort that benefits us all. Now it’s on you to stop using the same fucking GIFs as everyone else.
Blogger, launched in 1999, helped pull society out of the primordial ooze of building custom HTML tables every time someone had a random thought they wanted to share with the world. Everyone thought they needed a website, but what they really needed was a blog. After a few years, this little experiment taught us most people don’t need either.
4Chan once defined countless meme formats and served as a hub during the golden age of well-intentioned hactivism. Simply put, it changed the language of the internet. And its commitment to anonymity, not data collection, has served as a chaotic counterbalance to the most powerful forces on the web. It’s also rightfully earned a bad rap for being a home to trolls, vicious racists, and all sorts of other degenerates. It’s led to Nazi uprisings, hoaxes, and harassment. It may have even given us President Donald Trump. Given all the things that have risen out of 4chan, it’s carved out its place as one of the most vile but consequential places on the internet.
Twitch’s explosion has allowed gaming livestreams to evolve from a niche hobby to full-time careers. The communal aspect of Twitch forms a huge part of its appeal, whether it’s for watching zeitgeist games like Fortnite or Overwatch, or watching livestreamed marathons of Bob Ross with thousands of other people, to just watching people live their lives in the IRL channel. But anywhere on the web where minor celebrities collide with mobs of anonymous users, there’s bound to be some degree of harassment. It’s gotten to the point where swatting—calling a SWAT team on a streamer mid-livestream—has become more commonplace. It’s the 21st century version of TV, and it’s not yet done turning weird.
Is this rash on my elbow going to kill me? Before the launch of WebMD in 1996, you’d have to visit a doctor to get a question like that answered. But thanks to WebMD, you can not only look up that rash, you can look up the dozens of other things that are all, somehow, definitely going to kill you.
For many ‘90s internet users, free website host GeoCities was their first experience with both coding and publishing online. The result was a chaotic mix of these GeoCitizens’ thoughts, obsessions, and favorite rotating skull gifs. The user-generated internet of today might be easier to use (and look at), but it feels positively sterile compared to the web’s original lost continent.
Go to Chatroulette.com, and you’ll almost immediately be confronted with stranger’s dick, which is more or less where the website was when it launched nearly a decade ago to a flash of viral popularity. Its functionality is unbelievably simple. Log on, and it plunks you into a video chat with a random stranger. Don’t like what you see? Click next. And so on until you’ve had enough. The concept is harmless enough, but knowing what we do now about terrible people on the internet: Of course it blossomed into cesspool of surprise dicks instead of into a font of thoughtful conversation.
Homestar Runner is the quintessential Flash animation series. Launched in 2000, the cartoon website grew into an internet phenomenon, largely through word of mouth, with series like “Strong Bad Email” and the annual Halloween specials. Now that Flash (mostly) doesn’t work anymore, the website has switched to a YouTube channel, where Mike and Matt Chapman—better known as the Brothers Chaps—post the occasional new April Fools Day episode or other one-off specials.
From glitter and yarn to metalwork and 3D printing, Etsy is an enormous hub for individuals to find homes for their creative wares. Whereas artists once had to rely on local craft fairs or small boutiques to make a living, the e-commerce site allowed them to reach the masses. And if you are dying to live large in the vintage lifestyle but your local flea markets just weren’t cutting it, Etsy always has what you’re looking for.
It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary Hulu was when it launched in 2007. If you wanted to be a cordcutter and drop your cable company back in those days, you have extremely limited (and expensive) options for getting your TV shows next day. Hulu gave you a way to watch TV shows, all through the thing we used to call the magic of the internet.
Imgur founder and CEO Alan Schaaf didn’t invent image hosting—but he did make it suck a whole lot less. Created specifically for sharing images on Reddit, Imgur made uploading and sharing photos and (later) GIFs clean and simple. And the Reddit community rewarded Schaaf by almost exclusively using Imgur for their posts on the site, allowing him to turn Imgur into a well-funded business and a social network in its own right. Of course, Reddit last year launched native image hosting, screwing Imgur over—but hey, this is the internet. Everything disappoints you eventually.
In the beginning, before Kim Dotcom was internationally known as a festering sentient potato that sometimes rolls off the couch to squeal stupid things on the internet, he was the proprietor of Megaupload, an online file-transfer and storage platform so effective at distributing pirated intellectual property that it was dramatically raided and shut down by the Department of Justice in 2012. The ensuing legal battle and subsequent collapse of Dotcom’s image are all distractions from one fact: Megaupload was a good-ass way to steal music.
For 18 years, users have been allowed to submit virtually any artwork they want, and they’ve certainly taken advantage of the freedom. Yet somehow, pregnant Sonic the Hedgehogs, Kirk and Spock making out, airbrushed warlocks, and anime have all merged into an aesthetic that is instantly recognizable and can only be called by one name: DeviantArt.
Before Facebook and Instagram, Flickr was the place to put your photos. You can still find snapshots from family gatherings, the White House, and NASA next to landscapes HDR’d to the max. And it remains a solid platform for amateur photographers. Flickr is a bit quieter nowadays, but it’s one of the few early sites that gives you little reason to hate yourself for using it.
There was a brilliant period of time when SoundCloud gave aspiring young musicians and DJs an easy way to upload and share their music. Then, along came the copyright hawks, and Spotify, and the record companies, and other jerks who chipped away at SoundCloud’s glory. Now, SoundCloud is a great place to host your own podcast, not the remix mecca it used to be.
As much as we all love it when traditional, “respectable” dictionaries decide to participate in cultural conversations via subtweet, there’s still a degree to which the institutions are playing catch-up in terms of cataloging contemporary words and idioms. By being crowdsourced, Urban Dictionary circumvents other dictionaries’ general slowness to change and keep pace with the times in a way that makes it an invaluable digital resource.
A year after Open Diary and Xanga, LiveJournal became a go-to destination for confessional writing, paving the way for a decade of oversharing. Russian-owned since 2007, it remains popular mostly with Russian-speakers and is subject to some draconian-ass censorship laws.
Launched in 1996, MapQuest was the first mainstream mapping website that gave users directions. For the first time ever, people didn’t need to give you turn by turn directions on how to get from point A to point B—the computer did it. It still helped if you had a basic knowledge of maps, but MapQuest opened new doors (and gave drivers new confidence) in exploring the physical world.
It’s hard to remember a time when Kickstarter wasn’t a nightmare filled with imaginary products that will most likely never see the light of day. But the crowdfunding site has also been responsible for a handful of success stories, including the Oculus Rift. At best, it connects inventors directly to consumers, letting them front the cost of developing a new knick-knack or gadget while also making them shoulder most of the risk. The site has had its share of spectacular failures and scams as a result, but we keep going back for the potential it has to help realize a truly innovative product.
In the early 2000s, eBaums was the meme site before the word “memes” creeped its way into everyday life. A mainstay of early web culture, it gave us all the weird, creepy content to troll your younger siblings with as you stayed up until 3am browsing through to find the best of the worst. Now that the internet has grown up a little, it’s clear that it’s mostly just the worst.
For the 99.999 percent of adults who never realized their childhood dream of becoming an astronaut, Google’s in-browser virtual globe app may be the next best thing. A one-stop shop for the best satellite snaps of our dizzyingly beautiful planet from mountain glaciers to rainforests, Google Earth has only gotten better over the years as the technology used to image our planet improves. It’s also hands-down the most accurate tool for measuring your distance to the nearest Waffle House, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The era of Yahoo’s dominance was a more innocent time. What was once a massively popular and seemingly innocuous email hosting service, search engine, and news site would soon be known for its litany of screwups, including one of the largest (and most poorly handled) data breaches of all time—a breathtakingly spectacular failure to witness. But hey, at least it’s not, uh, fueling genocide?
Thanks to Github, professional and amateur developers work together to make projects that wouldn’t be possible on their own. More than anything, it’s a driver of work on open-source software and a great place to gank code that others were kind enough to slave over for free.
Whether you want it to or not, Rotten Tomatoes has become a huge part of not just film criticism but film fandom. It’s grown hugely from its humble beginnings 20 years ago, and now its aggregate of film and review scores, the tomatometer, has become not only a make-or-break marketing metric for studios, but even the absurd battleground for internet fandom wars, from Batman v Superman to Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Running on Wiki software, KnowYourMeme’s editors and research community document viral internet lore—memes’ beginnings, movements, transformations, and public reactions. Launched in 2008, the site quickly outgrew its video series predecessor and has since survived a messy acquisition. Now, as weaponized memes have permanently bled into our daily lives, KYM isn’t just a resource for people who want to know what the fuck everyone’s talking about, but a living historical document of a stranger-than-fiction time.
NASA has long been a core liaison between humans and space. Scientists use its observing tools to make fantastic discoveries and create mind-blowing images that awe the public. NASA’s website serves as its mouthpiece—nearly every piece of space-related news you’ve read started with a picture, some text, and a few quotes from a NASA webpage.
Gawker was a good website.*
Tim Berners-Lee defined the way we interact with one another over the internet when he created the first web browser and website of the World Wide Web in the late-‘80s and early ‘90s. The internet had long been under development as a communication tool, but the WorldWideWeb defined how we’d use it. The internet’s complexity may have grown to bewildering levels, but ultimately, we use it the same way that Berners-Lee envisioned it: a web of HTML documents defined by their URLs connected through links.
Few people could have predicted that the college directory Mark Zuckerberg started in his dorm room would grow into an international behemoth of a corporation with the power to upend the basic functioning of democracy around the world. Many would have guessed that Facebook would become a magnificent ad engine that would slurp up as much data about its users as possible and use that information in mysterious ways. Yet, here we are.
After the screeching sound of a dialup connection, the first thing many of us heard on the internet was “welcome, you’ve got mail.” If the dial-up hiss was the sound of getting online, “you’ve got mail” was the sound of what it meant to be online: a human connection through the static and noise.
Any semi-competent person could’ve launched a successful e-commerce business in the mid-90's, but only Jeff Bezos had the foresight, acumen, greed, and ruthlessness to make something like Amazon. It began as a simple online bookstore, but two innovations made it into the retail juggernaut it is today: 1-click ordering, which it patented in 1999, and free two-day shipping, which it introduced in 2005. Perhaps more than any other website, Amazon is responsible for the era of unmitigated convenience—an era defined by shitty labor practices and strong-arm tactics.
The same way Napster helped fuel the popularity of peer-to-peer file sharing by making it easy to find MP3s and enrage the Recording Industry Association of America, The Pirate Bay made downloading everything else, including movies, more accessible with a giant directory of available torrents (most of which were, let’s be honest, probably illegal). But while the RIAA was able to nuke Napster and similar apps, in almost 15 years the Motion Picture Association of America has yet to been able to wipe The Pirate Bay completely off the internet. Its resilience has been its best feature, and while it’s no longer the site of choice for torrenters, it helped popularize those tools as being the best way to download the latest, uh, Linux builds. Yeah, Linux builds.
This microblogging/social network hybrid was born in 2007 and has since grown into a phenomenon 400+ million-Tumblrs strong. It still maintains thriving communities and serves as the foundation for many marginalized creators’ careers, especially those who get their start in fanart and move to comics or animation. While many teens have moved to Instagram, Tumblr has carved out a place on the internet for fandoms of all kinds. And for those who don’t fit in on Snapchat and Instagram, Tumblr is still the go-to place for community, especially for queer teens.
What started as a series of lists in an old Usenet group quickly evolved into what became the go-to stop for anyone looking to find out who “that guy from that thing” was. While entertainment production information may not be high on many people’s lists of important information, the Internet Movie Database is a vital instrument in keeping track of television, movie, and video game history.
People born after the early aughts will never really know what it’s like to have to really work to get their hands on pornography—to search for discarded Playboys in the woods behind their houses or steal issues of Men’s Fitness for, you know, workout tips. While PornHub has had an undeniably devastating impact on the porn industry, it also can’t be overstated how much of an impact it’s had on our culture and the ways we talk about and consume porn.
Aesthetically, it’s never been much to look at, but Craigslist is a living fossil of the internet that should have been—a shockingly profitable anomaly among the ad-supported megaplatforms and data-mining operations disguised as services. Unfortunately, the rise of this classifieds site came alongside the decline of newspapers and alt-weeklies, and we’re still debating how much Craigslist is responsible for the downfall of journalism. Regardless, Craigslist has retained its usefulness to countless people for over two decades, and of the many people to become fantastically wealthy in the technology sector, founder Craig Newmark is among the most famously charitable.
The internet has made it possible for urban legends, bullshit rumors, and obvious hoaxes to go viral almost instantly. Enter Snopes, which has been around since 1994 and has long since become an invaluable, trustworthy source for fact-checking, debunking, and shutting down hysterical comment threads on Facebook.
This is perhaps one of the few wildly popular social networks that didn’t derail into total chaos and destruction. It taught many how to code thanks to its customization options, and it taught even more how to be petty. But if MySpace really taught us anything, it’s that not all great things should last forever.
Plagued by scams over the years, the site was once famously propped up by the reselling of Beanie Babies, and it helped support PayPal, an money service that would try to be the internet’s bank without all the regulation. But eBay has endured scandals, bad press, and unsavory affiliations because it continues to be really, really good at one thing: helping you buy obscure shit on the internet.
It’s safe to assume a site that calls itself “the front page of the internet” is full of shit. But Reddit is, like it or not, the closest thing you can get. Founded in 2005, Reddit has grown from a link-sharing and commenting site primarily for the programmer crowd into a baffling hive of every possible online community you can imagine—with all the LOLs, Awwws, and scumbaggery that come with it. Despite the cesspool of bad opinions, stale memes, misogynists, and PM’d dick pics, there’s a good reason over 230 million people voluntarily visit Reddit every month. (Porn, the reason is probably porn.)
First its flimsy red mailers freed us from schlepping on Friday nights to the neighborhood Blockbuster. Then the streaming service practically killed the cable box, so thoroughly transforming TV viewers into binge-watchers that “Netflix and chill” became a half-hearted euphemism for sex. Its streaming catalog may seem dingy now—but hell, at least we got a few good “Netflix Originals” out of it.
If you utter the phrase “hell site,” odds are someone will know you’re talking about Twitter. For many, especially non-white-dudes, it’s a haven only if you’re looking for harassment and despair. But where else can you get news the second it happens, personally yell at Elon Musk, and watch our republic die in real time? Where else would something as sublime as Horse_Ebooks take root? Anyone who says they remember when Twitter was good is lying. But the content scrolls on, and we can’t look away.
The website of websites. The Internet Archive not only saves politicians’ most embarrassing moments for our future reference through its Wayback Machine, it also curates thousands of forgotten gems for us to rediscover. A trip to the archive’s homepage is the perfect way to get out of an internet rut and remind yourself why this whole thing is special.
Comedy, especially the kind of throwaway gags the internet traffics in, doesn’t always age well. But two decades after launching its satirical news site, The Onion remains the web’s chief authority on the absurdity of our world and the media that covers it. As a Univision property, it’s true that The Onion now shares a parent company with Gizmodo, but only a supreme asshole could deny the caustic brilliance of headlines like: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
If you ever tried to find a video of your favorite band or bloopers from your favorite show on the web before YouTube, then you understand just how important the site has been to make video content available to anyone with internet. The YouTube of 2018 isn’t just about making video more accessible; it’s created cottage industries around influencers, given voices to those who’d lacked it—sometimes with disastrous results—and concocted a whole new way to push us over the edge.
View the 1998 version of virtually any website, and you’ll likely be horrified by a logic-defying layout and equally hideous graphics. But Google.com has remained relatively unchanged since its first iteration, and its simple search bar is still the easiest way to navigate the internet. Google’s PageRank algorithm took much of the chaos out of online search, and its ever-improving AI means you can search for “moive shotims near me” and still find exactly what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, mastering search was the first step in Google’s path toward internet domination that, over the past two decades, has seeped into virtually every nook and cranny of our lives.
There’s no other major website that has fulfilled its promise and stuck to its original ideals the way that Wikipedia has. The Gizmodo staff is based in North America, and our choices on this list reflect our own little bubble, but there’s no denying that Wikipedia has had a global effect. Collecting millions of articles in hundreds of languages about all manner of topics is a baffling accomplishment. The fact that this gargantuan encyclopedia has been pulled together through mass cooperation, compromise, and collective generosity is nothing short of a miracle.
Wikipedia has refined its system of volunteer editors and citation requirements since it first came online in 2001, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It’s a self-correcting organism that’s sometimes prone to bullshit and vandalism, but it mostly seems to find a way to steer itself back toward something close to right and true. And all of this time, it’s managed to do this without advertising or becoming evil.
We live in a moment when few people seem to agree on a shared reality. Wikipedia has been diligently working away at creating some kind of record that can stand as an acceptable version of the truth. And when it gets it wrong, there’s always a chance to make an edit.
*Disclosure: Gizmodo was previously owned by Gawker Media, former parent company of Gawker (RIP).