First Impressions

The other day, in response to “Like” buttons popping up all over the internet and Facebook officially staking its claim as the future overlord of our online lives, I thought it would be fun to dig up an article from my college newspaper published immediately after the University of Chicago was brought into the then-exclusive Facebook world.  It’s funny to think about a time when we were still calling it thefacebook.com, you had to have a legitimate email address from a small group of approved schools to join, and none of us could really see much of a future for it.

That didn’t stop us from checking it obsessively, adding people as “friends” that we hadn’t spoken to in years, and following along with Zuckerberg as he added photo albums, status updates, and a news feed to our lives.  Sure, we complained about every change (one would think we would have learned to trust them), but we kept going back, and now, six years later, Facebook has passed Google as the most visited web site in the United States.

Anyway, reading that old article got me thinking about first impressions for other things in our lives that we now take for granted.  Now that all these old articles are archived, mostly for free, online, it’s easy to go back and see what we thought of these unfamiliar items and people when we first came into contact with them.  Almost all of the articles cited here are from The New York Times, mostly because its archive is so conveniently comprehensive and easy to search.  Let’s start with something that I now own six of (not all of them still functioning).

The iPod

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A lot of the initial press that the iPod generated seems sort of laughably understated today, but it made sense to not freak out about it when it was introduced.  It’s not like Apple invented digital music files, after all, and the Mac exclusivity at the time did severely limit the market, especially considering that a lot fewer people had Macs back then (Johanna and I are both examples of recent converts).

That said, shouldn’t we have known this was a big deal?  I mean, it was inevitable that Apple would make a PC-friendly version, right?  The closest this NYTimes article comes to speculation about that possibility is this sentence: “Apple said it had not yet decided whether to introduce a version of the music player for computers with the Windows operating system, which is used by more than 90 percent of personal computer users.”

I have to wonder if Apple just introduced the original in a Mac-only format as a ploy, knowing that they would quickly offer another version, like how the iPhone’s price dropped so quickly and suspiciously back in 2007, or if they actually thought this would be popular enough on its own to drive people to Mac and dramatically increase their market share.  After all, the article does say that Steve Jobs thought the exclusivity would “inspire consumers to buy Macintosh computers so they could use an iPod.”

It might have worked, except for the fact that not being able to use one with his or her own computer, and probably not knowing too many people that owned both a Mac and an iPod at the time, the average PC user wouldn’t even come into contact with an iPod, let alone desire one so strongly that it changed his or her brand loyalty.  By introducing a PC-friendly version and letting the whole world get their hands on an iPod and see how it changed their lives, Apple got people to switch their brand loyalty in a much sneakier, back-door way.  After all, the thinking went, if Apple makes this music player that I love so much, how great must their computers be?

Here, from the article, are the specs of the original: “The iPod, which will sell for $399 when it becomes available on Nov. 10, is something of a hybrid of existing products. At 4 inches by just under 2.5 inches and just over three-quarters of an inch thick, it is as small as flash players, but it has a 5-gigabyte hard drive, large enough to store 1,000 songs.”

CNN seems to have had a better idea of the importance of the iPod, as this semi-excited review shows.

I love this line: “The drive’s enormous cache — 32MB of solid-state RAM — virtually eliminates skipping; shaking the iPod vigorously and even banging it against things didn’t interrupt smooth play.”

Skipping!  I almost forgot about how things used to skip!

This also seemed sort of weird and antiquated: “It’s unfortunate that Apple didn’t include a belt clip, case, or arm band like those that come with other music players.”

A belt clip?

Amazon.com

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You know, until I did the research for this entry, I had pretty much forgotten that Amazon used to just be an online bookstore.  I buy everything on Amazon now.  My sister bought a wheelbarrow on Amazon.  Johanna once bought me a bulk box of sour cherry balls.

This article from 1996 is pretty interesting.  It’s funny to think back to a time when a lot of big companies had not yet gone online, and were still trying to figure out what to do.  According to the article, “The impending arrival of Barnes & Noble and Borders is being closely watched by veterans of Internet commerce who expect that the two brand names will quickly dominate the Internet marketplace.”

That didn’t really happen.  And the smartest guy in the room, Jeff Bezos, seemed to know it wasn’t going to happen: “‘I’m actually more worried about two guys in a garage than Barnes & Noble,’ Mr. Bezos said. ‘It’s a totally different business and the chains are going to have a lot of unlearning to do. One of the differences with the physical bookstores is this notion of one-to-one selling. On line that’s what it’s all about. You have to focus on one particular customer.’”

I also think it’s interesting that as of September 1996 Amazon had not yet been profitable.

Here’s another great article from 1996 that is probably one of the first of what has become an annual tradition: articles about how people are doing their Christmas shopping online.

This line is maybe the funniest and most telling: “Private on-line services like America Online and Compuserve also offer electronic stores, but the Internet has a far greater variety.”  I just love the idea of “the Internet” competing with Compuserve for shoppers.

At the time, Americans apparently spent $49 million shopping from home using catalogs and television ads, and only $1 billion over the internet.  The article points to people’s fears about credit card security online, but the real issue seems to be that retailers just hadn’t figured out how to sell stuff yet, and were still stuck in the past.  Reading the section of the article about the best “shopping malls on the web” literally had me laughing out loud.

Really, the whole article is worth a look.  It’s full of great quotes, such as:

“Most home computers, for example, don’t display photographs that have the quality of a glossy print in a catalogue.”

and

“Compact disks are perhaps the most popular merchandise sold on the Web — and are in some ways the best suited to it. CD-NOW (www.cdnow.com), the most popular music store on the Web, has the largest inventory of CD’s.”

Let’s steer away from the tech stuff, in interest of variety, and take a look at the origin story of our 44th President.

Barack Obama

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Obama’s first mention in The New York Times is from longer ago than you might have guessed: February 5th, 1990.  He had just been elected as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.  He was 28 at the time, which means I have just under six months to get an article written about me in The New York Times earlier than Obama did.  Things are not looking good.

Here’s a funny article from 1991 about the making of a calendar featuring black male Harvard law students.  Surprisingly, Obama did not make the cut.

Jump forward thirteen years to 2004 and we have this article about Obama’s rapid rise as he catapulted into the national spotlight. From it I learned two things:

1) He’s been saying, “Yes we can!” since his senate race.  I did not know this.

2) He absolutely loves referring to himself as “a skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name.”

Then there’s this CNN article which reminds us that Obama would probably not be where he is today if not for a sex scandal involving Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager.

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