The first digital publications by and for New Zealanders were the Usenet newsgroups under the ‘nz.’ hierarchy, beginning with nz.general and nz.netstatus, which were created in 1985, after Victoria University of Wellington established a dial-up connection to the international Usenet service. It would be another four years before New Zealand got its first permanent connection to the global internet, at the University of Waikato.
The first newsgroups were created without discussion, simply because there was no one to discuss them with. Other groups, including nz.politics and nz.soc.queer, followed over the years.
Although Usenet was largely supplanted by web-based forums, and then social media sites, to become a historical curiosity for most New Zealanders, it was the first taste of internet culture for many. In 1997, years before he launched the well-known Kiwiblog, David Farrar successfully proposed the nz.reg hierarchy of regional newsgroups.
From 1990, working during university holidays, Nat Torkington had begun exploring the web. He became part of the WWW Talk mailing list discussing the nature of the web with Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen (founder of the first browser, Mosaic). He also put together the first World Wide Web frequently asked questions list which was reproduced around the globe. Torkington explained: ‘That’s the great thing about the Web … nobody knows you’re a dog, and nobody knows you’re an undergraduate from New Zealand … the first people into a technology become the gurus and it doesn’t matter where they are.’1
Early days of the web
The concept and tools of the World Wide Web were first launched onto the world by Tim Berners-Lee in August 1991. His idea was that, through a browser program, a user could enter a domain address (or URL) and find a website. Within each site pages could be hyperlinked to other web pages. The first operating website in the world was created in 1991. New Zealand’s first website, directory created by Nat Torkington for Victoria University, appeared the next year. Torkington also ran the web server that hosted the page.
Although a few local websites – Mark Proffitt's Akiko, Rob Cawte's Web Workshop and Bruce Simpson's Aardvark – made independent forays into online publishing in the early 1990s, mainstream media content was initially available only away from the public internet, on Compuserve and, to a much lesser degree, Apple's eWorld Service.
When Xtra launched in 1996 its X-Ville homepage, created by Telecom's Brisbane subsidiary Digital Video Productions, was controversial. Modelled on the home screen of Apple's eWorld, it weighed in at 135KB – a trifle at today's internet speeds, but a roadblock for users in the mid-1990s. Behind it lay news, entertainment and feature content that represented Telecom's first real foray into media.
1996: the web takes off
In the mid-1990s computers were still a luxury item, and in 1995 only 21.7% of households had one. One survey claimed in 1996 that only one in five New Zealanders had heard of the internet. Those who accessed it were overwhelmingly male and aged 20 to 39.
But things changed fast. As it became easier to get online and more affordable to stay there, the number of sites increased. In 1994, the total of .nz registered sites was 272. The number jumped to 701 in 1995 and then to 3,627 in 1996.
1996 proved to be a pivotal year:
- Information technology weekly Computerworld became the first print newspaper to hire dedicated online editorial staff and publish daily news at idg.net.nz.
- Two low-key staff initiatives – one at the Department of Internal Affairs, the other at the Ministry of Commerce – combined to launch the first New Zealand government website at govt.nz.
- In November the National Business Review launched NBR Business Centre Online, a labyrinthine offering of newsfeeds and databases targeted at paying subscribers.
- On 1 May Telecom launched its long-awaited consumer internet service provider (ISP), Xtra. Months later Clear Communications' Clearnet ISP launched with similar content offerings.
In a sphere defined by rapid change, few first efforts endured. Radio New Zealand's first presence was a private venture by Michael Sutton of Wellington, who licensed the public broadcaster's signal and delivered it over the internet from 1997 until 2001, when the licence was not renewed.
In May 1999, less than two-and-a-half years and one major redesign since launch, the National Business Review closed its website. Its publisher, Barry Colman, explained that the paper would focus on providing electronic publishing services to other sites. The New Zealand Herald's online launch in 1998 replaced a now-forgotten early version. Similarly the Stuff news site, when launched in 2001, absorbed the existing websites of the Dominion's Infotech Weekly supplement and The Press of Christchurch. Television New Zealand's NZoom web portal, an ambitious venture created in 2000 as a stand-alone company, was shut down and folded back into its parent just three years later.