Five ways to go back in time on the internet
A standard web search isn't great if you're looking for something older. Digging into the internet's past is possible, but you'll need the right tools.
The World Wide Web has been up and running since the early 1990s, and countless amounts of text, images, video, and audio have been uploaded since then. Run a web search today though, and it’ll serve you the newest pages first. Not great if you’re looking for something older.
Digging into the internet’s past is possible, but you need to have the right tools and techniques for the job. Once you’ve refined your skills, you can pull up everything from your first tweet to famous web pages from the previous century.
Find old pages on the web
Run a standard Google search, and it will show you the most recent and relevant results by default, but you can change that. From the search results page, click Tools, Any time, and Custom range to look for pages published around particular dates. There’s no limit on how far you can go back, though you’ll find diminishing returns as you venture deeper into the historical archives.
Try looking for veteran politicians or long-running TV shows, but adjust the dates to 2000-2010, and you’ll see how opinions can shift dramatically when it comes to people or entertainment. If you’re looking for a specific older article, the date range tool can make the task much easier, and you can add other filters too (e.g. site:popsci.com to restrict the search to a particular domain).
This feature isn’t exclusive to Google—if you prefer Bing, click the Date button on the results page to bring up a custom date selector that works like the one on Google. Unfortunately, the same custom date search feature isn’t available on privacy-focused DuckDuckGo—perhaps because it hasn’t been around for quite as long.
In many cases, sites will render older pages using their current layout and style—presenting the old content in a new way. If you want to see sites as they were in the past, or look up pages that Google and Bing can’t reach, you can turn to the Wayback Machine. It features hundreds of billions of pages preserved exactly as they were originally published.
Type in the name of a website, like www.popsci.com, into the search box on the Wayback Machine, and you’ll see an overview of the pages saved from that domain. You can click into individual years, months, and days to see how those pages looked when they first appeared. These cached pages are fully browsable too, so it’s just like surfing the web in the old days.
The Wayback Machine is the best option for pulling up older pages as they originally were, but there are alternatives. Time Travel searches smaller web archives, including those managed by Stanford and individual countries. You can also find a limited number of official and government sites archived by the US Library of Congress.
If the site you’re looking for is particularly well-known, you might find it preserved in a digital museum. The Web Design Museum has pulled together several hundred significant pages, showcasing some digital design trends of yesteryear, while the Version Museum has captured the changing style of big sites such as Amazon, Apple, Wikipedia, The New York Times, Google, and Facebook.
Find old posts on social media
Searching through older social media posts on Twitter and Facebook requires a different approach. These platforms come with built-in search features and work with a number of third-party tools that you can use to hunt back through years of social media posts, created by you or other people.
The advanced search page on Twitter lets you search for tweets based on the date they were posted (back to when Twitter launched in 2006). Besides the date, you’ll need to enter another search criteria, like a particular user account or a keyword you want to search by.
You can use this search tool to look for your older tweets, or those made by anyone else, as long as the account is public. There are even filters for narrowing your search based on how much engagement the post got—if you’re running a search with a lot of matches, prioritizing the popular tweets can help filter out the noise.
If you want to go back to the very beginning of a Twitter account, the date an account was created is listed on the user’s profile page—that should help you focus your search. You can also request a download of your Twitter archive from this page, by clicking Download an archive of your data. You can open the resulting file in your web browser, and quickly get to your earliest tweet using the list of years and months.
Over on Facebook, posts are much less likely to be public and visible to everyone. You can search the posts of someone you’re friends with by opening a profile and clicking the three dots on the right, followed by Search Profile. When you run a search, you’ll see search filters down the left-hand side, including one for Date posted.
The same filters appear when you run a general search from the box in the top left-hand corner of the Facebook interface: Enter a keyword or two, then hit Enter to run the search. Click Posts and Date posted to narrow the results based on year. It’s not a precise tool, but it might help you find what you’re after more quickly.
Searching your own profile is a much more surgical operation. Click the three dots on the right side of your profile, then Activity log, and Filter to look for posts from a particular year or month. Facebook can bring up searches you ran and posts you liked and commented on, as well as everything you posted yourself, from the selected time period.