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Then vs. Now: 90s Problems

Type: All  |  Category: Then vs. Now  |  Date: 15th January 2018

We all usually look back to your youth with fondness – but you can’t help but look a little closer sometimes and remember those little niggles that would drive you up the wall; or upon reflection you realise how bad those ‘good’ days were! We humorously take a look at some of our favourite inventions and 90s problems!

Then vs. now – remembering 90s problems funny

What decade really rocked? To help celebrate our new ‘Retro’ yearbook theme, Leavers’ Books are taking a look at the eras that influenced its design – the 80s and 90s. Each month, we humorously discuss what was great (and not so great!) about the good ol’ days and if they still stand the test of time!

Have you ever come across the phrase ‘first world problems’? Someone every said that to you? That developed out of finding little niggles with modern life. Whilst we appreciate access to clean water, a roof over our heads at night, a nice duvet, the NHS and re-runs of Friends at our disposal, there can still be things to annoy, frustrate and cause problems to the every habits of a person here in the UK.

From that, stems the idea of ‘90s problems’ – reminiscent niggles that when you look back, realise how funny they are, and how obsolete they are now – but my goodness, the pain of them at that time. The even thought of those problems now can make your blood boil and you’re zapped with a hit of nuisance.

Whilst the thrill of a toy coming out of a cereal box is long gone, we can still try to replicate that with nostalgia as we take a walk down memory lane and talk technology, quirks, libraries, and stinging sensations in the ultimate list of 90s and 00s problems.

So let’s discuss what we’re glad to see the back of (but miss nonetheless).

The Phone

Life was good. Plans were made, and stuck to. If you wanted to meet someone, you had to agree to it and stick to it! There was never really a way of backing out last minute once you verbally confirmed. It’s all gravy once you either get past the awkward small talk of your friend’s parents when they pick up the phone, before they pass you over, or the petrifying mystery of who is on the other end when you answer the call.

Or do you just remember saying ‘Call me back after 9pm when my phone is free’?

The problem with the phone was its cord – never quite long enough for you to sit on the stairs, so you had to stand awkwardly in the hall way, trying to lean against the wall or banister.

Speaking of cords... There was no WiFi, no cool powerful ‘waves’ in the air – we had cables, and lots of them. They’d run from the phone box all the way around the house to the corner of the living room that your father called his ‘office’. There, it jumbled up and connected the Windows computer to the internet.

I don’t know about any other family, but for us, we had to run the cable out each time we wanted to use it – and once we were done, wind the cable back up in a curl. Try sneaking onto Neopets when there’s a system like that in place!

The sound you would hear as you tried to connect to the 28k or 56k modem is probably one that will haunt you to your grave, am I right? It would make a dog jump up and the hairs on your neck stand up on end. Piercing.

Of course, you couldn’t even use the landline phone to call out if at the same time as someone was on the internet...

Example of a 90s problem – the phone

The Internet

What do we remember about the internet when it first became commonplace in your home and mine? What did we have before? How did we cope? Notably one thing we rely on heavily today is Google, and specifically Wikipedia. For answers, debate-settling, knowledge, the works.

I have literally no idea how students survived and made their essay word count. Before Wikipedia, we had Encarta. That encyclopedic guide you would have on a CD and insert into your computer for resolution. If you wanted images, you’d check out Clip Art and hope for the best.

When you think of images, you’re reminded of the slow, slow download speeds associated with them. How they would slowly load. Starting with a black screen, then the 8-bits, turned to 16-bits, and so on, as the graphics slowly got better, and you could make out the picture more as it began to look less like a mosaic and more like what you wanted to see (ie. a dog).

Advancing from talking on the phone – there was instant messaging. But with it, came many burdens. AOL Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger were the two top contenders for killing time on a weekday evening. You’d divvy up the time talking to friends, being part of big group conversations, or thinking of what crazy message to put in your little ‘message’ section – be it song lyrics, how you’re feeling, or obscure symbols and your crushes initials. Just who was R.L.?

Just how would you get the attention of your crush? By signing in and out continuously. A little pop-up alert in the bottom right hand corner would display on everyone’s computer to let them know you were back online (y’know, just in case they missed the alert the first 12 times) - it was their job to start the conversation, not yours! You could see yourself also having deep conversations with a person in your year as the sun raced off, because they were the only one online at the time... Only to not look them in the eyes again in the corridors.

Or you could just say ‘oh sorry, that was my friend’.

The Computer

They were big, they were blocky, and you’d spend half your time picking out the gunk from inside the mouse, but computers were cool and changed the game.

After your fun however, you’d have to shut it down; the same way you’d have to turn off the lights when you left a room because “this place isn’t a hotel”. You were supposed to be patient when shutting down a computer. I mean, you wouldn’t, but you were supposed to be. That ‘It is now safe to turn off your computer’ message would spark up, but you’d already have had your finger on the ‘power’ button for eight seconds. Rule breaker since day dot.

The height of creativity came in the form of ‘hmm, what style of WordArt should I should to display my name today?’, and you may go one step further when you realised how to make coloured dots flash and march around your regular text too. When there was an error, a pop-up box would appear, and rather than heed its advice, you’d drag around the screen and as the computer was so slow, it couldn’t wipe the trail quick enough – leaving your entire screen covered with a distorted pop-up box montage.

Programmes > Accessories > Games > Solitaire. There was no better feeling than when you saw the crescendo of cards crash down the screen. That is, if you weren’t lucky enough to also have Pinball installed on your machine.

You better pray you had time on your hands. Copy and pasting a folder full of documents was no quick fix. Once you start the job, you’d be notified it’s going to take 29 years to complete, as you slowly watch the animation of a piece of paper flying from one folder to another, kissing goodbye your Saturday afternoon.

Example of a 90s problem – the computer

The Floppy Disk

Let’s talk storage of files: 3½-inch floppy disks. They could hold about 50 images on that you’d save from the internet; you’d play with the silver slider at the top; you’d try to label them with stickers (like VHSs) but fail; they’d be in all types of colours because your parents would steal them from work; and you’d try to keep them together by a rubber band or in a plastic case with a see-thru top.

They were apps of yester-year, weren’t they? Insert disc 1 of 3 to slowly begin installing a software programme to your hard drive. Like a website made of paper – one of those magazine things – the floppy disks would be glued to the front with free samples for you to try out. They were your keys to a new door. And just like your keys, you’d always lose them.

The CD

As we progressed with technology, CDs seemed like the way forward, but the problems we encountered were far from progressive. Once we discovered you could burn music onto a CD, my father would be down the local library every weekend, renting out a CD, copying it, burning the music onto a CD, scanning the cover and printing it off. Bootleg at its finest. But it was never that straight forward and easy, was it?

Do you remember the frustrating when no music would play, and your CD player would sound like it’s  spinning for an eternity, before ‘No Disc’ would appear on its little screen? This was before it’d even get scratched! Or do you remember the big CD wallets? Those folders that would have space for 4 CDs per page and just sit on your passenger car seat?

How about the luxury that was the portable CD player? They were naturally never small enough to fit in your jacket pocket or jeans, but you’d find a way to make it balance in there.

CDs in general where part phenomenon, part enigma. When purchasing a new one, you would be overly-excited to play it, which would cause the problem – the struggles of getting it out of its cellophane wrap without the help of a pair of scissors or anything to cut it open. Then you realise you still struggle with this today.

Imagine the horror however, when albums would come without booklets. How on earth were you going to learn the lyrics to track number seven now? Some people just wanted to watch the world burn.

Example of a 90s problem – the cd

The Cassette Tape

Long before we had the CD, we had the cassette tape. If you thought pulling your headphones out of your pocket to realise they’re tangled, have you ever spared a thought for those older than you who would pull a cassette tape out of a player only to realise the dark tape strip has come undone? Then, the only way to put the strip of music back into the cassette casing was to grab the pencil nearest to you, stick it in one of the two holes, twist away and pray.

If you didn’t act on this, the tape would form a nest, gathering junk along the way; tangling up anything in its path. That music, lost forever. You weren’t getting that back!

Recording a song off the radio was no easy chore. It was a feat simply out of your hands; timing was not enough. Pressing ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time, at the right time, moments after you missed the introduction guitar riff as the DJ was talking over it, introducing the song. But what if they stopped the song mid-way through for an advert, or just decided to talk again? Ruined. Time to wait another four hours for the song to come around again.


“Who didn’t rewind Braveheart?!” you’d hear bellowed out from the living room. The bane of having to shield your eyes or look away entirely from the television as you rewound the tape, and held down the button to make it rewind quicker. In essence, the only way to ensure the film wasn’t spoilt for you (despite knowing what happens, having watched it 20 times prior; most recently Sunday afternoon on ITV because “it’s always better when it’s on TV with the ad breaks”).

Scan the book case to see a plethora of VHS tapes without cases, but white stickers donning illegible felt-tip pen scribbles, words crossed out, and corners ripped. Even when a new white sticker was placed on top, you could still see the writing from the one underneath. It became a true mystery was content the tape had recorded; would you be taping over the news report granddad was in, or last week’s omnibus of Another World?

For the long films, VHSs would come in 2 tapes, so you knew you were in for a long viewing. But when the tapes were orange, you knew you were in for a good viewing.

The adventure, the wonder - going into Blockbuster was like a mini-holiday. You’d dive head-first into the same section of the shop time and time again, looking at the same tape you knew your parents would never rent out. But there was still that charm about the bottles of Coca-Cola and popcorn that lined the aisles that gave you hope. You would just stare at the boxes, and sometimes, that was enough.

Example of a 90s problem – the tv vhs

The Camera

Back when things weren’t instant, cameras could be a real kick in the teeth. Picture this (if you’ll pardon the pun), you’ve been away on holiday for two weeks in the glorious sands of the Caribbean, you’ve had the time of your life, and captured those perfect moments with your disposable. Upon returning home, you’re likely to experience one of three scenarios:

Scenario 1: Your photos come back from Boots and they’re better than you could imagine! Everything is wonderful, your team just won 2-0, and you also find a fiver on the floor as you’re walking home from the shops.

Scenario 2: Having waited ages to get your photos back from the lab, you realise they are all pretty much too dark, too blurry, or your thumb has covered half the shot.

Scenario 3: Unbeknownst to you, your youngest played with the camera whilst you were towelling off after a lovely sun. At one stage, he opened the back of the camera before quickly shutting it. You get your photos back from the lab a week later to see they’re all white and sun-bursts. Your team also get stuffed 4-0 at home.

The Mobile Phone

Did you ever write a note in class and get so nervous that someone would read it whilst it’s on its way to your friend sitting at the opposite end of the classroom? How trusting were we, and how nice was is that if you were asked to pass a note on, you just would. Such a good communal vibe. Way back before you could blame not-having-signal or your battery died.

But of course, back then in the late 90s (and early 2000s), the batteries of mobile phones would not die. Your Nokia 3310 would lose maybe 2% over an entire day.

A lot more time and dedication went into texting ‘back in the day’. If you wanted the letter ‘s’, you’d hit that ‘7’ button 4 times. That’s dedication. But after your texting binge/marathon, 40 messages deep you’d see ‘No space for new messages’ pop up on your screen. What texts then would make the cut, and what ones would you have to delete to free up space?

Remember in 2006 when you accidentally hit the internet button on your flip phone and then you had to press ‘end’ or the hang up button 40 times to keep your parents from paying for such a  luxury? Or were you too busy staring endlessly at the back of magazines, checking out the adverts for what ringtone you would have your phone, or what image you’d like to be as your background. Back when it was just black pixels in the smallest rectangle imaginable.

You could spend £7.50 trying to download the file, or have a pop at Bluetooth transferring – aligning two phone next to each other and waiting, waiting, forever waiting....

The Other Stuff...

Did you ever feel bad for all those Tamagotchis you forgot to feed? Under my bed must’ve been a Tamagotchi graveyard. That, or your buttons were stuck down you just had to watch it slowly suffer before your eyes. It could be quite traumatic for someone quite young.

Before we transgressed to hand-held toys and games, there simply was the local park. A place where you would stare at wonder to kids not from your school, but also cry out in pain in the summer; and why? For on a hot day, that metal slide was nothing short of torture. Quite easily the simplest way to get third-degree burns from touching it, let alone sliding down in your shorts or skirt. Not to mention the temporary blindness from the reflection.

A real problem when playing came in the form of younger siblings. What to do with them? You’d end up forcing the youngest to be the villain from Power Rangers or just stand there as you perfect your Rock Bottom or Stone Cold Stunner. They were there to be taken advantage of. In the same way you’d convince them they wanted something cheaper from the ice cream van so you could get something more expensive, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shaped bar.

But you weren’t the real con-man back in the day, long before the shock of XXX Mint shower gel. It came in the form of L'Oréal and that tagline ‘no more tears’.

Worst of all, the real problem... Do you still refer to the 90s as ‘only ten years ago’? I know I do. Everyday struggles, man.

Image credit: Friends (NBC), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (ABC), Saved by the Bell (NBC), and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (NBC).

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