It occurred to me recently that this month marks 20 years for me using the internet. Granted, I do have some friends who've been using it even longer than that, since the 80s. In fact I did have a computer in the 80s and wanted a modem at the time, but never got one from my parents. (I'm wondering if seeing the movie "War Games" with my family at the time had a lot to do with that decision. It would be another 10 years for on-line access.) But still, 20 years is a long time, especially since most people by far and large didn't start using the internet until much, much later.
I guess if I could sum up the differences I've seen over the years, it really comes down to the same thing that seems to happen with most other technologies: improvements and new features come along that benefit the user, while simultaneously allowing more stupid and technically-incompetent people in on the action.
Like a lot of people at the time, I got my first email address when I got to college. That was likewise first got on-line. We had a number of UNIX servers all around campus. No mouse, and no graphical web browsers. You just signed in to your UNIX account, and did one of the following:
- Email. Elm and Pine were the big mail readers at the time. I think it's worth mentioning that spam was pretty much unheard of around this time. Finding unsolicited email in your inbox was simply not something that happened. When it did happen, it was really rare. That changed for me a few years later when I was still posting to newsgroups which got scanned by spam bots (programs that tried extracting email addresses from whoever posted).
- Chat rooms. I stayed away from these for the most part, and continued to stay away from them for many years to come. Though I did have a girlfriend at the time who always wanted to use my account to use IRC.
- MUD and other LARP games. On-line multi-player games most certainly existed. The lack of graphics didn't stop anybody from playing them. I saw some classmates who got really, really hooked on MUD. They'd skip classes and spend up to 24 hours straight at the terminal, playing MUD. So I steered clear of MUD.
- Gopher. About the closest thing that we had to the World Wide Web. Though that's really, really stretching it.
- Usenet. Now here's where a lot of hours in my life got sucked in: posting to newsgroups! Newsgroups are internet discussion forums on Usenet. The flame wars of today have got nothin' on Usenet. I have scars to this day from the arguments and flame wars that I'd get on Usenet. I did however meet a lot of real-life friends thanks to Usenet.
- Instant Messages. You could send instant messages to other people who were on-line at the time. You could also set up a private chat with one other person, in a split screen.
- Edit your Public Profile. Before the days where you could set up a website or even join a social networking site, the best you could do was write up some files and make them publicly readable.
Some other musings about the internet, then and now:
- Usenet was the place to find porn at the time. But you didn't have the luxury of being able to browse items by thumbnails. Oh no no no. Your only real hope at the time was to go to a newsgroup like alt.binary.[whatever], wait a minute or two to download a selected image, and hope that its description was accurate.
- Was Napster (circa 2000) where all the illegal music downloading began? No, not by a long shot. Ripping music to sharable files, in and of itself, was nothing new. I remember a classmate around 1994 who had obtained a leaked copy of Rush's album before it had come out. You needed some hacking skills to know how to get it, it took a whole day to download it, and the quality was extra crappy. But it was doable. What happened though, is that 1) computer hard drives got bigger, 2) affordable broadband (to replace dial-up) became more widely available to people, 3) the mp3 format allowed music to take up much smaller sizes, 4) way more people than before were becoming internet users. So when Napster came, having those other elements in place as well as a popular central "go to" spot is what made the piracy hell break loose.
- Most of the people on the internet in the earlier days seemed to be college students and scientists/engineers who had access from work. This meant that the mean IQ of the people you'd run into on a given day was higher than what you find now.
- If you weren't one of the above in the 1990s, then there was a 99% chance you were using AOL. And if you asked people for their "screen name", then it meant you were one of those dolts who assumed that AOL and the Internet were the same thing. I'm proud to say that I never used AOL, at least not as my main means of getting on-line. I eventually set up an AOL account for myself just so I could help debug issues that my father was having with his own AOL account. My rants on AOL are old and are enough to take up a whole other blog entry, so, moving right along...
- When did the internet "jump the shark"? For me, I thought it was when I saw a commercial for AOL, which showed off one of AOL's newer features: a drop-down menu for emoticons.
- Those of us who weren't connected on a T1 line at a college computer center or at the office, were using a dial-up modem from home. Anybody who had to use one of these probably doesn't miss them. You had to hook up your telephone to dial a number provided by your ISP, and if all went well (no busy signals or other surprises) then you were connected. Eventually though you had to disconnect, especially if you wanted to use your phone again. Depending on your settings, sometimes an incoming phone call could bump you off the internet too. And all this for a whopping 56k speed. (At MOST! I think my first modem was about 14kb/s, and I know there were ones even slower than that.) Dial-up was cheap though. I hung on to dial-up at home at late as 2004 or 2005, paying a measly $6 or $7 per month.
- Remember web rings? They worked great, until you got a dead page.
- I remember a book in the early 90s called "The Internet White Pages". It included the email addresses of various celebrities. Really! I guess given that so few people were on-line, it wasn't considered much of a threat.
- Here's a term that never caught on: "Information Superhighway". It was a nickname for the Internet. Mst of you have probably heard it but I'm sure there are some who haven't.
- One nice thing I'll say about having more and more people on the internet is that it allowed you to get more and more specific about finding the type of people that you wanted. For example, I used to trade bootlegs of the Black Crowes, but if you wanted to do that on the ineternet in the early to mid 90s, your best bet was to go to the newsgroup alt.music.bootlegs, make a post there, and hope that there were some other Black Crowes fans who read the newsgroup, would have something to trade, and was willing to trade. By the early 2000s, I remember seeing a whole mailing list dedicated just to Black Crowes bootleg trading via CD-R.
Well that's it for now. We'll see what things are like in another 20 years.