Fifteen Years of Online Social Interactions
Many tech geeks will often say that their first forays into cyberspace began with a 300 baud modem and a BBS. I’m a little younger than that (finally, I can say that!), but I was an early adopter of social networks from when I first opened my 3.5″ floppy of Promenade (later to be called AOL) and signed up to use the service.
I used Prodigy, but I never was a fan of the randomly generated alphanumeric username and didn’t stick around. On the other hand, my first ever interaction on AOL was with someone who was separated from my social network by only one degree. I was 12 at the time, it was 1993, and AOL cost $5.95/hour (after a flat rate of $9.95 which included 5 hours of online usage).
One morning before school, I logged onto AOL and joined a chat room for the very first time. It was around 6:20am (and it was also 1993), so the rooms were relatively empty with the exception of two other chatty gentlemen. One was 50 (as a twelve year old, I actually remember saying “you’re old!” to him and receiving a shocked response), and the other didn’t live further than 20 minutes away from me. Ironically, he and I attended the same school (though he was double my age) and we even had the same teachers. At that point, I already knew I had a future of doing something online, though as a sixth-grader, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. (Fortunately for me, while I never met that guy, I met other online friends in real life, as AOL was also safe at the time. Early adopters are typically normal people; the network hadn’t been infiltrated by people looking to exploit young children until the momentum grew.)
My first social “network” was also on AOL. I became a big fan of playing games (bingo especially) at a little hub on AOL called RabbitJack’s Casino, which was considered a unique community within the AOL borders with a close-knit group of people from all walks of life. By the time I was fifteen, I had encountered a more diverse crowd than most kids my age. I still even keep in touch with a few special individuals from those days.
I spent time on AOL as remote staff, growing my connections online (and some interestingly would later become colleagues) until I dropped AOL entirely to focus on my studies. That was almost a decade ago.
Fifteen years have passed, and while much has changed technologically, the concepts that animated web users back in the old days remain as relevant as ever. Social media was always social, just not with that funny name. Forums existed well before I was born, after all. They evolved into sites with graphical interfaces. Whereas everything used to cost money (my highest AOL bill was $267.48 in 1995), advertisers are now paying for programs so that we can use them and enjoy the applications without shelling out a dime, and web services providers are seeing the value of being free for users by monetizing their sites instead with ad revenue. At the same time, the concept of “free” is empowering individuals to become publishers, as any individual can now harness free software online to create his/her little on place on the web. Blogs are the new medium for a person to talk about areas in which the individual has exhibited some level of expertise or even to articulate thoughts on subject matters that interest nobody but a small group of people. The freedom is now in the hands of any consumer with an internet connection and computer.
Traditional media is being rejected as individuals are now often heard (and sometimes rather loudly) when they speak. Radio is being listened to online, and podcasts are popular among technological savvy folks. Whereas one needed an expensive VHS cassette recorder in 1993 to create a home video, even $40 cell phones (or digital cameras) can capture quality images and video that can be placed online for a much larger audience than ever before. It’s no surprise that everyone’s aiming for their fifteen minutes of fame (though they are possibly risking their futures because of that desire). Watching real television online, too, is becoming increasingly more mainstream.
Fifteen years ago, the Yellow Pages in our house was torn and tattered from frequent use. I was recently cleaning out a cabinet in my apartment and tossed out a 2005 Yellow Pages that was in pristine condition. Today, search engines answer the questions that phone books needed to solve a decade and a half ago. Today, Facebook or MySpace will help you locate lost family or reunite with old friends. Today, you can pull up a map online and print driving directions instead of phoning your desired destination for directions (and then writing each individual step on paper). Today’s printers are also faster and more reliable than the dot matrix printers of the nineties.
Today, you’re not viewed as a geek when you say that you spend a lot of your time online. In 1999, when I graduated high school, my last will and testament in my high school year book was “to have an online wedding.” (I didn’t.) Today, nearly all of my high school friends are online, and most of them maintain Facebook or MySpace accounts.
Computers are getting smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. Our family’s first computer (which wasn’t net-equipped) was an Apple IIgs which my father purchased in 1987. The first computer which I could actually call my own was that little IBM PS/1 PC I received at age 12. The cost: over $4k for a 386SX/25mhz with 170MB of hard drive space, 2MB RAM, a 2400 baud modem, and a 13″ monitor. I’m typing this blog post on a $750 Dell Inspiron 700m laptop (which I purchased nearly 3 years ago) which is lighter than the keyboard I used in 1993 and sports a high resolution despite its 12″ screen size. Beyond a little notebook computer, more and more people are starting to take advantage of mobile technologies, particularly within their cell phones, to create and produce content. Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a full blog post on my Palm Treo (though I don’t recommend it); the Palm Treo has a 2GB miniSD card in its slot, which is 12 times the size of that hard drive I was using in 1993.
Fifteen years ago, scanners were few and far between, but that’s what you needed in order to get your photographs to display on your desktop. Today, digital cameras can be had for as little as a few bucks. Fifteen years ago, optical media was virtually unheard of and the first consumer-friendly CD-RWs supported up to 650MB of media (for a hefty cost). Today, high-definition data means that one can store up to 50GB of data on a single optical disc of the same exact size. Zip drives are now obsolete; the latest trend is the pen drive (which makes for some great schwag).
I also have a confession to make. Fifteen years ago, h-t-t-p colon slash slash was foreign to me. (I still slap myself on the forehead when I recall tossing out a magazine from the Compuserve days that featured the best websites of that time.) I simply didn’t know what http:// meant, as the protocol sounded so … strange. For me, it was all about keywords and about navigating to content on AOL. (It was faster for me, anyway.)
Old technologies aren’t dying down; they’re just expanding. Twitter is the new chat room, but IRC still remains a popular choice behind services like Ustream and Y! Live. Email is still email (but doesn’t cost $0.25 to send like it did on Prodigy in the early nineties), but now it can be sent and accessed on mobile devices with the click of a button. For the younger generation, IM is replacing the phone, but for those who can’t break old habits easily, the phone is also moving to the computer through services such as Skype.
The technology landscape is changing, but old themes still remain relevant: the internet is a social place that will allow individuals to engage with others and establish new relationships on a common ground.
I just shared my own story about how I got here. When and how did you make it into the lovely World Wide Web? Feel free to add your story to the comments or in your own blog post.