25 Years of The Internet

The other day I was thinking about the first modem I ever bought.  It was around 1991 and the Internet wasn’t a “thing” yet.  I purchased a 9600 modem (2400 baud) and set it up with the help of a neighbor who was a very early adopter of computers.  Back then, using the Internet was mostly about email, faxing, and even scrolling through bulletin boards (a bit like Reddit).  There was lots of talk about how computers and the Internet was going to really change our world.  It has, but thinking about the journey from the boing boing 9600 modem, to “always on” wi-fi and 3G/4G networks, it seems like in some ways thing have evolved and devolved at the same time.

Take the gathering of information.  Back in the 1990s, if you wanted to find out more about a topic what did you do?  Maybe you had an encyclopedia, maybe you went to your local library, or maybe you went to a book store.  Those were pretty much your options. If you were in college, you had access to even better information with libraries that were stocked with current research on whatever topic you were interested in exploring.  By the mid-’90s with the World Wide Web, it was a bit easier to find information since there were now browsers like Netscape.

But your connection to the Internet and the Web was based your modem.  Most people had 14.4 modems by then (and they connected via your telephone line), but because 14.4 is pretty slow to transmit data, it took a long time for image-based websites to load.  So that meant if you had a website, you would have to keep images to a minimum and text to the maximum so people wouldn’t have to wait a long time to connect to your site.  If you were in college at the time, it was really great to do a lot of your research from home (i.e., locating books and articles from the school’s database — which you would have to go and get at the library). But if you weren’t in school, what was the purpose of the Internet?  AOL figured out a niche that people loved.  Instead of having to hunt and peck for content, AOL created their own gated community for users where any itch could find a scratch in chat rooms. 

Again, Reddit and 4chan has revived that service AOL used to provide (for a fee).  By the time blogging became all the rage in the mid 2000s, it was viewed as a way people could express themselves through their own personal websites — made easy with Blogger, WordPress, and Live Journal. I started blogging in 2006 when I wrote under a pseudonym about Bay Area radio.  It was fun to critique the industry I worked in, but I grew tired of it because I started to run out of things to say.  So, I deleted the blog (on Blogger) and then started this Pykorry blog on WordPress’ free service (and later migrated everything to this self-hosted blog about a year later).  

What I liked about blogging in the early days was how your readers were people who cared about what you wrote about.  Blogging, it seemed, was social networking for people who liked to read and write.  Most of my bloggy friends were writers, some bloggers just liked the idea of writing about their life, and others were trying to use blogging as a platform to get advertising dollars to pay them for their content.  For about a year and half blogging was great because I was getting people to read my stuff, the comments were good, and the interaction was satisfying.

And then…

Yes, I know there were other social networking sites before MySpace, but it was the one that democratized the Internet in a way that anyone could get a page with ease — and it was also easy to customize pages and build your network of friends because the more friends who got on MySpace, the easier it was to connect with them.  No more having to click-through on someone’s blogroll to find new blogs to read and bloggers to connect with.  The hard part of building a network wasn’t difficult anymore with social media.

But people don’t really change when a new medium is introduced.  Once more people jump into the proverbial pool, the more old habits get infused into the newest form of communication.  One bad habit is when corporations buy sites like MySpace and want to turn it into a junk heap of advertising, instead of building on what made the site so attractive to users in the first place.  The other thing was something that is all-too-common these days: trolls, stalkers and assholes.  They are often one in the same, but their increasing presence can make user experiences really horrible — so much so, they quit the site altogether.  But while the corporate culture of MySpace (after it was bought by Newscorp) really sunk the ship, Facebook and Twitter started gaining traction as MySpace was almost at the bottom of the ocean.

The uniqueness of Facebook was that it had velvet rope attached to it before it opened up to everyone in the world.  Mark Zuckerberg’s first foray into social media came with Facemash. It was created not necessarily to network with others, but to rate the hotness of Harvard students (a la Hot or Not).  Harvard, Yale, and other schools of that caliber also had paper versions of Facebook back then — and they called them directories.  These directories of students listed short bios, phone numbers, and what dorm they were staying at.  Since professional life is often about who you know, these schools were making networking easier by publishing these directories.  Of course, most used them to scope out who they’d like to have sex with, and that’s where Mark Zuckerberg knew his audience.  Facemash, like Hot or Not, was a kind of Tinder 1.0  before Tinder and Grindr even existed.

But Facebook was different.  Facebook was focused on “friendship.”  Who doesn’t want friends?  And as MySpace evaporated, Facebook filled its place — but without pesky ads and stupid add-ons.  Twitter, in a different way, opted to chronicle the life experiences of a person by limiting that story to 140 characters.  Blogging was still popular when Twitter started to gain momentum, but Twitter set about to do something for people who didn’t like to read all that much.  They called it microblogging, but really it was just “Give us the headlines of how your day is going.”  Often, the headlines were just as boring as asking a friend how his or her day is going, and they reply, ” I just checked my email.”

I know I’m jumping around here as far a chronology goes for these social media services, but the point is about ascending and descending trends — not necessarily exactly when one service came online and another disintegrated.  Now that Facebook and Twitter are more mature platforms (i.e., it’s not just a thing for young people), it’s interesting to see how something like microblogging has morphed into a source of news.  Donald Trump could see how effective headlines are, and just had to spout them to rise to the top of the media chatter — oh, and it helps that news sites use tweets as official quotes. Now that he’s going to be president, he’ll certainly use Twitter as a method of policy and punishment — which in itself is novel in a dystopian kind of way.

So where are the kids these days?

Yeah, it’s no surprise that people under 25 are finding comfort and community in places like Snapchat — or expressing themselves on Tumblr (another variation of blogging), or retreating into Reddit, 4chan, or video games.  Older folks can have Facebook and Twitter as a place where the sharing of personal slices of life has been replaced with the sharing of political opinion pieces, trolls, friendships ending, and endless self-promotion.  The Internet of finding knowledge about the world has morphed into an Internet that can be an endless display of narcissism, outrage, paranoia, and bitterness. Sometimes, with the level of rancor on Facebook (and certainly on Twitter) it’s almost a joke to see that Facebook bills itself as a place to “connect with friends, family and other people you know” as a good thing.

So, is this just a screed from an old guy who came of age when the Internet started to weave itself into our lives?  Not really. But in the 25 (soon to be 26) years since becoming a “thing,” the Internet has changed from…what.  Well, from my vantage point as an early adopter and user in 1991, it went from being a thing that was more about information and sharing of knowledge. Then it changed into “Web 2.0” with social media, commercial sites where they wanted to you buy and share things. And now?  Well, I think we’re on the cusp of the Internet changing again.  With the sharing and over sharing of “data,” I think people might be getting a little weary of giving up information that’s valuable to businesses:  their wants and desires.  Why?  Because it kind of freaks some people out to know that businesses, governments, your ISP, your phone, its apps, and seemingly everything we are told we need to be a 21st Century person is actually tracking a LOT of what you do every day.  Moreover, we’ve just been through a presidential election where one candidate had emails hacked and another candidate used Twitter as a weapon. You have loosely organized trolls who will bully, spread false information, and threaten your life because of what you say publicly.  Anyone can be a target for this online swarm of mob mentality, and I wonder if the conditions are ripe for a critical mass of people saying “I’m out.”   Maybe not completely, but enough that it could disrupt the business models of some very well-known companies and make the Internet less of an emotional necessity — where we give up so much to be liked —  to something less threatening:  a utility.

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