Academia

My Internet AHA! Moment

[Digging through old documents recently, I came across this piece about the moment when the power of the social internet really clicked for me. I can't remember who or what this was for, but thought I might share it anyway.]

I got an email address when I started university in 1993 – the highly-memorable la0u3019@liv.ac.uk – and it was a good way to keep in touch with far-flung friends who I’d been to college with in Canada. Email seemed like a miracle – no waiting for international mail delivery, and no guilt about only writing a few lines, rather than feeling obliged to fill up a whole foldable airmail letter.

But even though email powered my first few years online, and the web started creeping in, it wasn’t until 1997 that I had my real AHA! moment about the internet.

It was the first of May 1997, and I was writing one of the final essays of my university career. At that time, I didn’t have my own computer – or at least, not one connected to a printer and the internet – so I headed to the 24 hour computer lab on my university campus.

As the sun went down, I logged on to one of about twenty terminals, and started writing. Or at least, I tried. It was hard work and the words didn’t flow smoothly. I found myself distracted by trying to find something good to listen to on my walkman, flipping through the paltry selection of tapes (tapes!) in my bag. And I wondered what was going on with the election results.

You see, that day, May 1st, had been a general election in the UK. I’d done my civic duty in between visits to the library, and was curious about how the electoral map was looking. After eighteen years of Conservative rule, the tide felt like it was turning. I opened up a web browser – Netscape 3, I think – and tentatively typed in a search term: election results. Nothing -though it took ages for the page to load to tell me that. I logged onto Pegasus mail and checked my email. Nothing of interest. And then I opened up IRC, which I’d dabbled with before, and searched for a UK room – #electionnight, IIRC – which I joined.

Throughout the night, as I typed furiously to get my essay finished, strangers around the country and around the world broke the news of the election results as they came in. They were watching on television, listening to the radio. I was flitting in and out of the chatroom. Strangers reached out across the wires and shared what they knew. They were caustic, and joyful, irreverent and analytical. I didn’t know who they were – still don’t – but through them, with them, I was immersed in the unfolding results of that historic election.

The tories lost. Labour won in a landslide. I finished my essay.

As the sun came up, I walked several miles back home through the gradually-lightening city. From open windows, the sound of laughter came spilling out, and in the streets, celebrating the news of the election result, people were drunk and dancing. With my final essay in my bag, the election result cheers still ringing in the streets, and the sensation of being connected to hundreds of strangers around an event, it felt like the beginning of a bright new day, full of promise and expectation.

And in many ways, it was.

A work in progress

Back in the nineties, when the web was young…

…most web pages took over a minute to load
…the song of one’s home 14.4kbps modem was more familiar than any novelty ringtone (what’s one of those, then?)
…AOL was a groundbreaking kind of company
…chatrooms were still a non-sleazy novelty
…marquee and blink tags were in common usage
…a web-ring was a social navigational device, not a gang of kiddy-fiddlers
…many web sites had an entire page dedicated to links
…the use of nested tables to layout a website was cutting-edge
…Google, Blogger and Amazon were just a twinkle in the eyes of their founders
…Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Twitter were just random meaningless utterings
…building a web page was something only total weirdos would do

…dear, (now) departed Geocities was a vibrant and bustling place for play and experimentation, consisting of “neighbourhoods” and suburbs with particular themes or personalities, named after real or imagined geographical locations – SouthBeach, TheTropics, EnchantedForest, Tokyo, MotorCity, PicketFence, Petsburgh, Athens.

And each of these was stuffed with hundreds of citizens, tending hundreds upon thousands of lovingly constructed pages, each brimming with animated gifs, eye-bleeding backgrounds and a never-ending stream of scrolling, blinking, neon, capitalised, centre-justified text and badly-compressed, rasterized photos.

Including me, for a short while.

At the time, one of the most common phrases on the internet was “this page is under construction” – a sort of excuse or explanation, I suppose, often accompanied by a representation or parody of the symbols usually associated with road-works or construction sites in the non-virtual world. Strips of black and yellow tape or triangular red, black and white icons of ‘Men At Work’.

But thinking about it, it was a strange statement to make. At the time, the entire Internet was itself under construction; being built and explored and defined and designed and conquered and claimed by users just like me. By definition, web pages could (and can) continue being constructed, built upon, refined and redesigned forever – there’s no end to the work: even now, a redesign is only ever a temporary thing and its unveiling tends to be just a brief resting status in between periods of intense redevelopment activity.

The point is, the Internet can’t ever be completed, at least in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a living work in progress. The constant ripple of activity keeps it being. When it stops evolving, it stops being relevant. That was the point of web pages versus print and then as now, the idea of publishing flat print-like pages without interactivity or hypertextuality or even contextuality and formatting to the web is quite daft.

The web is alive: as long as there is networking occurring – both social and electronic – the Internet will exist and be continuously re-invented, never quite the same from one second to the next.

Back in the nineties, I used the idea of being under construction as the central focus for my (now horribly outdated and quite shuddersomely facile) MA Thesis: Under Construction: (Re)Defining Culture and Community in Cyberspace.

Don’t read it though. You can garner more knowledge about internet culture and community from five minutes on Twitter these days – and if you do decide to plough through it, remember that in the nineties many, many people (including academics) didn’t know what the internet was, let alone a modem, which is why it’s so full of explanations and definitions of terms.

In fact, back in 1997 when I stated my intention to embark on research in this particular area, I was told by senior members of the Anthropology department that there was no such thing as culture and community in cyberspace, and that I should redirect my attentions to something proper instead.

WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, EH?

Ahem.

The phrase ‘Under Construction’ is interesting for Anthropologists and other social scientists, who sometimes theorise that that culture is itself a construction – made and reinforced by the actions of those who show up and participate. In my thesis, I explained that even perception is not a passive experience.

We are constantly constructing the world (through perception, etc.) as much as the world is constantly constructing (shaping, changing and influencing) us. The idea of a ‘passive media’ such as television takes on a new perspective when it is understood that the process of watching a soap-opera requires the brain to unconsciously perform startling feats of interpretation and imagination just to make sense – images – out of the millions of pixels and lines fired rapidly at the screen, not to mention understanding the plot.

Fascinated back then – and still – by the idea that just by showing up, we are causing the net to come into a new phase of being. Leaning forward makes that link even more tangible. That’s still true, of course. Perhaps moreso than ever?

As a sidenote, I was thinking the other day how long it had been since I used the acronym “IRL” or the expanded phrase “In Real Life.”

It used to be the thing we’d say when we meant “not on the internet”, and I’m glad that it has become gradually obsolete over the years, now that the internet is accepted as part of life.

The internet is real life: I am real, sat at my real computer, engaging with the screen and the world beyond that it unlocks, in real time, via my eyes, ears, keyboard, mouse, attention. Online and offline make much more sense, being descriptive of state rather than reality.

(Likewise, I’m glad that we don’t talk about “virtual communities” anymore – as if spending time with people interacting around common interests and deepening relationships over time was in any way less than real. Now we know it can be, and that gets proved and reproved every day.)

So anyway, today’s unplugging of the Geocities life-support made me think about how we shaped it, and it shaped us.

Geocities slowly became unloved, unused and eventually undermined by wave upon wave of new services which helped us to express ourselves; live out loud, on the screen; learn to create/tinker/experiment; play with our identities; find others; experience the thrill of seeing our words, our work in a public “space”.

But for all its faults, Geocities was, for many long-term residents of the web, the first place they called home(page). And because of that, we mourn its passing.

But its spirit lives on. The creative, tinkering itch still runs thunderous and irrepressible through us. Our web experiences – and we ourselves – are still under construction.