Using the internet today is almost a reflex action and something we do without actually thinking about it. Depending on when you were born though, you might remember a time when going onto the internet required a special effort, and was something you only did (or were allowed to do) at certain times of the day, when dial-up connection charges were off-peak.
I first used the internet in 1996, at which time I would have been 12 years old. I didn’t really know what it was, but TV programmes had started to mention that they had websites and email addresses and it sounded exciting. At Wirral Metropolitan College, they cottoned on to all this cyber hype and opened up a computer room that the public could use for a couple of quid an hour.
I went along with some friends and, after a brief tutorial (“there are lots of search engines, but use Yahoo!”), we were soon enjoying the thrills and spills of mid ’90s cyberspace.
With all this information at my fingertips, obviously the first thing I did was look up lyrics for Oasis songs. I’d heard not long before that Noel and Liam Gallagher were not happy that their lyrics were being circulated on the web and were threatening to sue people involved, so, in a classic case of a child not understanding the internet and law, I was reluctant to print anything out and instead started writing lyrics down in my notebook.
A member of staff saw me doing this and said I was welcome to use the printer. I explained my reservations and he looked a bit nonplussed, which was enough to convince me it was OK to take advantage of the College’s kind all-you-can-print offer and walk home with a huge bundle of printed Oasis lyrics in my hands.
The next couple of times I went, we discovered chat rooms, which were an absolute hoot. Were these real people we were talking to? They seemed so weird! One girl managed to convince us that she, personally, had contracted a virus from her computer, which was another example of us not understanding the internet.
Saying that, we probably out-weirded everybody with our buffoonish and annoying chat room antics, including pretending to be British aristocrats to a mainly American audience. Without realising it, we were probably being early internet trolls, as Darren discussed yesterday. Sadly, I don’t think the other internet users in the room found our online and offline rowdiness as amusing as we did, and we were eventually asked to leave – a fair cop because we’d totally abused the £2 per hour rate.
It’s typical that my first attempts at using the internet were all about mischief and embarrassment, but what’s interesting is that it is a clear memory of my first online experience. I can remember a time when I hadn’t used the web, and then a time when I had, and the way I thought about communication and research was perhaps never the same again.
If you’re a similar age to me, your first time using the net is likely to have been at a school or college as well, and you can probably remember it. Compare that to other media, and your memory is likely much hazier. I doubt you can remember the first time you watched television, or read a book. You may have an earliest TV or book memory, but it was probably not actually your first time.
With the internet now being intertwined with our day-to-day lives, younger people are much less likely to remember their first internet experience, and asking someone born in the last decade to tell you about the first time they used the web will be as ludicrous as asking them when they first watched TV. For example, my 20-month-old daughter has already used the internet in the form of the CBeebies website, but she won’t remember it. She may develop a first internet memory, but it will be something else in the future.
The other remarkable factor here is how much the internet, and how we understand it, has changed from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s. If we compare this to the 20 years before that and ask how media like television changed from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, progress was much slower. Yes, black-and-white became phased out in favour of colour, and satellite and cable TV started to be introduced into people’s living room, but it’s no comparison to the development of the internet. In 20 years, we’ve gone from a world where we had to use our landline phones to access a painfully slow collection of awkwardly designed webpages, to one where we can stream live video and audio wherever we are via a device we carry in our pockets.
I’m grateful for the time I was born because I feel I have been able to experience two different worlds. I grew up analogue, and now I live digital. I feel a bit sorry for people who missed out on either era. No doubt in 2038, our internet behaviour of 2017 will seem as primitive as my 1996 experiences do today, but that’s the nature of a medium that has changed the way we communicate and learn perhaps more quickly than any other in history.