Thursday 11 March 2010

WEB101 - Learning Portfolio, Week 2 - What is the Internet?

The thing I'm enjoying most about this unit so far is realising what I already know. Being self-taught is great but I never really have a sense of how much I actually do know about a particular area - I always have this niggling feeling that I've only focussed on the bits that are interesting and I've conveniently missed huge gaps of "not so interesting" stuff in between. Thankfully so far this is proving to be incorrect!

This week's topic is "What is the Internet?", and it turns out that I knew all the "technical" aspects of this topic already, which was reassuring. So my Reflections this week are all about what the Internet is (and has been) to ME.

I started working in IT in 1993 as a network administrator and shortly after convinced my boss that it would be REALLY useful to be able to work from home, so I was provided with a brand-spanking new IBM 386 with Windows for Workgroups 3.11, a funky, state-of-the-art 9.6kbps Hayes external modem and a 3.5" diskette entitled "OzEmail Internet", which setup a dialup account with Ozemail and included several Ozemail-created applications including Usenet (newsgroups), Archie & Gopher (both search engines, although not web-based), an IRC client (chat) and a funky thing called Quarterdeck Mosaic, which was one of the first graphical web browsers. I can't remember how I got around but I have a vague recollection that I used Yahoo and Excite, and that there wasn't much there! I also remember pretty quickly ditching this Ozemail diskette and getting the "real" applications because they were pretty limiting. My friends and family thought I'd lost the plot but I spent HOURS every night after work lost in cyberspace (although I'm not sure it was called that then).

The World Wide Web wasn't much back then, but the thing that really captured my imagination was IRC. There I was, sitting in my lounge room late at night chatting to people from around the world! It was unbelievable! Back then it was almost exclusively techy people like myself, or people who worked at an ISP or who had something to do with the US Military and therefore had free access from work, so a lot of these people were really smart and if I had any tech questions there were a bunch of people I could ask - I learned a lot. Some of those people have gone on to bigger and better things including owning ISPs, writing popular software, working "high up" for large corporations, running a couple of very well-known blogs and websites and some other "notorious" things that I won't go into here! But we didn't just sit and talk tech - we chatted about all sorts of things. It was like having an insight into other people's lives, and it was fascinating.

In 1996-98 I set off on backpacking trips across Europe and North America. I was armed with a list of people that I knew from IRC (names, addresses & phone numbers, and a copy left with my Dad "just in case") and use of a Unix shell account provided by a friend who ran his own server, which included an email account. I caught up with a bunch of those people along the way and even crashed on a few couches. It's hard to put it into context now, but the views of my RL (real life) friends and family back then, most of whom had barely even HEARD of the Internet, were along the lines that I was going to die at the hands of "one of those Internet freaks" or disappear into a weird cult or something, because it Just Wasn't Normal.

What actually happened was, I met their husbands, wives, kids, parents and friends. It wasn't like meeting a stranger, because they weren't strangers. They took me sightseeing but they also invited me into their lives and that's an experience that I'll never forget, and always be grateful to them for. When I arrived at an IRC friend's house, they'd tell everybody else that I'd arrived and people would call up to listen to my "funny" accent. As a group they "followed" me across the world, were subscribed to my email list for updates and chatted to me online when I got onto somebody's computer for 1/2 an hour. I had a website that I wrote in a Unix editor and put up some photos as I went (amazingly, a version of this website from 1998 can still be found on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine!!) A lot of them travelled to Australia in later years and crashed on MY couch, and several of those people are friends for life, even though they live on the other side of the world and I'm lucky if I get to see them more than once every few years.

I stopped IRCing every day quite a few years ago now. It got too easy to find and use, which brought in a whole bunch of silly people with silly scripts, doing and talking about silly things. Well, and I suppose I grew up. :-) But I can still always find the people that count, and I use the things that I learned, technically AND socially, almost every day of my life.

So I guess the point of this week's topic - "What is the Internet?" - is that yes, it's more than the world wide web, it's more than TCP/IP and it's more than "cyberspace". For me, it's added so much to my life over the last 17 years that I can't imagine what my life would have been like without it. :-)


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