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Wolfville, Nova Scotia


Early Days of Online

Chris Campbell

With the electronic world we're intimately connected to each other and everything has shifted, so that's what appears normal to many of us. It can be a challenge to remember what we did before as the simplest things from meeting someone to remembering or sharing things are mediated electronically through our screens. For me Twitter is the primary social media connection now and it gives a personal, human connective tissue between people and the things that are on my screens.

The best things are the small, personal connections that we make. If you focus on the positive and stay away from the comments it can be quite special. Something as small and simple as favouriting a tweet can give a nice little boost in the day. It's validation, recognition, a virtual nod or smile at someone. I still get a small thrill when I see something I've written is noticed by people I admire. The usual hierarchies flatten and for a brief moment we're connected.

While listening to Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything podcast miniseries of The Dislike Club (divided into parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and a finale). I remembered the days before pervasive social media and thought about the first time I was entranced by a computer screen. It was in the Fredericton Public Library and it was a terminal using a system called Telidon. I don't remember the date, but I think that it had to be sometime in 1981. Every time I would go to the library I would look at it and use it and I don't remember seeing anyone else at the terminal.

You could look up information using the simple interface. It was slow and didn't have a lot to it, but I remember the graphics which were colour and slowly drew on the screen. Mesmerizing and the idea that it connected to the outside world was even more amazing. It showed what was possible. A couple years later I graduated from high school and went into Computer Science at the University of New Brunswick and was in the final class that used punched cards in the introduction to programming class. The cards and fanfold paper were a pain, but the electronic terminals were what was really exciting.

The first screen-based terminals I used had blue CRT screens, then some green ones, and amber. But the terminals that I loved were the big and heavy IBM 3270 terminals that had multicoloured screens (mainly green, red, white, and blue). The keyboard was big and solid with metal springs that made great, clicky sounds and gave your fingers a good workout. The programming assignments weren't as interesting as looking up books in the library and the information on USENET and I eventually dropped out of university for a bit before returning in the late 80s to complete a degree in the Faculty of Arts in English Literature. You had to ask for approval for access to the computers if you weren't in Computer Science. Apparently only graduate students were approved, but the English department thought I was a grad student and gave me access.

Connecting with other people was tentative and slow. Initially I'd connected through people I knew in the real world and had all of the information written down in a notebook. So many numbers and letters to connect through different servers and computer systems. During my brief academic foray into an MA in Communication Studies at Concordia University had me using my Toshiba T1000 to connect to USENET and other computer systems and email through an external modem connected to the phone line. In the 90s I had fun in the Postmodern Culture MOO and took an online course offered by Diversity University in their MOO where I collaborated with people from around the world using only text. I'd used IRC a bit, but loved the ways that MOOs created an imaginative virtual space with words.

Thinking about education online now, it's remarkable that people were doing so much innovative stuff with the tools back then. Using things like Slack remind me of the power of text to collaborate and connect with people. Simplicity and reduced friction are important to be able to construct safe and supportive online environments, and now the need to go to a computer to read, and write, and connect is easier as the computers are everywhere and things just connect in easier ways.

But now that everyone (or almost everyone) is able to be there, the small, outsider communities that were like secret places that only a few like-minded people knew about are rarer and rarer. That could be why some of us keep looking for new or old things like electronic secret handshakes that are a combination of retro-nostalgia with small technical barriers that provide a way to construct small spaces for shared memories. It's part of growing up and growing old as remember the things we did when we were young with fondness. We're able to reconstruct and reconstitute parts of our childhood and adolescence through the code that still exists and cheaper hardware that can put a whole Atari VCS into a joystick.

Everything is faster now and you don't need to study much to be able to use a computer or your phone. It's just there and is part of what we do. But the preservation of what we've written and created is important. Things can go away quickly, so backing stuff up is important. I'm so glad that I have my blog and that I've been able to migrate it through many systems (Blosxom, Typo), Wordpress, and now Squarespace) keeping it mainly intact. I'm also glad and thankful that the Internet Archive exists to preserve many things too, as I've been able to recover many things that I have written there from sites that have closed or disappeared.

As formats and storage media change there are things that disappear. I have all sorts of video and photos on old disks and tapes that I may never get back. Copying and maintaining an archive can be a lot of work. There are so many things that we write every day in replies and comments and email. I've got many email and social media accounts and move around between them. Sometimes it's a challenge to find something you've shared or found or commented on. It all blurs together into our days filled with small, casual interactions.

I avoid sharing things on Facebook and other relatively closed systems that don't give you an archive or the ability to get things out of the place once you put them in. With text it's relatively easy to back things up, but for photos and audio and video, it's more complicated as the files are bigger. I'm glad I've been using Flickr for so long and that it remains active. Now I have tens of thousands of photos there and it's even better now with automatic archiving of my photos, so while I've fallen way behind in sharing my photos there publicly, all the photos I take get backed up there.

But now I'm trying to figure out a good balance with all of this. I don't need to save everything as I don't have time to go through it all. I want to be present in the world and to consciously share things by going through them and picking out what is significant. It's good to let things go and to make memories both with technology and without it. For every generation this is part of what they are thinking. Whether it is someone thinking about how the telegraph changes the pace of life and changes how people write letters, to someone texting or people photographing their food, our technology changes who we are and what we do, but it's been that way for a very long time.

What do you remember from your early days of connecting online?