Ten year anniversaries are alarming — “Hey look,” they say, “you’ve used a decade of your life, I hope it was worth it.” Well, they do to me. They’re so demanding. Ten years ago today I first went online and, for better or worse, nothing in my life now would be the same if I hadn’t signed up with Demon and spent my savings on that 14.4 modem.
OK, to be honest it’s a couple of weeks until the anniversary of when I first ventured online, as it took that long to get my little Mac LC II talking to the Internet, such was the complexity of the unfamiliar fragments of software required. But, armed with the Internet Starter Kit, I finally made it and began exploring.
Which isn’t to claim I was some kind of pioneer; obviously the net was already well past adolescence and the media had probably stopped having to explain what “Internet” was at every mention. But even so, Ted was the only person in the world I knew who was online, so this did feel like an expensive solo mission into the unknown.
Every night, when the rest of the house had gone to bed, I’d commandeer the phone line and keep people awake with my noisy keyboard (sorry guys). I explored Usenet, I poked around Gopher and WAIS servers, I found places to chat and MOOs to play with, I clicked my way around the web, and I was thrilled whenever anyone sent me email. I began making new friends and every week I’d put a few pounds aside to pay my unfeasible share of the quarterly phone bill.
Real world friends would come round and sit on my bed while I tried to impress them with this amazing new world of slow text, although they could usually only muster excitement when a stranger in California typed a greeting to them across the world. During the day, while offline, I’d spend time fiddling with HTML, eventually finding somewhere that hosted “home pages” for free and putting up my first website.
When looking back I often think of the phrase “it were all fields round here,” and while the fields were already dotted with buildings it does conjure up some of the sense of space and possibility. There was so much missing, so many vast gaps. It was a surprise if a company had a website then, whereas now every company, person, idea and fad seems to have its virtual analogy, all jostling for attention.
What if I hadn’t signed up to Demon around then? Everything, everything would be different. I wouldn’t have seen a job ad for Wired, I wouldn’t have moved to London, I wouldn’t have spent time in Houston, I wouldn’t know the people I’ve met in the years since. Which isn’t to say life would be worse — I was loving life in Bristol and I miss my friends there — just different.
And now? The next ten years? I must admit to a feeling of exhaustion. There’s still plenty to get excited about of course. Even though the fields have long-since been paved over, this place is crammed with people doing wonderful, ingenious things and I’m lucky enough to count many as friends. But at the same time everything I do online these days feels like a chore. A decade ago a new email was a thrill; now it’s another item on the todo list. The Internet’s now just a job and a vast, rickety structure of never-ending commitments I’ve built up over ten years, and I’m not sure where to go from here.