Saturday, June 30, 2018

Online in the "Early Days"

I received my first computer when I was in about 8th or 9th grade: a Commodore 64 with a tape drive. A few months later, I had a 1541 floppy drive and a modem. And my world changed forever.

In those days, we didn't have a worldwide, publicly used communications network. Yes, the Internet was there, but very few people (in the scheme of the population and compared to today) knew what it was and how to take advantage of it.

Forgive me if my timeline gets a bit wonky here, it's been a few sleeps since I have thought about these early days and though Google helps put some of it together, much of it seems to be lost to annals of an unrecorded history.

I don't remember if I started using CompuServe first or if I was surfing BBSs first, but I believe it was the latter. BBSs were Bulletin Board Systems where one could use a modem to dial up (yes, using actual phone lines) another person's computer, enter a username and password, and post messages to other users. Hence, the "bulletin board" nomenclature. It was, in effect, an electronic post-it note system. When your time was up (sessions were time-limited to allow for other people to call in), you were kicked off and someone else would dial up, sign in, and reply or leave messages of their own. It was all VERY asynchronous.

Then, we had services like CompuServe, which boasted "rooms and rooms" of places for people to post messages based on topics and/or content interests. Of course, CompuServe became much more than that over time before finally getting swallowed up by America Online. CompuServe had a place where people could type to each other in realtime! Today, that seems all rather blasé, but in those days, it was a free-for-all technological marvel.

Now, you have to understand that this was all text-based in those days. We didn't have the "web." Heck, the WWW wouldn't even be a thing until 1993 or so. Sure, there were other ways to get around the Internet, but nothing that was the graphical/video overload we have today (Er, today being 2018. Should this be read by some future generation, this article will seem like words on an ancient scroll, I'm sure).

We also had the advent of things like "FidoNet" (A national BBS that replicated data from system to system, allowing anyone anywhere to dial a local number yet read messages from everywhere!) and ultimately services like the aforementioned America Online, PeopleLink, and a myriad of others. In each of these cases, though, the end user had to use phone lines to dial a number in order to gain access to the system.

The prevalence of BBSs was huge. We're talking hundreds of thousands of individuals using their own computers to host places for people to dial in. For several years, I ran one based loosely on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, called "Arthur's Den" (See how punny I was?). At first, I ran it at night because I was using the family's home phone number to do it. Can you imagine? Publishing your family's home phone number out there for the world to call in at 2am? But, that's what we did. Eventually, I was allowed to have my own phone with a new number. I was in 9th grade. BBSs were so popular, there were entire magazines dedicated to listing them each month! That would be like having a magazine today that attempted to list every website address each month. Insane.

As technology changed, we moved from text-based online services to graphical. We now had "icons" and email and chat rooms and games we could play through the online services and BBSs. You could have an avatar to represent you online (Okay, so it was a pixelated static image, but still).

I actually met my first long-term girlfriend through the BBS I ran. We dated for two years. She had signed in to my system and I happened to be sitting near the computer at the time. In those days, you could not multitask: your computer did one thing at a time. So, if it was running your BBS, you weren't doing anything else with it. She came on, and if memory serves, she had requested a chat  with the sysadmin (me). The software I used on my C64 allowed for the one logged in user and the system administrator to chat in realtime. She had a question about something on the system and we ended up chatting well beyond the allowable time period. As a sysadmin, I could extend user's time at will. Time went by and we eventually discovered that we lived about half a mile from each other. We met face-to-face one day and ended up dating for two years. Who knew Internet dating had such simple beginnings, right?

Over time, services came and went. Dial-up phone lines (for the majority of folks) were replaced by ADSL and eventually DSL, Cellular, Satellite, etc. But, those early days of entering a phone number, having the software and hardware work together to make a digital connection, and then seeing the world come onto your computer screen were unlike anything that had come before, and "blogging" wasn't even a word yet.

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