[Digging through old documents recently, I came across this piece about the moment when the power of the social internet really clicked for me. I can’t remember who or what this was for, but thought I might share it anyway.]
I got an email address when I started university in 1993 – the highly-memorable email@example.com – and it was a good way to keep in touch with far-flung friends who I’d been to college with in Canada. Email seemed like a miracle – no waiting for international mail delivery, and no guilt about only writing a few lines, rather than feeling obliged to fill up a whole foldable airmail letter.
But even though email powered my first few years online, and the web started creeping in, it wasn’t until 1997 that I had my real AHA! moment about the internet.
It was the first of May 1997, and I was writing one of the final essays of my university career. At that time, I didn’t have my own computer – or at least, not one connected to a printer and the internet – so I headed to the 24 hour computer lab on my university campus.
As the sun went down, I logged on to one of about twenty terminals, and started writing. Or at least, I tried. It was hard work and the words didn’t flow smoothly. I found myself distracted by trying to find something good to listen to on my walkman, flipping through the paltry selection of tapes (tapes!) in my bag. And I wondered what was going on with the election results.
You see, that day, May 1st, had been a general election in the UK. I’d done my civic duty in between visits to the library, and was curious about how the electoral map was looking. After eighteen years of Conservative rule, the tide felt like it was turning. I opened up a web browser – Netscape 3, I think – and tentatively typed in a search term: election results. Nothing -though it took ages for the page to load to tell me that. I logged onto Pegasus mail and checked my email. Nothing of interest. And then I opened up IRC, which I’d dabbled with before, and searched for a UK room – #electionnight, IIRC – which I joined.
Throughout the night, as I typed furiously to get my essay finished, strangers around the country and around the world broke the news of the election results as they came in. They were watching on television, listening to the radio. I was flitting in and out of the chatroom. Strangers reached out across the wires and shared what they knew. They were caustic, and joyful, irreverent and analytical. I didn’t know who they were – still don’t – but through them, with them, I was immersed in the unfolding results of that historic election.
The tories lost. Labour won in a landslide. I finished my essay.
As the sun came up, I walked several miles back home through the gradually-lightening city. From open windows, the sound of laughter came spilling out, and in the streets, celebrating the news of the election result, people were drunk and dancing. With my final essay in my bag, the election result cheers still ringing in the streets, and the sensation of being connected to hundreds of strangers around an event, it felt like the beginning of a bright new day, full of promise and expectation.
And in many ways, it was.