This is my first reflective essay written for the Internet History Technology and Security MOOC I am taking with Dr. Chuck Severance via Coursera. What’s your personal interent history?
I first met the internet in 1992. I was a senior in high school when my friend Brian introduced me to a thing called Gopher. Gopher was a bunch of orange letters on a black computer screen. Brian explained the idea of how the computer in my parents’ home office was connecting to lots of other people’s computers through a series of networks. He explained how I could hear the sound of that mysterious connection through the erratic pings and whistles of our 2600 baud modem. He explained how I could navigate those networks through a simple, command driven menu. Everything was text based. I could get words on my screen to imitate the words on someone else’s screen anytime I wanted. I could read messages posted on bulletin boards by people I didn’t even know. Gopher could take me anywhere I wanted to go, so long as where I wanted to go was one of several dozen universities. I was not impressed. There wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go.
Brian was a smart guy. He knew stuff. A few years later, he tried to impress me again with his knowledge of a thing called Mosaic. This was way better than Gopher, he told me. There was more than just words on a screen. There were pictures and colors. I could navigate with a mouse rather than text input command menus. He was right. Web browsing was way better than Gopher. It was easier, more intuitive and more appealing. There still wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go.
I was slow to catch on to the importance of the World Wide Web. I didn’t enjoy chatting with people I didn’t know on AOL. I still find chatting with people I actually know in real life a bit tedious. I didn’t like reading subpar fan fiction. There were too many great books sitting on my shelves unread. I did email and the occasional Yahoo search but logged probably less than two or three hours a week online until I studied to become a librarian.
As a library desk clerk, I was amazed when our card catalog was automated. Suddenly, books were easy to discover and locate. Instead of only three paths to a book (title, author, and subject), I could now search for books by keyword. Things I cared about became a lot easier to keep track of.
That’s when I started thinking about the importance of metadata and how good digital record keeping makes things easier to store, organize and retrieve. I began thinking about the internet like a giant database of millions of different kinds of things people cared about. I began to pay attention to how books, articles and other intellectual artifacts were coded, tagged and labeled for easy recovery. And then, I began to notice how much easier getting useful, personally relevant information had become.
In the library, I saw grandparents emailing grandchildren. I saw unemployed workers searching national job registries for opportunities. I saw people sharing recommendations about the books they read with friends scattered all around the world. These were all things libraries were supposed to help people do. Networked computers helped people do those things faster and better.
I received my Masters of Science in Information Sciences from University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2000. That same year, I took my first professional position as User Services Librarian at Roane State Community College. As a young librarian, I adopted the myth that libraries were somehow in competition with Google. I tried my best to teach my students that the convenience of Google was great but that serious research and real knowledge required the sacred authority that dwelled only in print. My gospel was that learning required sacrifice and discomfort and that the fun of the persistent, exhaustive search was its own reward.
I no longer believe that. The world has changed. Information is easy to get. Google and Wikipedia make facts and fact-like items easy to obtain. With the advent of wireless internet and mobile devices, we are positively swimming in easy to get information. Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we communicate with each other. Facebook makes it easy to share everyday details of our hidden lives with each other so that we can know one another more completely. Twitter surfaces like-minded fellows from across the world with whom I can share ideas and get instant, valuable feedback and useful articles without even asking. They know what I need before I do and they share it willingly. They share it simply for the joy of sharing.
People ask if the world still needs libraries in the age of Google, iPads, eBooks and Twitter. I think yes, but I’m not sure that those libraries necessarily need to look like they have looked in the past. I stopped telling my students that Google is bad. It isn’t. Much of the world’s best knowledge, scholarship and ideas are findable online. Not everything is accessible online, but most everything is discoverable. Licensing restrictions, pay walls and complex copyright processes prevent most current information from being easily, freely shared. But still, I believe there has never been a better time to be doing the kind of work that I am doing. The internet makes our information lives much richer, deeper and more complex. Information is everywhere, but context is scarce. The next work of librarians and educators is going to be helping people figure out how to make their best sense of these riches to build new things that are useful. This is the work that lies ahead. It is work that I enjoy very much.
This is the first few chapters in my personal internet history.