Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Memories: Old-School Social Media

I was just in Sherbrooke where I did my undergraduate and Master's degree. I started (wait for it) 15 years ago this fall. 


When I started at Sherbrooke, I moved into residence and two important improvements had been made over the summer: networked telephones and high-speed internet access in each room. Previously, if you wanted a phone or internet in your room, you had to pay to get a phone line put in and pay for dial-up access. But our university was known for its engineering and computer programming degrees at the undergraduate and graduate level, and many of the students lived in res. It just made sense. 

Keep in mind that at this point, no one owned a cell phone or had high-speed internet access at home. Few people had email addresses, and the internet was in its infancy. My father, in an attempt to entice my brother and I to spend more time at his place, had had dial-up internet access (through AOL) for a few years. He found these things called BBS's. I didn't understand any of it, but he totally geeked out over them. 

When I arrived in Sherbrooke, I was assigned an email address (at first, my student ID number - so much for privacy). My friends back home, as well as my mom, all had email addresses through school or work. It was amazing. We could "talk" with one another almost instantaneously. We forwarded endless joke messages to each other and just generally kept in touch with what was going on in our lives. Most of us remember the sound our computer made when we would get email; the university gave us Eudora. Da-da-dum-da-dum.

And then, we discovered ICQ

The little green flower in the bottom right-hand toolbar that would squeal "Ah-Oh!" when you got a new message and flashed yellow. You knew instantly when one of your friends was online and you could talk to them in real time. Eventually, everyone moved to Windows Messenger (why? Why did we do that? Oh, right, because we all got hotmail accounts), but I won't ever forget the excitement I felt when I heard the two noises indicating that someone had wanted to "talk" to me through the miracle of the internet. 

The network phone (you called one number and each room had its own extension) was coupled with the drastic drop in long distance costs. By my second year, we paid $20 a month for unlimited long distance within Canada. And our phones had a little red light that flashed when you had a message. It didn't matter what time I came home (and in what condition I was in), I would check for that red light, then check my email and ICQ to see who had said what. 

During my degree, I took a course in basic web design, worked on an government intranet newsletter, wrote for a blog before it was called blogging (it started as a listserv newsletter), and had a professor who tried to integrate online discussion boards into his graduate course on Canadian drama. I learned how to first use physical indexes, then CD-ROMs, then online databases to do my research. While I didn't have the most technical education when it came to social media and learning about how to use the internet, but I was exposed, and exposed myself, to many of the early social media tools.

I was reminded of all this when I stayed in residence while in Sherbrooke this past year. The phones were still there, although probably used much less now that everyone has a cell phone (although you still have things like roaming and long-distance in Canada). Strangely enough, even though there was wireless internet access all over campus, we were limited to a hard line connection in residence. I had brought an iPad, meaning I couldn't access the internet once I got to my room.

It was actually kinda nice. After spending five years in a res room tethered to my computer (a massive black tower and monitor, then a seemingly 10 pound ThinkPad with a 10 minute battery life), I liked that once I got to my room, it was time to either read a book or go to sleep. I guess I'm just getting old. 

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