I've been reflecting on this Web 2.0 experience (mainly blogs, rss and webcasts) and how long it's been since a technological bug bit me so hard. The reason I think that it is so significant is definitely the ability to connect with others. Aaron got it so right a week or so ago:
The more I’ve thought about it, read about it around the blogsphere, and the more I’ve read the comments to my last post, the more I’ve begun to realize that no matter how digitized our world becomes, no matter how fast knowledge explodes, no matter how much we need to be in touch with, and involved in 2.0 - or however this all evolves next, in the end it’s all about people.
It's so true. To illustrate that point, I'd like to tell the story of my good friend, Tom.
The year was 1996. My school had just been ''hooked up" to the Internet for the first time via a 28.8 modem to a Windows 95 PC in the staffroom. I had just signed up for my first e-mail account at a new site called HoTMaiL. Armed with my new e-mail address, I was checking out a bunch of websites including a site called GolfWeb where you could leave a message in their Visitors Book. I left some cheery message and thought nothing more of it as I moved on to check other exciting things like newsgroups.
The next day I noticed that I had received my very first e-mail. It read as follows:
Date: Tue, 15 Oct 1996 19:07:00 -0700
From: "Tom. B. Wald "
Subject: Greetings from the USA!!
Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII
I was looking through the golf web and I saw your short message on it. Thought it would be sort of neat to see if I could get in touch with you. I live in Fargo, North Dakota which is in the center of the United States on the Canadian border. Are you a golfer? I am and like the game a lot! Hope to hear from you and will patiently wait for your reply. Hope you are having a good year "Down There "!!
I couldn't believe it. Someone from the opposite side of the world had made contact with me. Maybe this internet thing had potential. So out of the medium of e-mail, a friendship was born. Tom and I would e-mail each other regularly, at least once a week and each message would reveal more about each other's lives. Tom was a music teacher and through him, I learnt a reasonable amount about the US education system. I remember him telling me that North Dakotan teachers ranked 50th out of the 50 states in salary! Going into 1997, we had an interesting contrast in our access to internet technology. I would use the staffroom computer to check my HoTMaiL and tap out replies during lunch breaks. Tom had internet dialup that was provided to all ND educators through the University of North Dakota but would get "bumped" after 45 minutes and have to dial in again. I got my first introduction to realtime online communication when Tom introduced me to the Locker Room, a chatroom which was its own little virtual community. We would negotiate a mutual time and catch up with others like Pin High, NB, C.Tee and other suitably nicknamed participants. This great little website lasted for about two years and when it started to choke from the traffic, a lot of participants switched to a new technology, ICQ. Who remembers that one? Tom and I would use this little piece of free software designed in Israel and cemented our friendship further. Over the years, we've been able to discuss many issues from our differing perspectives. My own world view was broadened through Tom's experiences sandbagging in Fargo when the Red River flooded. All of a sudden news items on TV had real relevance when they affected someone I knew.
Over the next few years, technology upgrades kept the conversation and friendship going. I purchased my first Win95 PC in mid '97 and meanwhile over in the US, Tom switched over to WebTV, a concept that never made it down under. I also recall tapping out an e-mail to Tom when our eldest son was born. I remember contacting Tom during the 2000 Olympics and telling him about events before they were shown on delayed-for-primetime US television. For the first time, more North American citizens turned to the web for real time results about their athletes rather than wait to see it on the previously dominant medium of TV. During the early part of 2001 Tom talked about travelling down under with his wife in the following year. But then 9/11 occurred and travelling for US citizens became an unacceptable risk.
Eventually ICQ had its day as cutting edge technology and Tom gave his WebTV the flick. He discovered instant messaging via MSN and that became the communication medium of choice. Digital photography became an important component of our friendship as we exchanged family photos, holiday pics, and in this way I saw Tom's new jetski which later gave way to a Harley Davidson. Important times in both of our lives were shared via technology - Tom certainly heard all about it at the births of my sons and when I took the step from full time classroom teacher to applying for and winning my current job as ICT Coordinator. I read with interest and pleasure when Tom changed his teaching job from a nearby rural community to an inner urban position in his hometown of Fargo, and with concern when one of his daughters was deployed to Iraq. I'm still looking forward to the day I get to actually shake his hand and play for a small wager over 18 holes but in the meantime, due to the internet and its evolving tools I can keep in touch with my mate, Tom as easily as any other one of my friends. Interestingly, e-mail has been the one reliable technology that hasn't changed a lot since 1996 - I now want Tom to give Skype a whirl!
So, there you have it, a story I've wanted to tell for a while because of its relevance to the evolution of the internet. Technology has the power to connect people in a meaningful way and that perhaps is its highest purpose.