My 25 years online

It’s 25 years this month since I got online for the first time. I’d had a computer for years – an Amstrad word processor in 1987 switching to a PC in 1994 – and had been following the growing excitement about the ‘information superhighway’ as the web was called back then.

The web looked very different back then. Pages were light on graphics, as they took ages to load on the slow 56k dial up connection most people used. (Broadband came later.) And you couldn’t use the (landline) phone at the same time as it used the same line. You also paid your internet service provider for online access as well as the cost of dialling up to get online.

The web might have been made for me. I have an incurable curiosity and was soon addicted to finding out about anything and everything online. During the 1997 general election, I found out my local winning candidate from the BBC website. (The Tory candidate – unlike in so many places during Tony Blair’s landslide victory.) Soon after, Dad and I pondered the age of the prized cricket bat that his father had bought him in the 1930s. Because it had been signed by the England and New Zealand teams, we were able to date it based on the signatures. Curiously the website we used for our research was from India.

In those early days, my favourite search engine was Altavista, seen above. I liked the name, which reminded me of a brand of coffee. Five years later I switched to Google on the recommendation of the HSBC chairman’s speechwriter. I used Netscape Navigator as my first web browser, and later Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome.

I’ve always been interested in technology but would have been amazed if you’d told me in 1996 that I’d later join a tech company not even founded at the time. (Back then I was working for a company formed in 1807.)

This is what the BBC News website looked like in 1998:

A decade ago, reflecting on my first 15 years online, I commented:

I strongly believe the online benefits outweigh the disadvantages. The internet has been a good thing. It has shared influence and power. It slightly redresses the balance of power in society – newspaper owners, politicians and big business have a little less influence over the rest of us. And we’ve barely begun – just wait another few years, and we’ll see the huge benefits of the mobile revolution.

Sadly, I have to give a much less favourable verdict today. The benefits remain but are now countered by the flood of propaganda, lies and hatred spread online, especially on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The Brexit referendum, Trump’s election and the Covid-19 pandemic have shown how easily millions of people can be fooled by misinformation and downright lies. The impact on democracy and individual wellbeing are incalculable.

PS: it isn’t completely true to say I only got online in 1996. When I joined Nationwide Building Society’s press office in November 1987, I used the internal email system to send the daily press cuttings summary to Northampton Admin Centre for distribution. But being online to the world from 1996 was a revelation.

4 thoughts on “My 25 years online

  1. Netscape Navigator! Alta Vista! What blasts from the past! 😁 I was a bit of an early adopter too as a teen and fondly (through very rose tinted glasses) remember the dial up tone, building websites with GeoCities, bulletin boards and figuring out the HTML world. Ahhh, those days…

  2. Fascinating post Rob. I’m intrigued as to how you can remember when as I’ve been trying to work out when I first did. I thnk my first was CompuServe and then later via Demon Internet, followed by Freeserve. I built my first fully functioning website in 1997, but experimented with things like GeoCities pages before then.

    I remember the BBC news website as I was in-house at Grant Thornton in 1997, joining shortly before the general election. When I joined I asked my boss what ”success” looked like and was told it was providing the budget commentary in one of the broadsheets. Well, with about two or three months before the first budget of a new Labour government, there was never any likelihood I would dislodge what was then the Big Six to get the seventh-largest accountants instead.

    What I did do was approach the BBC, and we provided expert commentary on the BBC. Visitors were easily comparable to a boradsheet. However, of course nobody at Grant Thornton appreciated this as it didn’t have the same bragging rights as The Times or The Telegraph.

    I’d been doing internet PR long before then, things like getting clients to contribute in Usenet forums, but the 1997 Budget was my first concious realisation of how important the internet was for PR.

    • Thanks Stuart. That is really interesting. You are so right that old-style executives thought success was a mention in The Times or Telegraph or indeed FT. PS: I have always had a memory for dates, so can tell you we first met at the CIPR Northern Conference in July 2006! Your insights into blogging and social media made a real impression.

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