From Netscape to Google

All this talk about social media has made me reminisce about the first few hours, days and weeks that I spent exploring the wonders of the internet.

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Let me give you some background: I’m 29 years old (and 30 is fast approaching), so I’m a Gen-Y-er, and the internet was just hitting its stride when I became a teen. So by the time I was in year 10 (GCSEs) at secondary school, Netscape had arrived and a world of forums and the early days of social networking was taking off. My childhood was internet-free – I grew up with a sense of freedom and exploration, finger-painting in the garden, reading and crafting, annoying the family cats. I often wonder what life is like for children now – how will it be when they grow up in this world of fast-paced digital information and technology?

So, as I said, it started with Netscape. Then along came Bolt.com, the early teenage-infested waters of social media. This was an interesting site, it had profile pages not unlike Facebook now, but you could post your own writing, poetry and essays on your own profile and choose to make them public or private. There were many topic related boards, a little like Facebook groups now, where you could start discussion threads or post your writing for people to comment on. There were also the chatrooms – the one me and my friends frequented most often was called ‘Movies’, but anything except Movies was being discussed – although occasionally there would be a discussion about new films or favourites. Usually there would be a load of people singing song lyrics at each other. This is where I met my now husband, 13 years ago…

This was a wonderful atmosphere, although there were some difficult moments when people would have arguments or would be going through a hard time and needed support. I will never forget all the characters that populated Movies – it would probably look a lot like a group of the misfits in an American high school drama: from the spiky haired guy with piercings from Glasgow (who loved Michael Jackson songs) to the cute indie girl with a checked floppy hat, and the geeky tech guy. Very late-90s/early 2000!

These were the days of MSN messenger and long chain emails, where we would answer a load of questions about ourselves and pass them on to our friends to answer. I often miss that naivety and sense of a whole uncharted internet to explore – this was the time when the boundaries of the internet had not yet been fully explored. Amazon was still just a bookseller and blogs were very low-fi, more like journals than anything else. I didn’t start a blog until 2005, when Facebook was just starting up, competing with Myspace.

When I started blogging, I was at University and needed a place to start writing for myself again. I credit the internet with inspiring me to start writing again: when I started, I wasn’t looking for an audience, but a bit of internet ‘real estate’ of my own. I hadn’t written anything of my own for a while, even though I used to write a lot when I was a teen – Bolt got me writing lyrics and poetry. So in many ways, the internet has been a driving force behind inspiring me to write.

As a deaf person, I have found the internet an incredible place to find information, research, network and share my writing with other people. It has exposed me to the good and bad sides of human behaviour – though I have experienced bullying and trolls, I still find that there is an ideal of free-information and DIY-activism underneath all the capitalism and advertising. Though we chafe at the changes the Facebook founder keeps making, Facebook has still been a good place to network and start up activism.

What worries me about the internet and social media are the same things that other people are worried about – not experiencing the ‘real’ world and forgetting to live in the moment. Another thing that worries me is how people will use social networks to become ‘popular’ and to feed their narcissism or will start bullying people. Although all movements and groups have people who will try and use the internet to further their own interests, there are those of us who use it to facilitate thinking, activism and to bring people together.

As with all things humans do, there are always going to be moments of difficulty and times when ego comes up against the desire to do good. Social media can’t replace face to face interaction, which is why the Tree House aims to do ‘real-world’ activism and campaigning alongside projects and campaigns on social media. It is still early days, but I’m looking forward to seeing everything develop and grow.

Although part of me dislikes how reliant I have become on social media – on Facebook and Twitter in particular – there is another part of me that enjoys interacting with different networks of people. For myself, I find Twitter an invaluable place for activism, keeping up with the writing and publishing industry, and for real-time reporting. My interest in various movements – feminism, deaf rights and access, body acceptance and self esteem, and disability, amongst others – means that I’m able to follow an eclectic stream of interesting information and ideas each day on Twitter. An endless stream of inspiration.

As with all things, how you use social networking has a lot to do with the quality of your experience. As a deaf person, I can say that it has opened my world up and allowed me to connect with people the world over. Although I’m wary of how much time I spend on the net, I wouldn’t change it – it can be a great equaliser. It allows people to interact on fairly equal ground – to communicate with each other whether they are deaf or hearing. Although I have my bug-bears about certain things, like v-logging where there are no subtitles, I continue to be hopeful of the power of the internet as a tool for change and spreading information.

– Lizzie Ward-Mclaughlan

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