1995: 20 years ago, I joined the Internet

Twenty years ago today (roughly), I joined the internet. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous affair, but was necessitated by MSN (not the website, the original ISP service that debuted with Windows 95) having shut down its service in Korea, forcing me to find a local ISP (and convincing my parents that 7,000 won a month (about $6) was worth connecting to this nascent world wide web. For that, you’d get access to Chollian’s ISP, and 15 hours of access to the “internet” via PPP dial-up.

I was 10 years old and my family had just moved to Seoul from the United States for reasons that I still am not quite sure of, and in the demise of MSN, the ISP, I had just lost a major connection to the English speaking world that I had left behind. Quite sad, I know, but all that was about to change. I chose a Korean ISP called “Chollian”–which literally meant “vision of a thousand li” (li was a unit of distance in old Korea). No reason why i picked it other than that I got a CD with a trial; think of those old AOL CDs.

I spent a while trying to pick a screenname and email address, and ended up with: It was 1995 and ISP emails were the only way you’d get reasonable email. (Go ahead, spam it all you want. I doubt it even exists anymore. Oh where oh where do the lost emails go?) Anyone who asks about the origins of the name will be regaled with a rather hilarious story of the hours I took to come up with it. (Okay fine: one involves my name Alexander {obviously}, the E. and the R. stand for “Enforcer” a screenname I used frequently in Duke Nukem 3d multiplayer matches, and “Riker” as I believed the good TNG number one was a badass, esp as Admiral). Need I remind you, dear reader, I was 10 in ’95 and personal identity was an important thing to a kid.

It’s hard to recall what my first experience online was like; certainly I had an awareness that “holy shit, I’m connected to the world!”. But in 1995, (especially in Korea where most families didn’t even have a computer), with barely 0.4% of the world on the internet, there really wasn’t much to do other than, well browse here and there and try to find interesting things. I had already been online over the past year on closed-ISPs which made it quite easy to have a curated, though highly limited, online experience (recall AOL, Prodigy, and MSN, which kept their own little communities? Lest we forget, this was a big part of the “online” world in the 1990s. I was involved with a Doom map making community rather early, and I was blown away by how much interesting stuff I could find and explore.). By comparison, the discovery experience for new world wide web user was quite brutally obtuse. Imagine you have never heard of the internet and you open a browser for the first time (one without a decent portal); without knowing that a search engine exists, how would you even know what to enter into the blank URL bar? I remember being confused even at the syntax of a URL: <- a web URL is second-nature to us now in 2015, but in 1995, at first glance, it was quite foreign.

(On a side note, when my family moved to Korea one of my chief concerns was falling behind in my learning, and not being able to keep up if/when I returned to the US. My early use of the internet absolutely turned that around, and I was able to learn at my own pace, to my own interests. The internet absolutely was a formative experience of my childhood.)

But the “Internet” was quite different back then. I didn’t even know what a search engine was, let alone what to do if i didn’t have one of those mysterious “URLs” to go somewhere interesting. The blank page and address bar were like big question marks. It seemed like the only way I could find anything was via links from other pages; which turned my internet activity into some sort of scavenger hunt. I’m telling you, you kids today don’t know what it was like back then. My first modem was 14.4 kbps. That’s KILOBITs per second. I developed mental math to convert megabytes into time, (turned out to be roughly 10 minutes per megabyte, which is still ten times faster than New Horizons is sending data to NASA right now…), which was an important conversion when using the internet meant nobody could use the home telephone line. Trust me, however old you are, it is not easy convincing your parents that it’s ok that their phones aren’t working, and having them plan out their calls… lol.

But what was I doing back then? Most of the time, I was reading the news about what’s happening in the world (in English, before the internet it was quite difficult to find content in the language of my choosing), finding new shareware games to download and play, and/or picking up random fun things to do. I learned both Doom map making and Photoshop at around the same time.

By 1996, I was 11 and had at least one other friend from school that would explore the internet with. Yahoo chatrooms were particularly memorable. He would enjoy trolling people, whereas I’d find the most interesting person in each room to figure out/learn something new. We’d coordinate using an ancient IM platform called ICQ. I don’t even remember my ICQ ID. I was also an avid PC gamer at the time, and I’d frequent many tech sites oriented towards games and the PCs needed to run them.

Still, it was a very impersonal affair, and while the internet always was about connecting people, back then, it was certainly not easy, and most definitely not “encouraged” by the media, which seemed oddly terrified at the idea of a computer that was connected to gasp other people. I recall at least a few random people chatting and making sorta/kinda friends that existed somewhere in the world. It was like pen-pal discovery for the digital age. “a/s/l?” Do people still do that?

(Aside: I feel like the real-name orientation of Facebook has taken away some of the fun and mystery of discovering the human behind a screenname. “Add Friend” is just not nearly as intriguing as “a/s/l”, even if most of those interactions were rather silly and pointless.)

That’s how I recall the internet back in the mid 1990s, a curiosity for most people, at least for me, with hardly any means for connecting with anyone. But by my local standards, I was already exposed to a small but growing population of internet users, barely 0.4% of the world population, and a phenomenon that would be hugely upend everything. It was pretty obvious by the late 1990s, especially in Korea, which like a crazy stampede, everyone suddenly decided that mobile infrastructure and the broadband internet were top national priorities. Hot damn. A bet well played.

All that changed with the emergence of social media, and real-time communication media; which turned the web from static place, into the living, breathing, web that connects a growing majority of the world’s people and information. Half of the entire planet’s population, three and a half BILLION people, are just an IM/SMS away.

How amazing is that! We’ve come a long way in 20 years, and the march goes on. Let’s connect everyone!