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The First Time I Saw the Internet

Liljan at Choose To Be Me and I were talking recently about the first time we heard about email.  I was standing on the camp’s driveway saying goodbye to another counselor who was heading back to college.  I was in high school, about to enter my senior year.  He was telling me about email, suggesting that I get an account if I can — he wasn’t sure it was available off of college campuses.  I couldn’t wrap my brain around the concept of email.  I literally pictured it like pneumatic tubes between houses, and the letter you typed on the computer somehow got printed out and dropped in a tube and it showed up at the other person’s house.  He kept repeating that there was no paper involved, but I couldn’t see how that was possible.  Even fax machines — which I knew about but had never used at that point — still utilized paper.

I thought this guy was crazy and filed the information away under things to figure out when I had to deal with it and not beforehand.

That year, my dad signed up for Prodigy, and I got my very own email address.  I could only email other Prodigy users — not people using a different system.  Which meant that I could email other family members as well as a boy I met online named Doug.  We gave each other relationship advice.  It was a pretty chaste online relationship: he, asking what his girlfriend meant when she said certain things because girls are so confusing! (“Melissa, do you think she really wants to go with me to the dance, or do you think she’s only saying that because she thinks that’s what I want to hear?  Girls are so confusing!”) and I asked him what he thought about my boyfriend (boys weren’t quite as confusing, but mine happened to tell me about his astral projection incidents, and that required a lot of verbal dissection with Doug).  We kept in touch through my first year of college and then Doug disappeared into the Internet ether, caught in some invisible pneumatic tube.


In college, we had usenet rooms.  First of all, only a certain amount of people could be in the room at a given time.  So you logged in (by using your dial-up modem and tying up the phone line) and saw where you were in the queue.  During busy times, it could take hours to get on.  And then there was the frustration of losing the connection, which bumped you out of the system, and then you had to get in the queue again.  I went online a lot in the middle of the night.

Which meant that it was mostly Australians awake with me.  I spoke to a lot of people at Monash University and University of Ballarat.  I had one boy — whose name I’ve now forgotten — that I met online most nights to talk.  He was at Ballarat.  Almost everyone online back then was in college.

It took so long to get online and so long to send a message and get an answer, that you had to do something else in the meantime.  I remember that I read Vox in one evening while waiting to get into the usenet room.  There were a bunch of copies floating around campus.  When someone finished it, they left it in a public area and another person could take it.  I got my copy while sitting on Library Mall — someone walked by and passed along their copy after asking if I had read it.  I remember sitting there at night, moving the mouse from time to time so the screen saver would disappear and show me how many more people were ahead of me in the computer queue, and then reading the whole book in one sitting so I could pass it along to someone the next day.

I always wondered what happened to all those floating copies.  Later that year, I purchased my own copy at Canterbury books when they got in the pink cover.

Wait, we were talking about the Internet, not phone sex books.

The best part of usenet was that you could pop on, find someone from Norway (let’s say), and quickly ask your Scandinavian history question right before your Scandinavian history exam.  Usenet showed which university the person was writing from.  It was my first foray into obtaining quick information online.


The first time I saw the World Wide Web, I was at work, at the National Endowment for the Humanities.  My friend called me into another co-worker’s office.  She was trying to log into the Web via a modem, and she showed us a website where you could read a book online.  By my junior year, I had Eudora and a university email address.  So even though I had finally wrapped my brain around email and wrote regularly with people far away (though a busy day was five messages, and I still needed to log on with a dial-up modem that tied up the phone line, so I only checked once at night, and that was at a very late hour when people probably wouldn’t be calling.  No one wanted to go online during the day and tie up the phone line), I couldn’t understand how the Internet would ever catch on.

In addition, the address bar was just a series of numbers — we still had IP addresses for websites vs. URLs — and there was no way to look up a page; no search engine.  You only knew of a website because someone had sent you the numbers, and you typed them in.  I couldn’t see how this was going to be useful.  What were we going to do?  Just sit around on our dial-up email sending each other random strings of numbers all day?  I would not be passing along these information chain letters, thank you very much!

Even though it was pretty damn cool.  I mean, 30 minutes to upload a single page wasn’t that long.


My senior year of college, I got a webpage.  Someone in the IT department set it up for me.  It was a survey that people could fill out, and when they hit send, the results were emailed to me.  Every night, I could log into my email (during off-hours!) and collect the results and tally things up on paper.  It was a survey for a sexual anthropology paper I was writing about the transmission of viruses.

I ran around from classroom to classroom writing the same message on the chalkboard:


Please fill out my survey for my sexual anthropology paper.  It is a website.  The address is

This was not the exact note nor address, but it’s close enough.

Then I had to go back to rooms to make sure the message was not erased.  And sometimes I needed to argue with professors that there was no other way to get out word about the survey if I didn’t do this.  And my G-d, I had to touch chalk and I hated touching chalk. (I hate chalk so much that when I became a teacher, they replaced the chalkboard in my room with a whiteboard because I couldn’t stand the idea of touching chalk every day.)

And most professors told me to do my research the traditional way and not use a newfangled website!  And I said things like, “you just don’t understand, old man.”

Actually, I mostly nodded when they told me that because I agreed with them: this seemed like a very time-consuming and difficult way to collect information.

And yet, I did it anyway.  Because it was just so. damn. cool.


What were your first experiences with email and the Web?


1 mijk { 04.16.12 at 7:46 am }

I was still in Highscool and my boyfriend was studying physics and he showed me e-mail! He had a pc and his screen was black and then suddenly a message from his roommate appeared and I was like: Well you could have shouted that to him…..Nevermind that I e-mail him now sometimes when we are on the same couch…..(handy if you want to talk about the kids that are sitting a meter away…

2 Brookes4boys { 04.16.12 at 8:31 am }

I had a Commodore Computer in 1987 (or so) and we had a program called Q-link which had a dial up modem (you had to buy the modem separately and I remember standing in line somewhere waiting for my parents to pick it up and wondering what on Earth was worth this much trouble) and once on Q-link (which was pay per minute) we could talk to other Q-link users from across the country. You could buy stuff in an online mall, too, but there weren’t any pictures so what was the point. I, too, didn’t think it was going to go anywhere.

3 Her Royal Fabulousness { 04.16.12 at 8:51 am }

When I was like 13 or 14 I had a Mac Plus (remember those?!) at home and got a dial-up modem for my birthday. At first, I used a local bbs (bulletin board system) for teens in my area. I had an email address through that bbs but only other bbsers could use it. A bunch of friends were on it and we could chat in a chat room or post angsty song lyrics or poetry we wrote. There were sometimes IRL meet-ups (I went to 1). Later, I found out the guy who ran it was like 45 and CREEPY. Eventually, more widespread access to the web came about but I can’t remember quite when. It wasn’t until college that I had much faster and more global access to internet, but still very few search engines (alta vista, netscape navigator, yahoo). I think my first regular email was earthlink in the late nineties. In college, we used the school’s internal server a lot to share music and video. Then Facebook hit…you know the rest. 🙂

4 loribeth { 04.16.12 at 8:57 am }

I wrote a post along these lines last fall! : )


It boggles my mind that kids today won’t know a time before the Internet & e-mail.

5 gwinne { 04.16.12 at 9:28 am }

Email coincided with grad school for me; I’d just heard of folks getting email addresses my senior year in college and then by the time fall rolled around I *needed* one at grad school. Mostly I exchanged email with my new boyfriend, who was in the same program; I don’t remember using it much for actual professional reasons for a while. I found yahoo and the web several years later. Started joining listservs and online communities toward the end of grad school. A lot happened in 7 years!

6 m. { 04.16.12 at 9:30 am }

In high school, the internet was a rumor, something the tech boys used to find pornography (as in, pixelated boobies) and wow was it scandalous.

In college, there was talk of eudora and “hyperlinks” and how the latter was going to kill books as we know it. Some writing classes dabbled in writing with hyperlinks. I stayed far away. Some friends had email accounts, I remember playing on netscape one evening waiting for a “real” machine (i.e. microfiche, omg) to open up at the library. I got the concept, but had no frigging clue where to go or what to look for.

I know that in 1995 the death of Jerry “broke the World.Wide.Web.” Like, shut it down. I remember whispering that reverently, like I flipping knew what I was saying.

I finally got my first hotmail account when I was overseas working in Poland and I guess that’s when I figured out what the big deal was. Being able to “talk” to my parents without waiting on a street corner for a public phone (an internet cafe was much more comfy. And less expensive!!), being able to search for lesson plans online, being able to look for a new job on those fancy internet bulletin boards….this was living.

I do find it funny though, and I think I have a blog post bubbling about this, that in those days, my #1 request to ex pat friends should something happen to me was “burn the journals.” It’s all a little different now.

7 N { 04.16.12 at 9:42 am }

Before we had internet at home, my friend had it at her house (they had $$). They had a dedicated phone line for it, AND they had BOTH Prodigy AND AOL. Because at the time, one was for email, and the other was for chatting. Duh. I would go over and we would go into chat rooms and do horrible things leading people on. Because we were 15 year olds, and that’s what 15 year olds do, or something.

Then we got Prodigy at home (my step-dad did eventually get us a dedicated phone line for it, but not at first), and I met somebody and we developed a religion (called Bob) based around love of the Beatles. It was going to be AWESOME.

My first non-Prodigy experience was a friend who, our Junior year of high school, helped make a BBS. He gave me the instructions as to how to find it (which I don’t even remember anymore), and after creating an account (and getting a phone call from the sysop to confirm we were who we said we were), we could get online, and leave messages on a sort of wall for people (email-style, but everybody could see them), and play text-based games and such. Man, it was CUTTING EDGE.

It’s funny, I feel like there was this MASSIVE technological leap forward between my senior year of high school and my senior year of college, because the differences were so massive. Though I suppose really it’s a case of technology just running on fast forward for the whole time, and those are easy reference points for me. But in high school, I hadn’t ever been (that I can remember) to a website. Maybe MAYBE one through the shell of AOL or Prodigy (where they’d lead you there but not actually show you what the address was). At some point during my freshman year of college, I set up my own website on the school servers, coding it all by hand. My friends and I would surf sites, but mostly what there was was porn, and this website of a guy who was doing tests on peeps. (still an amazing website.) By my junior year, I bought my text books online at barnes and noble, and they were all mailed directly to my dorm, amazing! Somewhere in there kozmo.com was created, and I mourn it to this day. That was the year I discovered newsgroups, and half of the dorms had ethernet instead of dial-up, and I started my first blog. Man.

I’m going to stop rambling now. But you’ve made me all nostalgic.

8 anon reader { 04.16.12 at 9:46 am }

my boyfriend in college (circa 1990) showed up one day with a small computer that looked like an electric typewriter (which is what i used to write all my college essays etc… with white out!).

he turned it on and connected it to the phone line, and said it was the ‘new big thing’. i asked what it was supposed to be used for, and he said ‘to connect you to the world!’. and i was like ‘huh.’. i didn’t understand why you would need or want to do that. it took forever, and at that point, there wasn’t much to look at.

i graduated college and didn’t get a computer until 2002- an imac (the candy colored kind, all-in-one). i got it so i could contact my little sister with “email”. she walked me thru it and i set up a hotmail account, which i still use! we had dial-up and it was SO slow… like, run the vaccum, hit send, vaccum a room or two, check back in, and maybe it was complete.

i think my generation (mid 40’s) was on the cusp of computer technology, and the rural area i live in, a lot of people my age are slow to ‘get in gear’ with new technology, including me. i am a little suspicious and it does not come naturally for me at all.

i just recently got a gmail account and felt like i had entered the modern world. but i still love and use my old hotmail account- and have emails saved from the beginning, lol… back then, we still wrote letters to keep in touch (for you young folk, that is a piece of paper, with handwritten words and thoughts, usually about 2 or 3 pages long, and it took a couple hours or so to complete it, stamp it, and off it went- you may get a lettered response in, oh, a few weeks…). lol…

9 Jules { 04.16.12 at 10:32 am }

I heard about email from my friend Rachel who had just started college (I was still a senior in high school). It was such a strange concept to me! I was like, “How do the emails get sent? How does that work?” She answered, “Through the ethernet.” And I replied, “What’s an ethernet?” And she said, “It like a big cable that connects all the computers in the world together.” MIND. BLOWN.

10 Rebecca { 04.16.12 at 12:44 pm }

We had a VAX system when I was in college that you could log onto. I got an account my first year to run simulations of electronic orbitals for my chemistry class (when we got a message in the past few years from our old department saying that the VAX system was finally being “put down” it was very sad and nostalgic to think of no longer doing that lab.) As a “side bonus” of getting an account, we figured out that we could send “vax mail.” I remember having to type some complicated system starting with “IN%” and all sorts of quotation marks to send a message to anyone. The only people I knew who had access were also on campus. But, then my mother got an account because my stepbrother worked with some people at Georgia Tech who set her up with an e-mail account (my mother still to this day uses that e-mail account — 20 years and many server manipulations later, she still has the same e-mail address). I remember trying to find other friends at other schools who had it but no one did.

Somewhere in there Lynx came out as a browser and we started looking up sites on-line — with no pictures. I don’t even remember what we used it for. It wouldn’t have even occurred to me there should be pictures. Then, my junior year Mosaic came out and we were blown away — pictures?! What the?! I remember the very first time I used it — during a class on doing literature searches for chemistry. I just remember thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

Hard to even imagine how we got here from there.

11 Jody @ Mud Hut Mama { 04.16.12 at 2:02 pm }

My senior year of college I took an electronic media class where I learned to write html. I had to do a project for the class so I worked on a website for the university’s Semester at Sea program. I thought it was so cool but I’m sure I would shudder if I could see it now! I had some type of university email in college but I honestly don’t ever remember using it. I certainly didn’t have a personal address that I could use for anything other than people in my own university.

After college I joined the Peace Corps and I remember I could email my parents occasionally when I was in town, from my supervisor’s email address. When I finished my service, I traveled home via Egypt and one evening in Cairo I passed an internet cafe so I wandered in and asked the guy at the desk if I could email home. He said sure and gave me a computer. I stared at the screen for a few minutes, completely confused, and then finally asked him. How?

He explained that I just needed to log into my account so I apologized for wasting his time and got up to go saying I didn’t have an account. He laughed and sat down and helped me set up my first yahoo account. I couldn’t believe it was free. He thought I was hysterical. Certainly the most clueless foreigner to walk into his cafe! I think the whole email thing really exploded those two years I was in the Peace Corps because when I got back everyone was using it.

12 JustHeather { 04.16.12 at 2:48 pm }

I’m loving these stories!
My ex-bf introduced me to the internet and email, it was June 1994. He played around a lot on BBS (bulletin board systems), but I never really got much into those or their games. What he did introduce me to was MUDs (Multi-User Dimension/Dungeon aka text based role playing games, the parents of World of Warcraft, etc). The game that I really got addicted to was Midnight Sun. The server was in Sweden and people from all over the world logged in to play this game. I ‘met’ people from Sweden, Czech, Holland, Slovakia, Finland, etc. It was through this game that I met my now husband and ended up in Finland.

I still have one of my first email addresses at rocketmail.com, although most people would know them by Yahoo these days.

13 Alexicographer { 04.16.12 at 3:24 pm }

This post and the comments are great.

To provide some context, we had a Commodore 64 when I was in HS and I had just started using it to write papers as I was graduating. My mother gave me the option of having a typewriter or a computer to take to college and I chose a … typewriter! It was very nice. Self-correcting and stuff. Oh, those were the days…

When I graduated from college, my then-boyfriend (a grad student) told me that if I expected to communicate with him once I didn’t live in the same town, I needed to get an email account. And thus was a new mechanism introduced. That would have been 1991, and I’m not sure how long it was before I was using it regularly and/or for other purposes. Back then, we still had telephones that had decent sound quality, so using the phone to converse with a human being wasn’t, you know, out of the question the way it is today.

I learned of the internet when a faculty member in grad school got me an internship opportunity at CNN in 1995. The tremendously cool thing they were doing was — brace yourself — developing a web page. Everyone was abuzz! I actually got to work on some CDs they were creating as reference resources for schools etc., that, frankly, with hindsight, were totally moronic (but hey, who knew?). Also, we had no clue how to use hyperlinks at that stage of the game (though they existed), creating a lot of dumb redundancies. I had access to the AP wire at work and do remember the announcement of Jerry’s death coming across it (and feeling blown away), referenced by M. above (the death, not the AP wire).

I’m very verbal, and still quaintly insist on reading my email in Pine, meaning I miss assorted visuals, though if it’s glaringly obvious I’m missing them I will actually open up a web reader if I *have* to.

14 Mina { 04.16.12 at 4:50 pm }

It must have been one of the last two years of university, so it was 1997-1998, when I first went to the computer room in university and got myself a hotmail account. I had literally a couple of friends I wrote emails with weekly. Then, during my senior year, I got a job and then I had internet and email at discretion aaaaaaall daaaaay. And then I got dial-up at home! Yeap, that was circa 2000. 🙂 I’ve always thought it was a hoot, that internet.
If you are amazed by the lateness of my coming online, just know that it was a general thing in my country at that time, but we later compensated this tardiness with one of the best internet providing services presence in Europe (I was surprised by the poor services in the rest of Europe after I left, I realise now that I was spoiled by my first service providers back in my little easter corner), many highly qualified IT specialists exported all over the world and our neighbours manage to overtake us in the hacking department by a very minimal margin. We’ve come a long way, baby!

15 HereWeGoAJen { 04.16.12 at 7:05 pm }

We got an internet hooked up computer when I was in high school. One of the first people I IMed with was Matt. 🙂

I had a chalk holder pen thing when I was teaching. Chalk, yuck.

16 missohkay { 04.16.12 at 8:16 pm }

This is a fun topic! My first email was at college and the screen was DOS-like black and white . You had to type IN%”[email address]”IN% in the address field. I didn’t know what a subject line was for so I typed my first message in the subject line. It was to my friend Amy telling her that I got drunk and threw up. Sounds about right… no, actually I was not AT ALL a party girl in college so that was big news.

17 Orodemniades { 04.16.12 at 9:07 pm }

I first used email in…1983-4. Ta-da! It was part of my summer job at Community College of Vermont. The first computer I ever used was in…1981, in 7th grade. It ran on cassette tapes.

I built my first web page – from scratch, learning HTML on the fly, in 1994, after a local company set themselves up as an ISP (I was one of the first to sign up). Now, of course, I completely befuddled by CSS and even just setting up a website is beyond me.

18 a { 04.16.12 at 9:47 pm }

My first online experience was my friend chatting with people on bulletin boards. We eventually met up with some of the guys and I dated one for a while. We’re all facebook friends now.

I got my own internet service in about 1997. I was hesitant to do so – I wasn’t sure what people would be able to see on my end. But I used email a lot.

19 Lori Lavender Luz { 04.16.12 at 11:34 pm }

in 1994 my company’s attorney was chatting with me, whispering about the Next Big Thing called “The Internet.” With it we would be able to email people from one computer to another. Wouldn’t that be amazing!

I left that job shortly thereafter to work in a university, on which I was promptly set up for my first email account. It was on a T-1 line and seemed fast.

I don’t remember the first webpages I visited, but once I started visiting them I had this crazy idea that I would eventually be able to visit them all (http://writemindopenheart.com/2008/03/tmi-an-understatement-2.html).

I left that job after about 18 months to live overseas in a place that barely had fax machines. By the time I came back home, to my old job, the Internet had exploded.

20 Kate { 04.17.12 at 12:08 am }

It just hit me, reading all of these stories and simultaneously trying to remember my first online experiences!!! My first introduction to the internet- I mean my first time actually using it for something- coincides with the very beginning of my adoption (and years later-now-secondary infertility) journey! It was 1997, and I was living back at home with my mother(s) after having decided to switch colleges in the middle of my second semester of my second year (big mistake… long story). Not 3 months after returning home and before I had even registered to start classes at the college in my hometown, I found out I was pregnant (by the new boy I met at the first restaurant job I landed upon my arrival back home). Needless to say, I was a mess and I needed HELP (more of that story can be found on my blog). That was when my Mom parked me in front of her computer and showed me how to get onto something called the World Wide Web via a program called America Online. And so my adoption research began! The first place I truly sought information that would lead me to my decision to choose adoption was the very new, very large, and very amazing new portal to the world called the internet (was it even called that then?) I remember staying up til 4 and 5 in the morning for weeks at a time, just reading people’s experiences of adoption, being a birthparent, etc. I was in chat rooms and all over the place, reading and soaking up information (kindof like I do now in my desperate search for infertility answers and support). Ultimately, and with the support of my “boyfriend” and family, I chose to make an open adoption plan for my daughter (who was born in June of 1998). That was 14 years ago. Wow. Amazing how probably the biggest technological advancement in my lifetime happened to coincide with and play a pivotal role in what was (one of) the biggest personal events/decisions of my life. And we’ve both (technology and me) come a long way since then!

21 Justine { 04.17.12 at 9:36 am }

Remember Gopher? That was my first memory of the internet. I couldn’t figure out how to find stuff … and why anyone would go through that trouble to look for something that wasn’t find-able. Interesting, isn’t it? That the internet, all that information, is nothing without the social component to connect it all…

That and something in my residence hall in college called POPmail. Of course, we only sent POPmail to other people in our residence hall. Which was sort of silly.

About as silly as “talk”: I remember quite vividly sitting RIGHT NEXT to someone else, “talking” with them through a computer. And realizing that it was absolutely my medium. 😉 (It’s actually how I got involved with one of my previous boyfriends, the one who ended up giving me another reason besides grad school to move to LA, where I spent three of the weirdest years of my life.)

22 Brave IVF Girl { 04.17.12 at 12:05 pm }

My two years in college I taught an introductory computer science class at Carnegie Mellon. We had email all four years I was in college, but it was still mostly limited to college students and researchers – CMU being a research institution was part of DARPAnet. My last year in college we taught how to use NCSA Mosaic, which was the first well-known graphical web browser. This was when Yahoo was a directory of the Internet, not a search engine. 🙂

23 Brave IVF Girl { 04.17.12 at 12:05 pm }

Lol, my *last* two years in college.

24 Bea { 04.18.12 at 8:15 am }

Punch cards. There has to be someone here who remembers using punch cards. Not me – far too young!


25 loribeth { 04.18.12 at 9:34 am }

Bea — I didn’t actually use punch cards myself (dh did!) but I do remember standing in line to register at university & being given some to take with me over to the next lineup. We also had to run around to the prof of every course we wanted to attend & get them to sign our registration sheet. Kids today do it all on the computer!!

26 Gail { 04.18.12 at 10:29 pm }

I remember when we got AOL at home with our dial-up modem when I was in high school. I got my first email address thru yahoo a year later and it is still my email address. As a sidebar, I’ve changed phone numbers and addresses so many times in the last 20 years, but never my email address. 🙂
During my sophomore year of college, I met my husband thru email. Actually, our moms worked together and my mom gave his mom my email address. So, he sent me an email saying that he got my address from his mom and wondered if I’d like to get together. We exchanged emails for a few weeks before we met in person. Before we met, we wanted to exchange pictures, but email didn’t allow attachments so we both had a friend that had a website and scanner and we had out photos scanned onto our friends’ websites to share. I like to tell people that we were set up by our mothers and then dated online plus we had a blind date, so we were triple-screwed. Thankfully, it all worked out.

27 Gail { 04.18.12 at 10:30 pm }

I forgot to add that we’ll be married 12 years this June.

28 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 04.18.12 at 11:58 pm }

I am one year younger than you, Mel. I had Prodigy starting my junior year of high school and used it avidly, and to a lesser extent dialed into BBS that I found listed in the back of local computer geek newsletters. Back then I was totally aware of everything there was to know about computers, the newest specs of every component of a computer. I never put together a computer from scratch but I could crack one open and muddle about.

My first actual email address came when I started college. I insisted on having my own phone line rather than sharing with my roommates so that I could have dedicated dial-up (and talk to my boyfriend, but mostly the dial-up). Not everyone had a computer back then, so many people came to my room to use mine (a 486/DX266, the absolute state of the art). My sophomore year one of my professors, who was VERY into technology, showed us The World Wide Web. By my senior year, I had my own website, which I programmed myself in HTML, character by character.

29 Tiara { 04.20.12 at 4:16 pm }

I remember when I was in maybe grade 8 or 9, so late 80’s early 90’s, & my Dad (who was a DIY computer geek) & his friend (another computer geek) were setting up their own “online bulletin board”. We were at our house, he was at his & they were typing messages to each other! Over the computer! From 2 different houses! This blew my mind!! I still remember the conversation they typed, that’s how big of an impression it made!

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