This week I’ve been celebrating 25 years of the Web by retracing my own life, lived largely online, from the Web’s early years to the dot-com boom and bust to the slow emergence of Web 2.0, which I largely missed while in self-imposed digital exile in Alaska. In the final installment today I look at how I came back to the Web just in time for things to get really good.
Look through my author’s profile here at CNET and you might notice that I’m a bit obsessed with following the latest developments in the mobile world, from even the most hopeful iPhone rumors to torture-testing ruggedized Android phones. But back in January of 2007 when the first iPhone was introduced, arguably kicking off the global smartphone craze and eventually helping to push the mobile Web into the mainstream, I missed it completely.
I was focused on being a new father at the time, and although I was back living in the contiguous United States after a stint in a fly-in village in the Alaskan bush where even landline calls came with a 3-second satellite delay, I still had not yet fully re-immersed myself in digital life.
The events of the prior seven years — from being part of the dot-com bust to witnessing firsthand the impacts of climate change in Alaska and touring the mind-boggling nation that is modern China — had all led me to believe that my skills as a journalist might be better used covering issues like energy, the environment, and the politics that drive these for a national radio audience rather than tracking every movement of the hottest startups.
My time in the wilderness had turned me from the hardest-core digital devotee into someone more like my grandmother, a remarkably well-informed octogenarian who has still never touched a keyboard to this day, at least to my knowledge.
But here’s one of the secrets to life that I finally learned the day my now-6-year-old daughter was born: time is our only truly finite resource (although Google and people like Ray Kurzweil seem to be working to change that). Yes, I know it sounds like a ridiculous headline from Thought Catalog, but when faced with the desire to use my time more efficiently so I could spend more of it with my new family, the prospect of reporting on our highly repetitive and inefficient political processes began to feel increasingly corrosive for my soul.
Don’t get me wrong, we could probably use more people scouring the political beat, but it was during the presidential campaign in 2008 that I began to realize I was just over it. Ironically, after covering politics helped draw me away from a career on the Web, it was the unprecedented use of the Web — particularly the social Web — during that campaign that drew me back online.
Tumblr-dry my soul
It wasn’t until August 2008 that Facebook reached 100 million global users (yes, just one-twelfth of its current user count), and the Obama campaign in particular bombarded many of those users with advertising on the social network that encouraged more than 3 million to sign up as supporters of the candidate on Facebook. On election day, 5.4 million people clicked the “I Voted” button on Facebook’s Election ’08 page.
Using this social presence, combined with the campaign’s own social network and an aggressive email and texting campaign, Obama raised half a billion dollars for the campaign on the Web alone. By comparison, the amount of contributions to all candidates from all sources in the 2004 campaign was just $880 million, according to figures from the Federal Election Commission. Arguably, the Web had won the White House for the first time ever.
In 25 years the Web has gone from being ignored to practically winning the White House.
Blogs also played an unprecedented role in that campaign, both the influential partisan sites like DailyKos and HotAir, and official blogs of the candidates that encouraged participation and posting by supporters. I had kept an eye on the blogosphere over the years, even from rural Alaska, and became completely enamored with Tumblr in early 2008, finding it to be a perfect tool to let off steam with a bit of outright mockery of the political system I was becoming increasingly frustrated with covering.
After a six-year absence, I had created yet another in a long line of half-assed Web sites to my name to share my disorganized thoughts with the world. I was back, baby!
My Tumblr was tiny but grew surprisingly quickly by satirizing the hot political stories of the day, and helped bring me fully back to working on the Web with a gig as an editor at AOL in 2009. Something about working for the company that first introduced me to the Web in the mid-’90s and even helped me score my first kiss had the poetic feel of an Elton John song. But as it turns out, the AOL of this century is much different than the one that nurtured me in my youth and I only lasted there for about nine months. But no biggie, as the folks I met through AOL were and continue to be awesome, and it eventually led me here to Crave, where once again, after a nearly decade-long hiatus, I finally felt at home on the Web again.
So that’s my story of love, loss, exile, and homecoming on the Web, spanning almost its entire 25-year history — from an awkward adolescence through the bubble that burst in our faces to the epic quest for meaning amid the chaos of worlds both physical and digital that leads us to today, and a mature Web that isn’t quite perfect, but is pretty damn cool.
But in wrapping this up it also seems only natural to ask what’s next for the Web. I don’t actually think my opinion on that is particularly valuable, but fortunately we did ask the guy who dreamed the whole thing up 25 years ago.
What does strike me, though, is that my first exposure to a computer came at age 8, to online services about four years later, and finally to the Web at age 15. Almost two decades after that, it is the central interface for my life, following important daily face-to-face time with the two redheads I share an abode with, of course.
The smallest of those redheads, my daughter, could perform basic operations on a
tablet at age 2, followed a few years later by surfing certain Web sites on a Netbook. Today she already does homework and pretty major science and craft projects on the Web. By the time she’s my age, with the growth of the Internet of Things and of her digital skills, I have to wonder if she might really be living life on the Web, in a more literal way.
I just hope she takes time out to see the Arctic along the way — the Northern Lights are way more spectacular in person than on YouTube.
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