One Girl’s History in Design & Tech
I still see, from time to time, a clunky, yellowing IBM monitor when I close my eyes. I was a teenager during the dawn of the internet age. I had a computer in my bedroom and I didn’t need to sleep, thank you.
Some people like to dwell on their first memories as a human being and how it shaped their life. I, on the other hand, look to my pre-formative years with disdain and pity as the internet was not quite a household thing. Everything B.T.I. (before the internet) was a waste of my time. I suppose I’m glad that I’d been taught to read and write because each were essential skills in my internet endeavours. And there has been many.
I can’t pinpoint when it started, doctor. But I can tell you when I knew that this was it — this was my first love. I finally understood what Sandy meant when she sang “Hopelessly Devoted” in Grease, the musical.
Let’s start at the vague beginning. I was a typical child, reading picture books and playing hop-scotch, twirling on the swing set, you know, those IRL kid things. There were two computers in my elementary school, and only one of them had been connected to a phone line. It was an IBM system, the kind where all the hardware was stuck together as though it was meant to be portable but in actuality weighed more than the desk itself. Cherished are those first glorious visits to the computer lab, booting up the machine that purred like a car engine, clicking open Netscape, waiting 13 minutes for Yahooligans to fully load on the screen. All of its colours, choices, buzz words: “Science”, “Animals”, “China”. It didn’t matter where I clicked, it always brought me to some thrilling web page riddled with words and information and sometimes a blinking graphic if I were lucky. I would write down the web addresses to my favourite finds on my hands, just incase I wanted to revisit them at home. It only occurred to me years later what kind of people created these web pages, and under what sort of circumstances. I mean, who was behind that page about orca whales with all of those tiny photographs and pixel graphics? A strange strange man, of course. At the time, strange strange men made web pages and one day, so would I.
Surfing didn’t stop when the bell rang. I would run home and fight my brother for our home computer so I could look up all the gems I found earlier that day, saving my favorite images to a Floppy Disc for safe keeping (approximately 3.5 images per disc.) Sometimes I would play an online game or two, just to kick back and take a break from all the hardcore surfing. I gravitated toward Yahoo’s virtual billiards with online strangers, which, in hindsight, was an example of a pretty incredible web app way before its time. It was also the beginning of virtual creeps.
Them: “Hey, a/s/l?”
Me: “1000/bionic/the moon”
It was around this time that my dad gave me a software disc for a pagination system which also came with templates for newsletters. It wasn’t long before I was turning out a weekly family newsletter, clad with a logo I designed in MS Paint, which, if I recall correctly, was an Italian flag with my family name typed across it using an eating utensils font. So on-brand. I was a nine year old contemplating layout, content placement, and most seriously: product delivery. Obviously the newsletter needed reach and I would hand them out at my grandparents’ houses when the family was there. Surely, it was a respectable publication, with content written mostly by me regarding the things my siblings and parents were up to: a new family van, a lost tooth, my sisters upcoming piano recital, or my perceived experiences as the youngest child. Report card week was a huge two-sided issue where I would type out my sister, brother’s and my grades. Mine were always well below average, who needed school when I had the internet?
Friends, time flew. Cut to faster internet, bigger websites, fancy LAN games, and oh dear god, Neopets. I was fourteen, I didn’t wear glasses but later needed them as a result of damaging my eyes from, presumably, too much monitor exposure. You see, this was a time when computers made nerds.
In the very midst of these golden years, I have a vivid memory of my brother running a line from our back-door-neighbour’s house, connecting his friend to our computer so they could play Doom multiplayer. The connection was made up of a dozen phone chords spliced together. Our computer was out in our backyard because that was as far as the fabricated chord could reach. It was a victorious afternoon and I watched my brother battle our neighbour in real time well into the wee hours of the night while I ran back and forth between backyard computers to watch each side of the action. This was the stuff of legends, you guys. We all got sunburns that day as the sun is cruel to under-exposed nerd skin.
Now, back to Neopets. This was around the time that my family moved to a new neighbourhood and, as a result, I finally had my own bedroom and shortly after, my own computer; justice had been served. It was the summer before junior high and I spent it indoors. Neopets came into my life like an answer to all my young prayers. I was a Neopoint millionaire and life was good. Aside from having Neopets that excelled in all ways that counted (watermelon paint brush), I was second-in-command to an extremely popular in-game Guild. Even typing this today makes me flushed with embarrassment, but I’ll press forward for the sake of an accurate and total history. How to describe the user community… well let’s just say we were all very dedicated and serious about our task of owning virtual pets. It wasn’t all fun and games, you know. I had to learn to edit the look of my guild’s page. I had to learn HTML.
By the time junior high school started, I had taught myself how to code. When I grew bored of editing the background of my Neopets’ pages, I moved on to bigger things. Enter Geocities. Ah, the wonderful webpage wizard. This wasn’t just kid stuff anymore. I must have built 20 web pages by my sixteenth birthday. These weren’t very intricate and advanced sites, mind you, but in the process I taught myself to use Photoshop, using it to painstakingly design fan pages for my favorite bands and tv shows. Some of them even received some qualified visitor action (bless those hideous and intrusive visitor-counters). Suddenly, fonts were a big deal to me, graphics even more so. Photo editing was a delicate process that required all of my concentration so no, Mom, I don’t want to go to the mall, I have things to do. Everything was inside the computer.
It’s just too bad that it couldn’t stay that way. The throws of high school demanded all of my attention so that there was a period of time where I strayed from my virtual worlds to pursue school dances, house parties, and of course, cru$h3z. I was still online but for the sake of more frivolous endeavors like chatting on MSN Messenger and downloading mp3’s on Napster to play on my customized WinAmp media player. It was a significant time because, finally, the internet was popular, and now I had my IRL friends inside my computer. Do you see how it makes dreams come true like that?
During the last few years of high school, Computer Technology classes became available and I chose them hands-down to any other elective. This was the first time in my life that I was interested in a school class, and as a result received my first overall ‘A’ grade. Once I’d graduated, it was very clear to me that what I’d been doing since I was a young girl is what I would do for the rest of my life: play on the internet. I was determined to make a career out of it.
Honestly: lol. Because when I eventually enrolled in college for Interactive Multimedia Development, it was such a boys club that I made the mistake of wearing shorts on the first day of class and realized, very quickly, that I was hormonally out numbered. Gender aside, these were my people. I mean, it didn’t go unnoticed that most of the few other women in my classes dropped out like flies but everything runs its course and I’m confident that today that same diploma program is nearly a 50/50 split.
I landed a full time job as a web designer before I was even handed my diploma — missing my graduation to attend my first day as a working web professional. This was the real deal, I was being paid for something I’d done for most of my life just for fun. By this point, my work was being done by a fine-tuned instinct for a space that I knew so well. When I eventually transitioned to working as a full-time freelancer I couldn’t be certain of what kind of internet was out there waiting for me. It just didn’t let me down. Some of the people I’ve met online and formed lasting, professional relationships with have not only helped to provided me with a secure job, but have affirmed my first real feelings of the possibilities of this wacky little portal we call The Internet.
Here we are, dear people of the net. I’m twenty seven and I helped build this place. I look back with sincere nostalgia of hours gone by within the ancient caves of what the world wide web once was. I sit, now, in the sun at a laptop that weighs less than my coffee mug, with a connection faster than I can think, marveling at what the internet has become. Truly, I’m just a girl, standing in front of the internet, asking it to love me.*
*Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, my version.
g2g, ttyl bb ☺