Twenty years ago today I first connected my home to the internet.
I never looked back. It changed my life.
In the middle of August 1997 I bought a new computer. I needed a new one, not least because my old one couldn't connect to the new-fangled internet and this one could. At the time only about 5% of UK households had an internet connection, and I very much wanted to attach myself to this futuristic form of communication. I used my existing computer for word processing, printing stuff and playing games, but only with myself. Connecting to the wider world would open up a whole new range of possibilities I thought... and I was right.
The day after I bought my new computer I ordered a modem. My computer wouldn't connect to the internet by itself, I'd learned, so I needed an extra box plugged in at the back. I also needed some special software, so I ordered that too, and then I threw in a digital camera for good measure. Owning a digital camera was cutting edge at the time, and would mean I didn't have to take my negatives down to the chemist every time I wanted photographs. How ridiculously restrictive all that sounds now typing twenty years later.
The day after I ordered my modem it arrived. Gosh that's small, I thought. Then I realised it hadn't come with a connecting cable. this being well before the introduction of wi-fi, so popped out to Tandy in the High Street to buy one. The connection didn't seem to work, even after I'd tried fitting it into all sorts of holes all sorts of ways round, so I went back to Tandy to swap the cable, and that worked fine. But it didn't connect me to the internet.
For the next couple of days I continued in pre-web isolation. I watched some Star Trek repeats on BBC2. I bought newspapers and did the crossword. I picked up the brand new Oasis album in Our Price Records. I walked down to the building society to transfer some money from one account to the other. I played Minesweeper on my new computer. I sang along with Chumbawumba on Top of the Pops. Oh yes, I'm sure my life was well within its usual frame, the day before it came.
On the afternoon of Saturday 23rd August 1997 I finally worked out that the internet was only a phone call away. I rang up Demon, my internet provider of choice, and gave a nice Scottish lady all my debit card details. I then told her my choice of domain name, and she said that was stupid so I changed my mind, and settled instead on something I later wished I hadn't. And once all the necessary admin had been completed she told me I could be online in 15 minutes, and that my email account would be operational the following day.
I don't know what you did the first time you were let loose on the internet, but obviously I searched for stuff. I'd heard there was a search engine called Alta Vista so I used that, once I'd worked out how to type the address without getting any of the punctuation wrong. I swiftly located the Radio 1 website, and a fansite for the BBC2 show The Adventure Game, and the website of the local paper, and a website with amazing detail about upcoming solar eclipses, and a page with contact details for a friend from university, and it snowballed from there.
The next day I discovered newsgroups, and that was lots of Sunday taken care of. Through that I found a site about the London Underground, I don't think it was official, and then attempted to manoeuvre my way through the world of Yahoo. When my parents tried ringing in the evening they discovered my telephone line was engaged and had to try again later, and I had to explain what the reason was. Dial-up killed your phone bill, I'd soon discover, and had to be careful not to spend too long online during peak times on weekdays.
Once my email account was up and running I got in touch with that university friend whose contact details I'd discovered. A flurry of emails followed, my first email conversation, and the next weekend we met up again to say hi. The power of the internet was already apparent. I also discovered IRC, which opened up a completely different channel of communication, and ICQ, ditto. Everything was still seriously primitive compared to everything we can do today, but the enormous benefits of being able to find things out without leaving the house were already clear.
The BBC still didn't have a news website at that point, but the death of Princess Diana that weekend inspired a fledgling minisite which proved the appetite was there. I love the fact that those Diana news pages still exist, complete with tiny photos which wouldn't clog bandwidth and links to historic RealAudio files. These days we think nothing of opening up our phones to discover what someone the other side of the planet said 30 seconds ago, whereas back then it was simply amazing not have to wait for the next hourly news broadcast or daily paper.
Within a month I'd chatted with my future partner online. Within six months that conversation delivered a long-term relationship I'd never have entered offline. Within a year the internet sourced me a new job, 50 miles away, which I'd never have spotted otherwise. And within another year it helped to bring that so-called relationship crashing down, and kept me in touch with a support network throughout, and found me somewhere new to live afterwards. I'd not have moved to London without the internet, or met BestMate without the internet, or be talking to you now.
It's no exaggeration to say that connecting early to the internet changed my life, ultimately for the better. I just never realised quite how transformational it would be, that August Saturday 20 years ago, when my dial-up burbled for the very first time.