Keeping up with no one

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The world is ever-changing. Sometimes this is for the better, and sometimes it is not. But whether we love the world we currently live in, or have a nostalgic yearning for a simpler era, we cannot deny that the world of today is vastly different from the world 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago. 

One of the most fascinating advances in technology is the internet. All things being relative, the internet is still “new” to many people. Some may not even fully understand what it is. Simply put, the internet is a “network of networks” that connects computers and devices all around the world. Many scientists, programmers, and engineers worked to “invent” the internet, which officially came to be on January 1, 1983. However, it wasn’t until 1993 that the internet became a tool for the public. This is when “web browsers” (what we know today as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, etc.) became available to access the so-called “World Wide Web”, meaning content on websites could be accessed and edited. The fact that 1993 was only 30 years ago shows just how quickly the internet has grown. 

The internet existed when I was a child, but it was nothing like the powerful and pervasive tool that it is today. Most people around my age will share humorous memories of “dial up” internet, which essentially meant that your computer had to make a call via your phone line to connect to the internet. It took a while, and once you were online, your parents seemed obsessed with getting you off as soon as possible. This is because bandwidth limits existed, and were very tiny. Using too much internet really was a thing, and so screen time limits for kids were not so much about protecting brains as they were about protecting parents’ finances – a bandwidth overage could get very expensive. Some home internet plans still have bandwidth limits (which are reasonably large anyway), but most plans are now unlimited. A bandwidth limit is the equivalent of today’s cellphone data limits. 

With dial up internet, once we were done playing our game or chatting with our friends using a program like “MSN Messenger”, we would have to log out of the internet. This was both to prevent phantom bandwidth usage, and because the home phone didn’t work when someone was on the internet. Even though many people still get their internet via phone lines, it is thankfully possible to use both the internet and the phone at the same time in today’s world. 

Why the reminiscing about the old days of the internet? I think it’s a really powerful and important tool and it’s important that we don’t take it for granted. When I was growing up, long distance communication was a process that required “life hacks”. For example, when driving home in bad weather following a visit to my grandparents’ house 15 minutes from our house, we would have to “ring them twice” when we got home. This meant that we would call their house phone, let it ring twice, and then hang up. This would signal that we made it home okay. The short distance between our houses was still considered a “long distance” telephone call that would have been added on to our next bill, but as a rule, if the call recipient didn’t answer, there would be no charge for the long distance call attempt. So “ring me twice” was a free way to send a quick message. Today, I can pick up my cellphone in the middle of a corn field and have a high definition video chat with someone on the other side of the globe for no additional cost beyond my existing cellular rate plan. What a huge difference in only 20 years. 

Circling around to my actual point: internet users, and in particular, social media users, are not lazy or antisocial, and most are not simply “keyboard warriors”. I have heard many complaints over the past couple of years that local discourse should not be taking place online. I have heard that communities are not as strong when the internet is involved, because it discourages people from talking face-to-face. I have heard that anything found online is simply not valid or not valuable. I disagree. 

First, don’t tell me that just because Bob told you the latest gossip at the grocery store, it is automatically more accurate than information disseminated in Sally’s social media post. Second, there is no way that by-chance in-person interactions and small planned social gatherings spread information as effectively as the literal “information highway” that we know as the internet. Why any active member of the community or local government official wouldn’t value the internet and social media as valuable ways to assess the pulse of the community and receive a multitude of local perspectives is beyond me. It’s like telling your employer that you are going to attend a meeting via telegraph machine when you own a device capable of video chatting. It’s irresponsible not to value the connection between members of the community, and between the community and policymakers, that social media allows. It’s easy to accuse avid internet users of simply trying to “keep up with the Joneses”, but all this does is out you as a person who values keeping up with no one in an era where the internet is a powerful place for the exchange of really cool, local ideas. 

I have great phone skills which I eagerly put to use every day as both a newspaper editor and an education worker. I also meet frequently for in-person interviews over a tried-and-true cup of coffee. But at the end of the day, I value email as well. Nothing gets lost in email translation, and it allows people working on different schedules to communicate effectively. I also value local online community groups, and their ability to keep us all connected. Face-to-face interactions and printed news will always have more value in terms of accuracy than social media, but to ignore the world we live in, and the powerful communication tools we have worked so hard to create, is a pointless waste. Forget the Joneses – let’s keep up with everyone. 

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