I was at a Google Analytics training day this week (cue bemused face and general recoiling from the enforced studying of data) and as well as feeling overwhelmed by the tools of analysis we have to observe, catalogue and extract information, I also felt a bit old.
Google launched on September 4, 1998. I started university a month after that on October 5, 1998. All my reading and research for my degree, was conducted using books and journals. I no doubt violated copyright law a hundred times and killed a few hundred trees photocopying things to underline and then highlight, and then copy out in rough onto A4 paper, to then write up neatly as bulletpoints I never read ever again.
You had to type http:// at the start of a web address, our search engine of choice was Altavista, and we used email to chat. The only people we knew with email addresses were our fellow students, and they were normally sitting opposite me, on an old and really uncool Mac (in the days when they crashed perpetually and were completely useless and we prayed for the university to invest in some decent IBMs), so email was fun. I had arrived at university already armed with an email address, the Hotmail address I have proudly used since 1997. This made me slightly ahead of the curve, although I had previously only used it to email one friend who had an old Compuserve address made up of numbers. Remember those?
Over Christmas, one of my friends discovered a university email I had sent him, having just discovered a website that allowed you to look up the email addresses of your friends at university. He took a picture of it on his phone and texted it to me. Imagine what knowing that might be possible would have been like in 1998. Almost no one had mobile phones. Why on earth would you possibly need one? And who would want to be contactable ALL THE TIME? And a phone that took a photograph digitally? If 19 year old me had seen that she wouldn’t be taking it for granted like 33 year old me does. She’d have thought she’d just stepped out of reality and into Star Trek. Because Star Trek is where that kind of stuff happened, and Star Trek is where it stayed. And then she’d have panicked about not having learned to at least order a beer in Klingon.
This email he found began with epic lengths of code, IP addresses and information marking out all the servers I guess it had travelled through to get to his inbox. Which we checked maybe once or twice a week.
I remember someone telling me towards the end of my degree, I think one of the IT students, than I should use Google! as my search engine. They did explain to me something about why it was more powerful, but I didn’t pay much attention except to obediently switch. I’m very obedient and have been using Google ever since.
Now, Google can tell you who visited your website, at what time, where they were, what they clicked on, how old they are, what device they used and for how long they looked at your stuff. Google will prioritise the information you get in your search based not only on popularity, but also on your geographical location, your search history and the search history and interests of people Google knows are your friends. Which is just weird.
Anyway, my brain at the end of the day was at the point of near-explosion with all the information on how to extract information about people I have never met before who are visiting a website. Some of the other women sitting around me suggested that we kill the brain cells holding this precious and vital key to the future by drinking wine together. So I agreed to go with them to the pub.
I’ve never met any of these people before, but they’re all perfectly lovely, and we exchanged the usual information about who we are, where we live and what our jobs are. Then, because we’ve all been together at a Google Analytics day, we talked a bit about that, but it’s a bit boring and so gradually the conversation moves on.
In 1998, I remember observing that one of the main default conversation topics for when you’re with a group of new people is their accent and the funny words they use. It wasn’t just Fresher’s Week. For years I noticed that when you’re with people who are unknown to you and from different places, inevitably the conversation would turn to your linguistic similarities and differences. I quite liked it because I got to show off, being a student of English Linguistics and therefore knowing a little more than most about accents and diversity and the social implications of how you speak.
Then on October 1, 2005, Facebook launched in 21 universities in the UK. I didn’t hear about it until September 2006, when I was a new postgrad student studying journalism in Preston. The newly graduated members of my class had all joined Facebook the previous academic year, and urged me to join, even though the only friends I had on Facebook also happened to be the people sitting at the computers next to me, all day every day, in a windowless computer lab.
It seemed largely pointless, and I cared so little about it, this was my first Facebook profile picture, taken when I had a strange allergic reaction which made my whole face swell up. Within no time, as nearly all of us will have experienced to some extent or another, Facebook infiltrated and disrupted our lives. Gradually, I’ve noticed that one of the default conversation topics for people who don’t know each other has become Facebook.
First it was ‘Are you on MySpace or Facebook?’.
Then it was ‘How many friends have you got?’.
Then ‘How annoying is Farmville? If I get a notification that someone’s duck has wandered onto my wall again…’
Then it got to the etiquette of ‘unfriending’, of ending relationships via Facebook, of Facebook stalking and the many perils of Facebook. We’d all swap horror stories of our Facebook binges (of which I have written before).
It’s now very rare I have a conversation about my accent, or the implications of how someone speaks. I don’t get to show off all my knowledge about sociolinguistics. It doesn’t matter anymore – what counts is what social media outlets you’re on, how you use them and what your privacy settings are.
So this merry band of complete strangers, united by a desperate need to understand the powers of new technology, talked about Facebook. And for the first time ever in my experience, the conversation turned nostalgic. ‘Do you remember you had to have a university address to join Facebook?’ Which is where the feeling old bit comes in. Because I don’t feel like it was very long ago since I sat in a computer lab in Preston and joined Facebook. But in internet world, six years is a very long time indeed. Long enough to get nostalgic about the ‘good old days when Facebook was new and still exclusive to students and your mum couldn’t join even if she wanted to’.
There are children alive now who have never known a world without Google or Facebook or mobile phones and for whom email is outmoded. Even Facebook is old enough to be nostalgic about. The world I grew up in doesn’t exist any more. And my mum has been ALL OVER FACEBOOK like a rash for years.