Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic called my attention to On the Network, a new project by Derek Powazek that's aimed at collecting "First Time on the Internet" stories. It's not exactly what you think. Powazek isn't specifically looking to hear about the first time you ever got online. Instead, he wants the first time you ever "got" the online world ... what it was for, why it mattered, how the world had totally changed.
Personally, my moment was pretty late in the game. My family's first computer was the one I got right before I went to college in 1999. Prior to that, my only experience with the Internet had been a few rounds of awkward fumbling at various central Kansas libraries. (Some of the fumbling was more awkward than others. My first time on the Internet—at all—involved being led through several locked doors to a dark, windowless room in a disused part of the Abilene Public Library and abandoned there by a librarian who knew nothing at all about the Internet except that she disapproved of it. This would have been around 1995 or 1996. All I remember about that episode is reading a book while I waited for Netscape to load and then not being sure what do once I was online.)
I used email, ICQ and message boards, and Napster my freshman and sophomore years of college, but I didn't have any revelatory moments until at least 2001. That was after I started working for my school's student newspaper, and it was really the point where the Internet began to be a part of my daily life.
I don't remember the context, but I do remember one of my professors talking about how to track down sources using phone books, calling newspapers in other towns, digging into old back issues of magazines and journals at the library. He was describing a days-long process, just to get started. Just to find the people you wanted to interview. And I realized that his experience didn't describe my experience. Finding sources still took time, but I found them online in hours, not days, and I went to the right people directly, rather than through intermediaries making recommendations. This technology was changing the way journalism was done. That was when I realized that the Internet was powerful. And that I'd been harnessing that power and treating it as an important piece of my life without even realizing that's what I'd done. Somehow, I'd gone from the old paradigm to the new one and not noticed the switch.
It wasn't a big revelation, but it was enough to make me realize that the world wasn't ever going to be the same. More importantly, I couldn't continue to think of the Internet as something incidental to my life. For one thing, it was already more than that. And if I didn't embrace that fact, I was going to get stuck operating in a new world by old rules.
You'll likely leave some comments on this post, but if you want to participate in "On the Network" itself you should either call (415) 483-5628 and leave a message, or record yourself as an MP3 and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.