When, how, and why did you go online?

I used to ask new hires: When, how, and why did you "go online?"

The question seems quaint now, and it's been more than a decade since I asked it. After all, many of today's job prospects grew up with home broadband access to the World Wide Web, text messaging on their phones, and possibly a laptop in their bags.

But maybe it still applies.

I "went online" years before there was a Web. In the mid-1980s, I got a computer and a 300-bps modem. I discovered a whole world of online conversation. Before long, I was hooked, and within a year I was running my own Citadel bulletin board.

I learned the C programming language to write software so I could hook my Atari ST to Usenet. I begged and borrowed connections to get networked email, and discovered the Internet long before most people heard of it.

My experience was entirely focused on interpersonal communications -- one-to-one, many-to-many.

This shaped the way I looked at "online publishing" when Prodigy, AOL, and then the Internet began to upend everything we used to know about media.

The first newspaper online service I built, back in 1994-95, included community publishing for groups, discussion forums, private messaging and Internet mail.

Then came a wave of news companies rushing to get online, without stopping to think about how people use the medium. We wound up with shovelware "online editions" -- boring, predictable replicants of printed newspapers that failed to take advantage of any of the Internet's capabilities.

Most newspapers imagine themselves to have moved beyond that stage. I'm not so sure. "Allowing" comments on stories is hardly innovation.

So, how did you go online? And why? And how has it shaped your approach? Do you still think of it as a publishing medium? Or is it something else?


On Feb. 23, 1982, I wrote checks totaling $3,867.25 to Nabih's Inc., on Davis Street in Evanston, and became the proud owner of an Apple //e with green-screen monitor, 80-column card, 1200-baud modem, and dot-matrix printer. (Aside: I was out for a walk in Evanston on Friday and walked down Davis on my way back to the Northwestern campus. Lo and behold, it's still there.)

I was online the next day, connecting to Tymnet to upload and download files to the Tribune. My Tribune ID was CTD013, and not too long thereafter I had my first online, real-time chat, with correspondent Howard Witt in Moscow. Before the week was out I had accounts on the Source and CompuServ and was ranging far and wide online. Well, I was ranging, anyway. Unlike your experience, Steve, interpersonal communications took a back seat at first; mostly I wanted an efficient way to edit at home, and I wanted to make the computer do what I told it. I didn't learn anything useful like C, however; I taught myself how to write rudimentary programs in Applesoft.

In 1991 Tribune did a JV with America Online, of which it owned 10%, to create Chicago Online and get involved in "online publishing." A lot of the early activity was indeed focused on communicating with the audience through message boards, the most popular of which turned out to maintained by columnists like Eric Zorn. I got my first taste of being flamed by the online audience when, as business editor, we redid our stock tables to focus on high-volume stocks, and got blasted by people who relied on the paper to tell them how well prepared they were whenever the world financial system collapsed -- by watching the movement of a handful of thinly traded gold stocks and ADUs.

I think that told me that things were going to be different, or as you put it, "shaped my approach." I know when I started chicago.tribune.com in 1995 I was pretty focused on how we would incorporate not only the users, but the best content from around the Web; I wrote a job description for a "links editor" who essentially would curate the Web, making sure we were always pointing to great stuff. This made me very unpopular with the people running other newspaper Web sites, many of whom were telling their bosses it would be possible to tend profitable walled gardens. But I had already seen at my Web site that it was way better to make sure people had easy access to darn near everything interesting.

Is the Web a publishing medium? Sure; just as Gutenberg's press (http://bit.ly/EQrdG) gave him an outlet, the Web provided one for many early adopters, inventors, and oddballs. Is it primarily a publishing medium? I don't know if it is primarily anything. Ultimately it may become the, er, ultimate branding tool, for individuals and companies that only incidentally are publishers (see posts today from @pottsmark and @jeffjarvis). Certainly it is the most efficient place yet to find important things about which to think and to write.

We are too soon old and too late smart, say the Pennsylvania Dutch. But that is better than being merely old.

Owen, you woke up very early and smelled the digital coffee. My, what a tangled web we have woven.

I went online for the first time in 8th grade (so... aged 13?). My family got AOL and I wanted to use it mostly to use the Instant Messenger service. We had a dial-up like most people. I still remember who the first few people were who I chatted with online. It definitely changed everything. But that dial-up noise is one that will always haunt me.

Steve, I came to digital much later than you, but still pretty early by digital news standards ... I was an early member of AOL and discovered chat rooms and message boards there. When the larger Net became available through AOL, I went right to Usenet, then discovered Jack Lail's SPJ-L and soon afterward, Steven Outing's Online-News, which was only months old, if that. So early on, for me, it was all about conversation. It would be years before the Web became a news-consumption tool for me. And I'm sure that shapes how I view online today, and online news.

I might be splitting hairs here -- drawing a distinction between going online and having a PC. I had a student in 1978-79 who got a job in the San Francisco office of a new New York Times venture that had terminal access to a database of NYT content and, I think, Dialog and Lexis/Nexis. (I wouldn't swear to the latter, however.) I was doing a lot of freelancing at the time, so all it took was on demo and I was hooked. Fortunately, thanks to Judith wherever you are, I was able to make use of that connection after hours. I was a few months behind Owen on buying a PC. Mine wasn't until the spring of '83, and I went with a PC instead of the Apple because of the cooler design. Yup, 300bd modem, Wordstar (which I still think to be a fine program), a dot matrix printer and a subscription to Dialog. Originally one disk drive, I recall. But out the door - $3,500. It was either buy a much-needed new car for that amount or climb aboard the digital stagecoach. Since I was living in San Francisco, the choice was obvious. Geez, we're sounding like Jack Benny and George Burns talking about the great days in vaudeville.

My first experience of going online was at university in 1994, when we were all given email accounts and left to use them if we wanted, from the special room in the college that had all the computers in. Some friends at another university had somehow hit on the idea of turning email into an incredibly primitive social network by just signing up all their friends to a massive cc list and then circulating everyone's replies to everyone, creating threads via subject lines. Overnight that cc list turned into a combination social network, bulletin board and discussion forum with about a hundred members, and taking to those hundred people in another city about nothing very much at all consumed most of my second and third terms.

Well - I wouldn't actually call it "going online". We arrived in a time where we just "are online" and where being offline actually is a challenge for most of us... Right? :-)

I went online when I was a kid. I had a 300 baud modem and a Commodore 64 using Bob's TermPro. Those were the days! Waiting for the squelching to stop and signal you've connected to the BBS. After the 64 I graduated to the Amiga and then grudgingly to the PC.

I guess perhaps my age doesn't give me the chance to even ask myself the question of when it was that I went online. It just seemed to happen and I have no clear recollection of any when it was exactly. I know for sure that I never ask this question of my staff as it seems irrelevant since almost all of them grew up with a computer at the ready whereas it definitely wasn't the case when I was younger. Not everyone had a computer, or was "online" that much I am sure of but I know for me it was very very early on. When I was a boy I was already playing around with PC's, that much I recall but my thirst to learn new things eventually led me to developing my own site, but not until 2002. From there with the help of other online friends I built my most recent business and now the computer is an extension of myself. It is great to hear the recollection of your beginnings as well as that of your readers, isn't it just amazing how time flies and how things so rapidly change - often without us even knowing it has happened until we look back on what has passed. Sure makes me feel old that much I can tell you for sure! Regards Adirec

Hey Paranoid Freaks Firstly, it is scientifically proven fact that 92% of people who are scared to pay online, generally have an account balance which is less than 10% of thier monthly salary. 96% of These same people have credit cards which are already over-spent. So I canot understand what the big deal is about. I mean the internet & online shopping has been around for the last 10 years. Have some faith in the people who put up respectable sites like selling books. I can understand doubt if you were buying contraband or mp3 or porn. But hey, its books ! Get online, and Buy. Now ! Charles Brunkle at online payment gateway