Everyday Words

Old school geek

April 14, 2009

Although I can’t pull off a “s’up” or wear baggy trousers round my bum, I am, in fact, old school.

Old school geek and social networker, that is.

Until the age of 8 (or 1982) I spent most of my time outdoors, playing with legos, drawing, creating forts and reading. But then a friend of the family who was an engineer got a Commodore 64 and while the parents talked politics after dinner, I sat and hacked away at that thing. In 1984 my school bought a couple of Apple II computers, one of which I ended up hogging for hours on end and staying after school so that I could code and code to make that little turtle move around and make pretty things.

After a couple of years of pestering my parents for a computer, “a compu-what?” my father took me to some office supply warehouse where a man began to talk to my father about what he had in stock. My father stopped the man, pointed to me and said, “You need to talk to her.” The salesman looked at me; the littlest, blondest girl in the biggest dress you ever saw wanted to talk floppy drives, memory and modem speed. I was so incredibly proud when I put in an order for some hacked together PC-clone. A month later we picked it up and I began coding games and small programs in DOS Basic between going to school, building forts in the forrest and putting dresses on Barbies.

In 1986 I discovered local BBS (bulletin board systems) in which you’d use your modem (at the time, 300 baud) to connect to another modem that hosted a site so you could talk to people. This was pre-world wide web days. Most of the people I talked to were guys who were outcasts because they were geeks. It wasn’t yet cool or lucrative. In fact, one tended to be rather quiet about owning a computer or worse yet, being a modemmer! Yet these geeks taught me a lot about computers and coding and, since they were local, about connecting the virtual world to a real one. I started arranging local meet-ups for us from playing sports on the weekend to attending special events. I didn’t think being online had to be separate from the real world.

Over the next few years I kept progressing with coding and modem speed (oh, a 1200 baud modem! A 2400 baud modem! Oh my, not a 9600 baud modem!!). In the early nineties something new was being pioneered; it was when a central computer would hook up to another computer somewhere else in the world. No longer did you have to settle for local geeks – you could go international! I began making friends in New Zealand, in the Caymans, in Italy and I learned the true meaning of “social networking.”

Around 1992 I stopped using a computer all together when I began my travels and it wasn’t until 1995 when I visited a friend in Vancouver did I see where the world of computers and modems had gone too. There was now Windows 95 to make computing easy and hardrives that held more space than those floppies ever could. Computers were becoming more mainstream yet the web still had a ways to go. There was, however, a new development in connecting – IRC Chat. And I hopped on there from time to time, chatting with family and old friends and meeting new ones. I really liked this idea and decided to build a quick and permanent way for people to know me and connect.

So in 1995, using my friend’s computer, I put up my very first web page (seen above). I used Netscape Navigator and hosted it on their site. I put things up that were important – photos, about me, a diary to keep people updated and an email link. Because the web was relatively new I didn’t understand how people could find me (I thought you had to tell them the web site address) and that it could go to anyone in the world with a modem. I thought just my few close friends would read it. Little did I know. One of the people I met online was the creator/coder of a site called, Jennicam. She and I hit it off and chatted a lot on IRC. She introduced me to her two friends, one in Germany (hi Duckie!) and one in Washington DC (hi Oolong!) who were responsible for all the gadgets and the keeping of her site running. At one point in 1996, she got tired of running her cam and sent it to me (I still have this). Between borrowing a computer and my online friends, I managed to hook up that little black and white quick cam, run about 6 programs and get a snap shot up to the web once every 2 minutes. I really thought just my family and my friends that I told would see it (by the way, there was never, ever any naked photos . It was literally me sitting at a computer typing. Not. Thrilling!). Again, little did I know.

Soon, I started to receive an average of 500 emails a day which was overwhelming since I only got to go on the computer once or twice a week. Then I got a notice from my free web host that I had to move because I was using too much bandwidth – I didn’t even know what bandwidth was! So I went to a company that allowed me to buy a subdomain (at this time, owing domains was almost either impossible or prohibitively expensive). I bought dreamy.simplenet.com which worked for awhile until a few months later I received a $5K bill for one months usage – my normal was $10 a month! My site had become so popular and written about world-wide that  I  had used so much bandwidth that I had to then pay for. These were before the times of unlimited usage and when servers couldn’t handle 80K visitors a day.

At this time I was being asked for interviews from all over; people wanted me on their TV shows, they wanted to fly me here and there, they wanted quotes, they wanted me to be a spokesperson for their products or sites. Fans wanted me to sign autographs or marry them. It was far too much for me because I didn’t feel as though the web site I had created – which was nothing more than a pure vanity site – warranted that kind of attention. I hadn’t done anything of use, I hadn’t used my influencer status for good, I just used it to connect to people far away in a ridiculous (to me) manner.

At this time, Jennicam came back online because she saw the potential in making money, on how to handle the fans/press – that was something that was important to her and to a lot of up and coming girl sites at that time (interesting to note that it seems like anything that first “allows” women or that women get into almost always goes down the sex route – if you’re a girl online you must run a naked web cam or site, right?). I was asked to be part of this whole group and marketing endeavor being taken on by not only Jennicam but other companies that were wanting to exploit all of this. Since I didn’t want to do that or be known for that or make money in that way, I said no, took my site down, and kind of went into web-hiding for awhile.

Over the years I kept borrowing a computer, checking on online developments but I never actually got back into computers/the web full-time until 1998 when I moved in with a boyfriend who had a computer. Times had changed a little, there were more sites, more possibilities, so I got back on, began coding, began trying to build things of use, and tried again at connecting to others.  I kept a diary (there wasn’t Blogger or WordPress – it was all hand coded, baby) and that was about it. There weren’t digital cameras to post a million photos nor were there readily available scanners. So once in awhile I’d turn the cam on (now password protected) and wave to my mum or show her things around my flat. Bandwidth was still an issue so it was more sporadic. Besides, I was more interested in content and connected than in just being famous.

But my personal site kept attracting people and write ups (a girl online was a novelty amongst all the science and business sites) and I decided that if people were going to come, I had better be useful, otherwise there was no point. At this time, there wasn’t really a way to monetize on the web and it wasn’t really a thought of most people who had sites. Most sites were built out of a love for something and the wanting to share that with others. Building sites at this time was hard, hosting was hard or expensive, getting the word out was even harder (there was no Google and Yahoo had a crazy ranking system). Those of us who kept sharing information did so not to get rich, but to get connected. I bought my own domain, got my own hosting, and started to write about life with the goal of being useful instead of personal. Between 200K-300K people came to this site every day and slowly, but surely, became part of a loyal community that carried me through my next web chapter.

In 2001 when I quit my corporate job to pursue a creative career, I began Girl at Play because I hadn’t been able to find online (or in any books, really) what really happened to someone when they quit a secure job to become creatively self-employed. Personal blogs were still relatively new because they were hard to create and maintain. But because of my geek experience and love of hand-coding, I was able to build my own site and write almost daily what I had to do to make the transition. As far as I know, this hadn’t really been done online; I had created one of the first personal business sites, first business blog and one of the first online art communities (the site received about 150K a day).  That site spawned so much media attention, work for me, followers and community that I’m still in awe of all that it has done and how many people it has spurred into action by either creating their own business or site/blog. I launched Another Girl at Play in 2002 in response to that site, to show more female creative entrepreneurs and I can safely say that my sites built up a lot of well known female artists that you see buzzing around the web today and connected them to each other and their audience. These sites were created before ads went on, before it was cool to be a web personality, before creating an online personal brand was expected. They were created because there was a passion and a need. Geek girl does good, basically.

Over the years I’ve built more web sites and communities because I really am passionate about sharing information and connecting to people. For me, social networking isn’t a new term I throw around to cash in on the newest web fad but something that began back in the early 80’s when connected took hard work, lots of patience, and total passion. I’m a huge believer in doing what you love and being a geek girl is something I love – even though I’ve always continued to have a “real life” offline, kept up my travels and a real social circle. I think you can (and should) have both world – the virtual and real. The trick, I think, is to be conscious and honest of what you’re doing in both which is why I’ve never been anonymous online or work with or take on any site/project which doesn’t mesh with what I believe in.

Of course, now it’s almost standard to have a site, to blog, to Twitter, to connect on Facebook. A girl doesn’t have to hide her geekiness anymore; in fact, geek is chic. I sometimes struggle with the web and its purpose now, how it’s changed and changed people. But that’s a whole other post. This one’s just history, the next one is the future.