I remember my first real-time online interaction. It was 1993, and I was navigating through a local BBS on my trusty 2400 baud modem. Some of you may have used BBSes back in the day, but most of you probably don’t know what that is. BBS stands for Bulletin Board System, which is just a software program on someone else’s computer, where different users could log via phone line on and read news, play simple games, download programs or leave messages.
Most BBSes only had one incoming line, so you couldn’t be online at the same time as anyone else. If you attempted to reach the BBS when someone else was on, you got a busy signal. Even though BBSes had many members, it really was a solo activity, you just explored what other people had left there, hence the monikier Bulletin Board. Still, they fascinated me.
One day, while I was reading some crude, text-based message board, the screen went black. At the top, letter by letter, words began to appear, as if I was typing them. But wasn’t me, it was someone else! My heart started pounding. Life! There was a living, breathing person using my computer, in my basement, from somewhere out there. It was astonishing and terrifying, like I was encountering an alien.
how are you?? do you like my bbs?
what do you think : >
It felt like HAL 9000 had hijacked by old IBM 386. It turns out it was the BBS’s system operator, or “SysOp” in computer jargon. I could see his keystrokes appear one by one. They showed where he hesitated, where he changed his mind and typed another word. I could see him thinking.
I chatted with him for a minute or two, and then he disappeared. It was a magical experience.
Fast-forward sixteen years, and now we can connect with each other in ways that I never could have imagined. And it isn’t just the basement-dwelling computer dork that’s online, it’s everyone, from preteens to soccer moms to Zen masters (follow @thichnhathanh on Twitter). Every day, a colorful variety of people are contributing their thoughts and ideas to an unfathomably huge communal library. As I raved about in a previous post, we are expanding the most comprehensive knowledge base in history at an incredible rate.
But the really gratifying part is how easy it is now to retrieve the information you want. Even just five years ago, search engines were comparatively awful. You could conduct very general research fairly easily, but just to get a straightforward answer to a specific question was frustrating. Too many irrelevant sites, too many pay-only sites; very few on the front page were offering what you wanted.
Google earned the prestigious position it has today by constantly refining itself to produce more and more useful results. You can just type your question right into it and chances are the top result will have an answer you can use. Those of you who are new to the online world probably have no idea how ineffective search engines used to be, by comparison.
Twitter I find to be even more incredible. Ask a question, and in an instant you have actual people, not just algorithms, addressing it. To think what Twitter will be capable of in five years just blows my mind. But it is still in its infancy, and Google is the go-to answer machine for most of us.
Not to exalt Google too much, but it’s almost become a modern day oracle. Answer-seekers from far and wide cast their wishes and prayers into the little white box. And not just for petty things. People search for alternative treatments to their illnesses, ways out of bad relationships, relief from depression, advice on managing debt, and better self-esteem.
The internet has come to represent more than just reams of information and entertainment. It represents the collective knowledge and wisdom of humanity itself. When we have problems, we can now appeal to the whole world, and not just our best friend or our psychiatrist. It is our desires that we type into that little box. We tell it what we yearn for, whether it’s an affordable trip to the tropics, or Mets tickets, or advice on how to accept a painful past.
As the administrator of a website, I’ve discovered that I have the sobering privilege of seeing almost directly into many people’s desires. When I check my traffic sources using Mint, it shows me what search terms people typed in when they found my articles. Some of them are hilarious, others puzzling, and some of them break my heart. I never know who typed what, but very often I begin to imagine where a person was, mentally and physically, when they cast their prayer into the box.
Here are some of the more interesting ones, and the posts they landed on.
accepting oneself and the embarrassing aftermath of a relationship
how to revere yourself
accepting yourself (x14)
accepting that people love me
feel like me and my consciousness are different people
too self conscious to go for a walk
it may seem that i have locked myself away from the people of the world
self-conscious all the time
how to treat self conscious people
to How to Alleviate Self-Consciousness and Other People Allergies (a popular one)
i need amazing songs!
songs about what it means to be a man
there is no good and evil, only like and dislike
probably there is no good
There is no good and evil. There are no rights and wrongs, only consequences
why do people persist in destructive behavior even though it’s costly
i have a really hard time connecting with people
they say people don’t really listen, but only wait for their turn to talk
how to connect with people
connecting with young people who find it hard to express themselves
true men of non-doing
protect your dreams & goals from other people
how to comfort someone in a bad mood
how to deal with bad moods for no particular reason
how to keep going when things are really bad
protecting yourself from others bad moods
working out causing bad moods
keep life fresh -salsa -recipe
I’m sure someone reading this recognizes their own search term here in this list, and perhaps you’d forgotten what desire it was that brought you to Raptitude. Let me reassure you I don’t know who searched for what, only that someone found me and my ideas because they were looking for that something. Hopefully I was able to provide it, or at least provide something you enjoyed.
It certainly is amazing to see what desire it was that led people to my work, whether they found what they were looking for or not. It made me realize how we’re becoming quite used to the idea of asking the world at large for what we want, and more and more, it’s able to give it to us. As the volume of information out there increases, so does the ability for search engines and social media to bubble the best information to the top. Humanity’s top recommendations, opinions, ideas, advice and services are available at your fingertips, and they’re only getting better and easier to find.
It’s a good time to be alive.
Photo by Simczuk