This article at forbes.pl says that yesterday there was a 26-th anniversary of first Internet connection in Poland. On 26 September 1990 scientists made a first connection between Warsaw and Geneva to transfer some data. I thought it might be a good opportunity to write down some memories of my personal beginnings with the Internet. I think it can be interesting to some younger readers that know only the modern Internet as it looks today, as well as to some foreigners, because history of the Internet it other countries may be a little bit different than in Poland.
I know there were things before, like people dialing specific numbers and connecting to so called BBS-es, but my first experiences were already dealing with "this" global Internet. I was in high school back then. At first I started to go to Internet cafes - venues throughout the city where you paid per hours you could spend working on a computer connected to the global network, and possibly downloading some files to your floppy disks. Going there after (or instead of :) school, I first learned how to use IRC and of course WWW. IRC was a protocol that required a client app (mIRC was the most popular one for Windows) and allowed to chat with people, privately or on numerous topic channels, so it was possible e.g. to meet local girls in my city :)
Of course the Web existed already too, with many pages about programming that I've been reading to learn Delphi and download some new components for it. There was no all-knowing Google then, not to mention StackOverflow. Instead there were multiple competing search engines (e.g. Yahoo, AltaVista, Infoseek, Lycos, HotBot) and their algorithms were not so good yet. Page directories were also popular, with manually managed lists of websites grouped into categories and subcategories. Many people created websites about the topics of their interest, like "John's website about programming", or about fishing, or whatever. Pages looked different than today. Their style was to be later called "Web 1.0", with the use of HTML frames, textured backgrounds and animated GIF-s.
Later I was sometimes going to my father's office, where I could spend a longer time browsing the Web. But my first connection at home was through a modem. You know - the device connected to the PC at one end and to the telephone landline on the other. It had to be configured to dial a special number: 0202122, so after emitting some horrible noises it could connect the computer to the Internet with a speed between 36 and 48 kbps (depending on the day or God knows what). The connection had to be paid per minute, just like any other phone call, and of course it was blocking the line, so my parents let me connect only for short periods of time.
That's when I joined a mailing list about programming. A mailing list is a system where, after registering, you can send your e-mails to a dedicated address and they are automatically forwarded to all other members. This way I could participate in an online community - prepare my answers, connect to the network only for a couple of minutes to send them and receive new messages, and later (after disconnecting) slowly read everything what others written.
Finally an option appeared in Poland to have a "constant link" to the Internet, as we called it - the one in which you don't have to dial and pay per minute. It was also significantly faster than modem connection. It was still too expensive for an individual household though, so an idea of local area networks with a shared Internet connection gained popularity. We have built one too, connecting few dozens of apartments in my neighbourhood. I can remember it to be lots of fun to spend my school holidays in the basements with a driller in hand, pulling all those Ethernet cables. We even deconstructed (and later reconstructed) a pavement and dug a ditch to connect two buildings! We called our network "NorthNet", as we lived in the northern district of the city. We then had to wait few more months before our network finally gained access to the Internet. A LAN network had many functions. Shared Internet connection was one of them, with regulations like "please download big files only at night so others can browse the Web during the day without much delays". But we could also connect to each other locally, whether for chatting using LANczat, playing multiplayer games or sharing various kinds of files.
During that period I wanted to create my own place on the Internet as well. Together with my friends from the neighbourhood that we hung out and learned programming with, we have formed a group called "ProgrammeX" and created a website where we published our productions - applications, games, screensavers, graphics, articles etc. To be able to create its code I've learned some HTML and CSS. The website looked like this:
Later (in year 2000) I joined an online community of Polish game developer passionates called Warsztat, which still exists under address warsztat.gd (with the most important part being its Forum). It greatly influenced who am I right now. Finally, when new trends in the Web arrived, I created this my personal website/blog and registered on social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn etc.
What has changed in the Internet since then?
1. First, access to the Internet is by orders of magnitude faster and more affordable. I don't know about the rural areas - it might be different there, but in the cities we have many offers of fast Internet connection, provided by the same companies that also offer cable television and phone landlines, like Orange Polska (former Telekomunikacja Polska S.A.), UPC, Vectra, Multimedia and others. For example, my current connection is 120 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload and I pay for it 70 PLN per month (around 16 EUR or 18 USD). Everyone these days has his own public IP address with a home local network provided by router (using old terminology it's actually a modem, router, Ethernet switch and WiFi access point, all in one).
With faster connections, it became possible to transfer images, sound and finally video. At the beginning it was all about text - whether reading aricles or chatting with people. Images were significantly slowing down website loading time. Downloading a file was a big thing. Now websites are full of graphics, we can stream music and video in real-time and our only concern is how many minutes or hours will it take to download this new game weighting few gigabytes or whether we can watch live video in Full HD (you basically need at least 10 Mbps to do this).
But on the other hand, from user's perspective the Internet is easier to use than ever, with cleaner, better designed and better looking websites. Pages load faster, despite the average website is now the size of the original Doom. You no longer need to be technologically proficient to become an "internaut" (as we used to call Internet users) or to "surf the Web". Now everyone uses the global network - small kids do it, grandparents do it. We do it because we like it, but it's also essential in the modern world.
3. Third, Internet became more centralized. I think it was more popular in the previous decades to find yourself a hosting service (or even a "shell account" with remote access to full Unix account) and setup your own website or other internet service from scratch. Nowadays most companies and famous people (like musicians) still do it, but it becomes more and more important to just have a fanpage on Facebook. We search everything on Google. Almost all videos we watch are streamed from YouTube. Wikipedia is the go-to place for encyclopedic knowledge. Answers to programming questions are on StackOverflow. We also no longer play multiplier games through LAN or install our own servers, but instead we always connect to the central server of the game's producer (which they can shut down whenever they want).
Same happened with local versus worldwide online services. We used to have Polish social networking websites - Grono and then nasza-klasa.pl (renamed later to nk.pl), but now everyone is just on Facebook. We used to have our local instant messaging app - Gadu-Gadu (renamed later to GG), but now people chat through Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp or Telegram. The only exception is Allegro - a Polish auction website. It's still the most popular here in its category. eBay created Polish version, but it didn't succeed to compete with it.
But on the other hand, showing your stuff on the Internet is now easier than ever. Content creation has been democratized. You no longer need to know how to program to publish anything on the Web. It only takes few clicks to create a profile on Facebook, on YouTube or setup a blog and then you can publish your writings, drawings, photos or videos so anyone can see them.