It was about this time of the year in 2000, the heady days before 9/11, before downloading .mp3s was really illegal. I was just starting college and having my first real experiences with fast Internet service.
Back at home, a small town about 30 miles from Billings, Mont., I’d had the Internet since 1996, but there wasn’t much to see out there. Plus, you couldn’t hope to see very much of it sending data back and forth on a 24.6 kb/sec modem connection. (Our ISP at the time promised 28.8 — these were the days before 56k modems were common, before they were obsolete — but the condition of our area’s phone lines degraded the signal.)
Then I came to Montana State University, which just completed a project to wire every one of its dorm rooms with an Ethernet jack and started a service called ResNet. For $60 a semester, a fee tacked onto your housing bill so you hardly noticed it, you got to access the internet through one of the universities T-1 lines. (Of course, some of us back in those days had to run out to Radio Shack or up to the campus bookstore’s computer department to buy an Ethernet card for our PCs — remember, 3.5-inch floppy drives were still standard equipment, ZIP drives were the storage king and nobody had heard of a USB-flash drive. Hell, USB itself was just getting started; all my peripherals hooked up with serial cables.) That semester, sitting in my dorm room, reading Web page after Web page that loaded in the blink of an eye, the Internet became something different and new for me.
It became essential.
Seeing as how so much more of the Internet was accessible now, we needed a way to find stuff on it. Sure, we could use directories — I think DMOZ was around back then, and Yahoo had a pretty big Web directory. But the big thing that was getting bigger by the day was “search,” finding a reliable way to search the Internet to find the coolest stuff out there.
When I came to college, I was familiar with all the big names, AltaVista, Hotbot, Lycos, Yahoo, AOL, MSN and a few others. But then a guy down the hall told me about this new search engine he’d read about on the Something Awful forums: Google.
The rest is history. And while I’ve flirted with other search engines over the years, specifically Yahoo, once it started developing its own search technology again. But I’ve always fallen back on Google. It’s never led me wrong — that I know of.
Over the years, opted in to as many of their services as possible as early as possible. I had a Gmail account almost from the beginning. I was on Google Docs as soon as I learned about it. My Gcal is symbiotically linked with my Exchange calendar and has been for years. Blogger was a happy accident. I had a Blogger account; then Google bought them, so I was there from the beginning on that one too.
In the past few years, Google has grown so large that we joke about renaming it SkyNet. When any company gets that large, they draw criticism. It’s the nature of business. Do I think that Google’s now evil? No. Will they make completely smart business decisions from here to eternity? No. Will I stick by them through think and thin? Probably.
The Internet is a far tamer place than it was back when I started using Google. Back then, you really needed a search engine to find things. Now, I wear a rut between Facebook, Techmeme, CNN, my local paper’s site, Arts & Letters Daily and my RSS reader (not Google, but I maintain a Google Reader account for appearances). The ‘Net just doesn’t hold the kind of fascination it did back when everything was new. Then, it was a playground; now it’s a tool.
So for me, Google isn’t as important as it once was, not in a conscious way. Back in 2000, you opened up your Web browser (Netscape or IE or Mozilla, no Firefox yet) and eagerly approached the search engine. Now, search is ubiquitous. It is an unconscious part of our online lives. While Google may not consciously seem as important to me as it once was, it is more important than ever.