From Dial-Up to DMs: Humble Digital Beginnings

When I began searching for a topic study in my PhD program, I started researching the field of Social Media Influencer Marketing. To be honest, it’s kind of wild that this research stream is even a thing. I mean, think about it. Social Media Influencer Marketing is a billion-dollar industry with some marketers paying up to $1M for influencers to post their content (Haenlein et al., 2020).

How did we get here, Deborah Cox?!

This research has me thinking about my own journey on the World Wide Web. My pops was always into technology, so we grew up with a family computer. I have countless polaroids of him behind a computer tower because he would build them in his spare time. I remember when my uncle brought home an Apple iBook, the Clamshell like Carrie Bradshaw used to use. But how did we go from being scared the Y2K Bug was going to close our banks to cashing out real coins because #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt?

So, I decided to go back in time. And I’m taking you with me.

Do you remember what your first digital platform was?

Mine was GeoCities – iykyk.

Before Facebook, MySpace, and Xanga entered that chat, GeoCities was an online platform where you could host your own microsite. I’m not sure if it was a West Coast thing because whenever I referenced GeoCities to my friends in the Midwest, people rarely knew what I was talking about. Here are some pages I was able to dig up to show you what it looked like:

Geocities screenshots - a collage of digital microsites

It’s giving peak Netscape energy!

My elementary school friend Amandria (who I still keep in touch with to this day) would spend all her time creating her own website. It was consuming her, but somehow, she still had time to shame me for not having one. After some convincing, Amandria walked me through how to create my own page, and I went home to try it. It was my first taste of working on a digital project for multiple nights as the evening hours passed by. I say that because we had dial-up, and you know my Mom was not going to let me tie up the phone line (as I’m typing this, it sounds like I grew up in the Stone Ages, but I really didn’t).

I remember I had a blue background and “N E S S A” (one of my many childhood nicknames) was plastered somewhere above the fold in pink glitter type. Back then, it was really taboo to use your government name on the internet. Personal brands were reserved for the Hollywood elite. Between GeoCities, AOL Instant Messenger, and Yahoo! Chatrooms, I had gotten a taste of online communications and friendship. Some people had The Sims game, I had GeoCities.

In my mind, I never thought online spaces would make it off the computer screen, but it did. As social media progressed, my friends and I switched to other platforms, and GeoCities soon faded away from our lexicon. But, the connection and community remained. When I moved across the country, I kept up with my friends through MySpace. Years later, my first job came from social media. Little did I know that I would end up working in digital marketing, still use it to connect with people like you decades later, and study it in an academic setting.

It would take years before I saw the connection, but social media has always been an overall positive tool in my life. Additionally, I understand why everyone doesn’t feel the same way.

I’ll explain more in part two.

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