In the Beginning… My Earliest Days on the Internet (Part Two)

When I first joined CompuServe UK, back in Christmas 1995, we were still in that antediluvial period when we had to pay by-the-hour for internet access, and it was a couple of years yet before Compuserve was to introduce monthly flat-rate payments (at the end of 1997), in response to an earlier similar move made by AOL. But, despite this, I quickly became an online junkie, with some pretty big quarterly phone bills to show for it. I learned very quickly (after the first phone bill, which was huge) that it would be very wise to start using an OLR (Off-Line Reader), a fantastic piece of software that automated the connection process with CompuServe, going online, downloading all my forum messages very quickly, and going offline as soon as that was done.

This helped cut my time online (and phone bills) down considerably from what they had been initially. I could now read and respond to all my forum messages offline, without running up huge bills, and all replies would be automatically uploaded and new messages downloaded the next time the OLR connected to CompuServe. I loved my OLR – actually, there were two – first I used NavCIS, then I moved on to OzWin, my favourite OLR, when NavCIS was discontinued. So much so that, even when CompuServe did away with the by-the-hour charges and introduced a monthly flat-rate of £19.99 in late 1997, I continued to use my OLR instead of the normal CompuServe online software (WinCIM), simply because it was a better piece of software, and much nicer to use.

By the end of the 1990’s, the state of the primitive web browsers had improved to a level where I started using them occasionally to venture out into the Web. But CompuServe remained my main base of operations for several years yet. AOL, CompuServe’s biggest rival, bought out the CIS branch of CompuServe in 1998, and CompuServe went into a slow and steady decline thereafter, with many members deserting it for other online enclaves or taking the big step of just booting up their web browsers (Mosaic and the earliest versions of Netscape were the most powerful at that time) and striking out into the web by themselves.

I hung on at CompuServe for a while yet, but, by 2002-2003, I followed the mass exodus out into the internet. By that time, I had another, cheaper ISP, which let me have browser-based internet access, and CompuServe had declined to such an extent that it was a mere shadow of its former self. I no longer saw any need to pay for two internet accounts, so I dropped CompuServe, ending an era which had encompassed my earliest, most happy days online.

Moving out into the wilds of the World Wide Web, I roamed all over the place for a couple of years like a crazy man, absorbing and downloading everything that I could. But once the novelty had worn off, I began to realize that I’d lost something very important, very special, that strong sense of belonging, of being a member of that classic, irreplaceable CompuServe community. In all the years since then, even with the advent of Facebook and other social media, I’ve never quite rediscovered the magical feeling that I felt during my first few years online with CompuServe, and I’ve never come across forums as active, exciting and fun to be a member of.

Those days will always remain my happiest times online, when I was part of that huge, close-knit, vibrant CIS community. I’ve always retained a deep affection for my first online home, and I still go back regularly to the CompuServe forums (what’s left of them) to visit my old buddies in SFLIT. CompuServe Classic, the original service, is now gone, but CompuServe 2000 still exists, and a few of the old forums still survive, and will continue to exist as long as there are enough people still using them to make it worthwhile.

The forums are now, of course, a pathetic shadow of their former glory, and most of the thousands of forums that existed back in the good old days are long gone, disappearing as the original membership left CompuServe in droves. But a few small groups of die-hards in SFLIT, BOOKS AND WRITER’S COMMUNITY and a handful of other forums have refused to give up, and are still fighting the good fight. So those forums continue to keep on keeping on, although the overall number of forums is now a tiny fraction of what once existed. This number continues to shrink ever further as forums fold, one-by-one, due to declining membership and post activity.

SFMEDIA folded into SFLIT quite a while back, and, most recently it was the COMICS & ANIMATION forum which folded into the BOOKS AND WRITER’S COMMUNITY. Those were two of my Top Three forums to hang out in, back in the day, when I used to check in on SFLIT, SFMEDIA and COMICS & ANIMATION daily, downloading hundreds of messages and posting regularly. So it really saddened me a lot to see those two forums disappear.

There are still some good old friends in SFLIT, and it’s always nice to go back for a decent conversation. Some things about CompuServe will never change, even if it has gone downhill, compared to the glory days of the Nineties. But I really, really miss the sheer excitement and fun I had during my earliest days on the classic CompuServe forums. It’s a great pity that we’ll never see the likes of those days again. 😦

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