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From sci-fi to wi-fi: riding the digital rollercoaster

Back in 1993, when I was 19, I went to visit a friend of mine in Montreal. She lived with a computer geek who told me that one day very soon we would be able to send and receive information from our home computers via the telephone lines. I stared at him and said something polite to mask my incredulity, like, "Oh, okay." I thought he'd been reading too many sci-fi novels and didn't think any more about it.

Less than two years later I sat in a computer lab at the UVic, sending my very first email and feeling like an idiot. I marveled at the prescience of my friend's boyfriend.

Now, 15 years after my inaugural email, I sit in my home office, counting how many social media sites I belong to: blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LibraryThing, Last.fm, Flickr, - for starters. I also participate on a couple of forums. I might as well be hooked to my PC with an IV.

It's one hell of an evolution from believing the internet was just someone's sci-fi dream to being hooked to it almost intravenously. I have obviously embraced a lot the net has to offer, and I have also made a ton of connections with people all over the world, connections I value very much.

With the exception of Facebook, I always use an internet handle on the social media sites I frequent, though this does not assure privacy--something I found out the hard way. On some sites, I have seen the cloak of anonymity creating a sense of invincibility, which in turn creates a place where obnoxiousness dominates. I see this on forums all the time as well as places like YouTube. In some ways, I have come to believe that the internet gives people the freedom to be at their worst. But when you put your words out there under your real name, it's a different game altogether.

Which brings me back to Facebook and other social media. How many times has a well-placed exclamation point or emoticon indicated that something is better than it might actually be, or worse, or just plain different? "How's it going," someone may ask, and if I'm having a crappy day but don't want to get into it, I might respond "Great!!!! :D" See? Nothing's wrong at all! :) How many times have we manipulated, even minutely, the truth to make a detail of our lives seem other than it really is? How many times have we exaggerated for effect? And how many little dramas have we seen play out, not in person, but over the internet on social media sites?

It's common sense not to put something online you wouldn't want your neighbour to know, especially when you live in a small town. This may seem obvious, but judging by the break-ups, engagements, spats, and similar big news and conflicts I've seen hung out for all to see on Facebook in the two years I've been on it, I guess it isn't obvious to everyone. In fact, some people appear to be downright oblivious. Facebook's constantly changing privacy settings don't help, either. I used to be totally unsearchable there because I didn't want every Tom, Dick, and Harry I'd ever met to find me, but I no longer have that option. And now we can see not only what is going on in our friends' lives, we can see what's going on in our friends' friends' lives, too, which I think is even more invasive.

I have backed off from Facebook; I don't use it often anymore except for the odd game of Scramble and as a central place for people to reach me. I rarely post status updates there anymore, and I don't share photos or links, either. I don't need to be that attached to it all the time, and I certainly don't need everyone on my friends list knowing my business. I have also given up on Twitter - another site that keeps changing its settings to affect who can see what.

And so the journey from internet skeptic to internet addict leaves me wondering, what's next?

Golden City Cynic will be a regular monthly column in the Telegraph.