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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

20 Years of an Online Presence

I was walking home from work last week, letting my mind wander, when it came back with the thought, "I've now had some form of online presence for 20 years now."

It was on a frosty November night in 1997.  Me and my best friend had just gotten back from Edmonton, where we were doing research for our top-secret project.  Well, it wasn't very top secret.  My best friend had just resigned from his position as editor of the school paper, with the grand design to produce the college's first TV show on the local public access station.  I was the first one he brought on board.  Not knowing how the real world of broadcasting worked, we decided to see if we could get tours of a real TV station and a real radio station, under the cover of writing an article for the school paper.  So, we spent the morning getting a tour of the A-Channel (now CityTV Edmonton) and the afternoon touring the Bear (now and forever the Bear.)

We spent that evening in the newspaper office, comparing notes and planning our articles.  "I'll let you write the one about the Bear, seeing as to how those are your people," I remember my friend saying, as a harbinger of things to come.  But as many a late night in the newspaper office with my best friend tends to go, our topic of conversation soon turned to whatever pop culture nuggets currently caught our attention.  This being the late-1990s, it was the advent of the Internet and the dot-com bubble.  "Man, I'd sure love to have a website to plug my radio show," I said.  "Well, I've already got one up for the TV show," said my friend.

And that's when he showed me all these free web-hosting services that had popped up, the one that he preferred, and their online tutorials as to how to build a website.  Before I left the office that night, chaosinabox.com was born, although I didn't buy the URL until about 5 years later.

I did the usual radio stuff.  Posted a weekly top 10 list, what the topics of this week's show were going to be.  As I was already doing an opinion column in the school paper to plug my radio show, it was no-brainer to start posting the columns to the website.  My much-desired online presence was born.

I started doing the movie reviews on the website the following summer.  I saw the late, great Roger Ebert on a talk show, and someone asked him the age-old question of how they can become a movie critic.  Ebert's response was, "Same advice I give anyone who wants to be a writer:  just keep writing.  Practice your craft."  He then went on to extol the virtues of the Internet and how it was giving voice to many an aspiring film critic as now anyone could post their review.  Inspired by that, I wrote a review of Deep Impact, posted it on my website, and I've been reviewing movies ever since.

Things started changing in 1999.  I graduated from college.  Without my opinion column in the college paper, or my radio show, I started growing desperate for some form of creative outlet.  That's when I started thinking, "But I still have the website...."  There was nothing stopping me from continuing to write my opinion column, and posting it to my website.  I don't think I had heard the word yet, but I had just launched my first blog.

Yeah, the blog got me into trouble over the years that I wrote it.  When I did my time in retail hell as a clerk at Extra Foods in Drayton Valley, I wrote a few stories about the idiot teenagers I worked with being idiot teenagers, and they were none too pleased.  When I was going to NAIT, a few of my instructors pulled me aside a few times and said, "Gee, you'd better watch what you say on your blog because there's a very realistic chance no one's going to hire you based on what you're posting."  I know that some of my friends lament that I no longer get deeply personal in my blog and write about the minutia of my life, but when my first boss at my first radio gig proudly told me that my blog as the first thing she read every morning, that put a scare into me, so I figured I should stop.

Besides, at that point, the blog was giving way to the podcast.  It took me a year after graduating from NAIT to land that first radio gig.  And I will forever be grateful to my instructors at NAIT because, during that  year, they were always letting me sneak in after hours to use the equipment and re-cut my demo.  And most of those evenings were spent chatting with the instructors, getting job hunting advice and fishing for leads.  One night, after saying that the number one thing that was coming up in my rejections was lack of experience, I was asking my instructors the age old question, "How do you get more experience when on one will hire you?"  And my instructor said, "Well, you've got that website.  Why don't you do a podcast?"

So, I started doing my research.  Looked up what a podcast was, and what upgrades I'd have to do to my website to be able to do it.  Once I had all that in place, the podcast launched.  I don't know if it actually did provide that much-needed experience I needed for my resume, but I landed that first radio gig a month after launch.

The podcast was fun, but again, I kind of drifted away from doing it.  I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that, even though I've got an OK set-up on my home computer, I preferred going into work after-hours to use the stuff at work.  I mean, if I have access to a semi-professional recording studio, why not use it?  But the problem with that was, once I was done recording the podcast, I'd go, "Well...since I'm at work, I may as well get this done.  Ooo, and I can get a start on that," and before you knew it, what was going to be a couple hours banging out a podcast turned into a full day of unpaid overtime.  So I figured it's best to sped my days off taking a day off.

"Now Mark," you're probably asking.  "You said you gave up the blog.  Then what is this that I'm reading right now?"  Well, this is my second blog.  I launched this one back in 2003, when I was still in Japan.  My laptop died on me, and I had no way to update my website.  But I still had to maintain that o-so-valuable online presence.  Most of my friends were using Blogger, so I went to Blogger, launched this blog, and that kept my online presence up-to-date.  This way, I could easily update things from an Internet cafe, or a library, or anywhere else with free Internet access and public computers.  I couldn't find anyone in Japan who wanted to attempt to fix my North American laptop, so the original blog started up again when I returned home that summer.  I kept doing this one, though, with the idea that the original blog would be for my "real" writing, and this would be for off-the-cuff comments.

And I hardly use this for off-the-cuff comments anymore, because that's what I use Facebook and Twitter for.  It's just so easy to whip out the smartphone and bust out 140 characters saying what I thought of a new trailer or the new burger at Wendy's than wait until I get home and see if I can get a page's worth of material out of it.

And it's all part of the industry, now.  Every radio announcer has a Facebook page and Twitter page, as it's been embraced as another way to engage with the listeners.  It almost makes my NAIT instructor's warnings seem passe.  Heck, last time we had a kid down at the station to job shadow us and put together his NAIT application, he revealed that making a viral video is part of the NAIT application these days.

20 years ago, developing an online presence seemed like such a monumental undertaking.  Now, it's a reality of daily life.  I asked my friend once if building an online presence would be as big a deal back then if we had the resource of today.  "Probably not," he said.  "We'd probably just launch a Tumblr page for our TV show and call it a day."  As for the TV show, sadly it never came to be.  I don't know why we drifted away from the project, but we did.  I wonder if my friend still has the test footage we filmed at the TV station one afternoon.  It'd be fun to stick that up on YouTube.

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