A digital journey

By Adam Cranfield

 

I was born in the 1970s, when Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody hit number one the first time around, which means I’ve grown up through the digital revolution.

It means I first used the word “digital” to refer to a watch made by Casio, not Apple.

I have saved to cassette, properly floppy disk, hard floppy disk, properly hard disk, CD, USB drive, and now the cloud.

Would you mind if I took you on a quick journey through the past 30 years?

1984

I was a moderately geeky kid. I learned to “program”, not “code”, on my dad’s BBC Micro with 32k of RAM (that’s smaller than most Word docs today).

By 1984, over 1 million BBC Micros had been sold, but these machines weren’t exactly like the telescreens that George Orwell had predicted. The screens didn’t capture information about you and send it back to Big Brother. Google wouldn’t arrive for another 14 years.

  Elite - cutting edge gaming in 1984

 

Elite - cutting edge gaming in 1984

In 1984 the cutting edge of computer gaming was Elite. I cruised around the 3D wireframe universe for hours and days and weeks, gradually building up my reputation from “mostly harmless” to “deadly” (I don’t think I ever made it to “elite”).

Also in 1984, the Domain Name System (DNS) was created - the “phone book” for the internet. Here’s a list of the earliest domain names.

Oh, also in 1984, Mark Zuckerberg was born.

We didn’t use computers at school. We played games on them when we got home.

We didn’t use computers at school.
We played games on them when we got home.

By 1987 there were 30,000 “hosts” on the internet.

After the BBC Micro, in about 1987, my dad bought an Amiga (look at the games!)

Music competed with games for my teenage affections. The ultimate Christmas present was a Yamaha keyboard.

In 1989 with the new cheap digital technology it became possible for a kid with a keyboard and a computer in a bedroom to create a hit single. I didn't manage it, but many did.

  Breaks, bass & bleeps. Digital music in 1990

 

Breaks, bass & bleeps. Digital music in 1990

I wish the web had been around when I was at school. The only ways to communicate with schoolmates back then were face to face and over the phone. I was sort of scared of the phone.

Kids tended to have quite small groups of friends, and if you weren't gregarious and outgoing it could be hard to form friendships and relationships.

Imagine trying to let a girl know you liked her. Kids today have it easy with the Like button.

If you weren't able to "go out" very often, without any digital connection you were isolated.

1991: links to the future

In 1991, thanks to British computer scientist and former CERN employee (just like my dad) Tim Berners-Lee made the first web page. The genius part was that any web page could be linked to any other web page just by using a “hyperlink”.

WWW was born.

  One of the first web pages, explaining the World Wide Web

 

One of the first web pages, explaining the World Wide Web

But we needed web browsers before we could all get online.

In 1993, Marc Andreessen made it happen. He created Mosaic, the first popular web browser, and soon followed it up with Netscape, which went on to be used by 90% of web users.

Microsoft released Internet Explorer in 1995, which, since it came free and pre-installed with everyone’s PC, didn’t take too long to become the world’s most popular window to the web.

Echo Bay (later eBay) and Amazon also launched in 1995.

Amazon looked a bit different back then:

  Amazon's original homepage in 1995

 

Amazon's original homepage in 1995

By this time I was studying experimental psychology at Oxford University.

Despite Amazon, we went to the bookshop to buy books.

One of the reasons I wanted to study experimental psychology was that I was interested in things like whether digital technology could be developed to enable blind people to see (good progress has since been made in this area). The idea of the brain as a computer fascinated me.

As for the web, I remember some of my friends going off to the “computer room” to email their mates on a new service called HoTMaiL (note the clever highlighting of HTML in the original brand name).

1997: web nation

1997 brought new Prime Minister Tony Blair's "Cool Britannia", and the dotcom bubble started to inflate.

The term “weblog” was first used. This became shortened to “blog”.

The BBC website launched. 

 

BBC homepage in 1998 covering Bill Clinton's "Monicagate" scandal

In 1998, “Monicagate” was the first major news story to break online.

Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox became British dotcom darlings, starting Lastminute.com.

The film "You've Got Mail" came out.

The word "spam" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first portable MP3 player was launched.

Meanwhile, I finished my degree and decided to leave experimental psychology to those who were comfortable living their life in a laboratory.

I got my first job editing magazines. We used QuarkXPress.

I'm fairly sure press releases were sent to me by fax or post more than email.

I bought my first mobile phone. I think it was a Nokia 5110. Beautiful.

2000: digital dawning

The year of the dotcom crash. Big companies with short URLs like Pets.com and Boo.com bit the dust.

I met my future wife, Tessa. A smart lawyer, she introduced me to Google. I had been searching with AltaVista. (Not for a wife - just in general.)

After two years working in magazine publishing, I got a job as a project manager at the agency EdComs, where I soon become the digital guy. I rebuilt the company’s website, delivered web projects for clients and also worked on a few CD-ROMs (remember them?!)

The internet made wasting time a lot easier.

As well as making all of our jobs more interesting, the internet made wasting time a lot easier. Friends Reunited was a craze that swept the office, as we hunted for old schoolmates we’d failed to keep in touch with. (And then soon remembered why we’d failed to keep in touch with them.)

  Friends Reunited launched in 2000

 

Friends Reunited launched in 2000

2001: a web odyssey

Wikipedia launched in 2001. While it might not be HAL 9000, how would I ever have written a blog post like this without it?!

In 2001 I was introduced to the concept of the “content management system” (CMS). A web editor like me could update web content in real time. Well, actually, the updates normally had to be “pushed live”, but the idea was there.

Unlike magazine publishing, with a CMS you didn’t have to get it 100% right first time. You could make changes. You could adapt. You could be agile. That was exciting.

You could adapt. You could be agile.
That was exciting.

I remember I was at work when the 9/11 attacks happened in 2001. The news reached us via email, I think. We checked news websites for information. But we only saw the video footage when we went home (early) and turned on the TV.

In 2003, I became a web manager for the Youth Justice Board. I worked in the marketing department, not IT. The “webmaster” had risen from the basement!

But, honestly, the website was still sometimes the place you put information when you had an obligation to publish but you didn’t want many people to see it.

Elsewhere on the web, very smart and lucky people were launching MySpace, WordPress and LinkedIn.

A 19-year-old Harvard student was fooling around with building a “hot or not” website called Facemash.

In 2004, Facemash evolved into “Thefacebook”. People started talking about “social media” and “Web 2.0”.

Corporate friends got BlackBerrys.

Meanwhile I was a web manager for the UK government, working on one of hundreds of websites that would one day be closed down...

I knew I was in the right career!

YouTube launched in 2005.

Twitter launched in 2006.

In 2007, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. I didn’t rush to buy one. At 115mm long, I thought it was ridiculously big for a phone. (Now I have an iPhone 6 which is 23mm longer.)

2008: social club

Obama’s 2008 election win was attributed in large part to social media. It was dubbed “The Internet Election”.

I was now ecommunications manager for CIMA, an accountancy body. For some reason - I blame it on fashion - I was determined to spend £30,000 on building an interactive Flash microsite. I did it, and I was proud of it. Misplaced pride!

In 2009 Skittles replaced its homepage with a Twitter feed of #skittles. And it brought Twitter down. But then again, Twitter used to go down quite a lot.

  Remember the Fail Whale?

 

Remember the Fail Whale?

In 2009 I founded the Web Managers Group, a LinkedIn community for digital professionals and the forerunner of the DigitalFWD community.

2010 brought Instagram and Pinterest.

I got a new job running the website and social media for Nectar (the UK’s biggest loyalty card scheme). I remember telling the CEO that within two years most major brands would employ a social media manager. I got that one right.

We used Radian6 and Tweetdeck to get on top of social media.

Meanwhile my colleagues in the digital team at Nectar were fully focused on creating an iPhone app. All the directors had iPhones and iPads.

All the directors had iPhones and iPads.

2011: digital first

In 2011 I set up my own consultancy. I built my company website with WordPress.

I bought an iPad. I tried to work on it, but soon gave up. My 3-year-old daughter was delighted. It's the most wonderful educational toy ever invented.

One of my assignments, for web effectiveness consultancy Bowen & Craggs, involved evaluating some of the world’s top corporate websites. We rated Siemens.com as the number one for its bold use of video storytelling.

Another assignment was to build a Facebook app. That was so 2011.

That was so 2011.

I worked with boutique spirits company Sipsmith to rebuild their website and plan their content marketing strategy.

Then I got an assignment through Twitter, working for Mynewsdesk - a digital PR platform and SaaS (software as a service) business from Sweden.

Remote working from London with a Swedish business was fairly easy. We used Google+ hangouts to have video conferences, Google docs to share and collaborate. A closed Facebook group worked well as a real-time intranet and virtual water cooler.

My consultancy work for Mynewsdesk expanded and in 2012 I became their head of marketing.

Marketing to marketers

Marketing to marketers. An interesting challenge.

Us marketers - especially digitally savvy ones - can be a sceptical bunch, primed to question everything we see.

We're obsessed by, and judged by, "return on investment". Our budgets can be whipped away from under us at any time, like the old tablecloth and tea-set trick.

Our jobs are insecure. Our deadlines are tight. Our schedules are sometimes pure fantasy.

Digital marketing platforms, like Mynewsdesk, sit within a vast landscape of modern communications tools. Many of these - like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Tumblr, Medium, etc - are used outside the professional sphere. Their user experience is slick and intuitive, which sets the bar high for all business software and apps.

New technologies disrupt not-very-old technologies.

And new technologies transform professions. Digital jobs have changed dramatically.

Marketing, PR, social media and customer service have been smashed into each other and we're now trying to piece together a prettier picture.

Things are about to get a whole lot newer.

Reflection and vision

So what are my reflections as I recount this digital journey?

For me: new is exciting.

And things are about to get a whole lot newer.

Living is about learning.

I chose a career path that once seemed a bit specialist, but now seems like it runs through the core of every business and organisation.

We want technology to make our lives better.

Communications and publishing have become democratised. "Product" has become globalised. Collaboration is the way to succeed.

As far as I'm concerned, the journey is just beginning.

 

Adam Cranfield is a digital consultant and director at DigitalFWD

 

What about your digital journey so far? Is it anything like mine? And where are we going next?