I USED TO LOVE being online. Just searching for information and discussing topics of interest was fun, let alone making new, often like-minded friends. I looked forward to getting home from work and leaving the real world for the cyber world, in much the same way you lose yourself in a good book.
The online world became a big part of my life. But everything has its time and nothing stays the same. Today the Internet is a tool for me and time online is much less enjoyable.
The cyber world has evolved and so much more is possible online today, but with the 'net's evolution has come issues, and it just doesn't feel the same. In fact sometimes I get so annoyed with the cyber world that I wonder if it would be possible to live without the 'net at all.
I became a daily net user in January, 1996. My first connection was dial-up, delivering speeds of 5 Kb / second and tying up the house phone line for hours. The 'net experience was new and exciting and the speed was fine. Websites were the most bandwidth intensive applications - and back then few had images or graphics.
After moving to Thailand I went eight months without a 'net connection, in fact eight months without a computer. Once a week or so I'd stroll down to the local tailor's store which doubled as a 'net cafe. I'd become friendly with the owner after setting up a network so three computers could share the same dial-up connection, reducing his expenses, increasing profits and chopping the available bandwidth available to each customer to almost nothing.
In return he allowed me to use the 'net there for free. I had been something of a 'net addict before moving to Thailand, but in those eight months without a computer I didn't miss it.
I was too busy discovering this wonderful new city, making new friends and getting my kicks elsewhere. Besides, I didn't know how long I would stay in Thailand so I didn't buy a computer, which at that time cost a teacher a whole month's salary.
When I finally did get my own computer and 'net connection, I would suffer for five long years with over-priced dial-up and frequent disconnections - 45 baht an hour for the connection and three baht every time I called to reconnect, and the many times I called to reconnect after disconnecting.
I can laugh now, but to a teacher those three-baht calls added up! Dial-up was the norm and anything faster was horrendously expensive.
When I finally got a computer in my apartment I would read the news from home, and chat up local birds on ICQ where I made rather a pig of myself at the trough in what were the early days of Internet dating in Thailand.
Old-timers often talk of the good old days of the bar scene, but the early days of internet dating in Thailand in the late '90s and in to the new millennium was pretty good too!
Before this column was born, all site updates were made over a dial-up connection, no big deal as the site had no photos, no ads - no graphics of any sort! More speed would have been nice but before the likes of YouTube and PirateBay, dial-up was good enough.
There weren't a lot of Thailand-centric sites at that time, the expat population being but a fraction of the size it is today and besides, ''Internet'' was still a buzzword, something most had yet to embrace.
The best non-commercial Thailand expat site at that time was Sanuk - Fun in Thailand. What started as a basic website with general information about the country with a nightlife slant developed in to a community with a very well run message board with a small number of users.
Questions asked by newbies were dutifully answered by long-timers. It was not just a worthwhile resource, it was a place you felt welcome, a place with a real feel good factor.
That message board would expand in to a forum but the culture remained the same. When someone got out of line, perhaps became unnecessarily sarcastic, unhelpful or abusive, they would be reined in by the host or a moderator.
The forum had such a strong sense of community that members - a mix of local expats and frequent visitors to Thailand - would meet up on Friday nights at the old Woodstock in Nana Plaza and discuss life. Many friendships were made.
More Thailand websites sprang up and most were a labor of love. The notion that an informational website could sustain a living was about as foreign as squatting on a flush toilet to take a dump.
Around 2002 the Internet started to gain more traction. What had once been the domain of nerds, the technically minded, academics and youngsters, now appealed to the masses. Having no email address in 2002 was like having no mobile phone today.
Internet user numbers exploded. Some Thailand expat sites found themselves becoming brand names with traffic levels that made them attractive to advertisers. Online advertising on what were otherwise non-commercial websites started to grow.
While advertisements appeared on some sites, most remained a labor of love. It would still be some time before Thailand expat websites would return enough to make a decent living.
With more users, the culture of some Thailand expat sites changed. What once felt like a small village where you knew everyone's name started to feel like a small city. You'd recognise some users, but most were people you didn't know.
And just as small villages tend to be friendly places and larger cities less so, so it was with the expat forums. With a perception of anonymity, some started to say things online they probably wouldn't say in person. With no concern that people who knew the real them would see what they said, some started to misbehave.
The forums were becoming less enjoyable but the benefits of logging in still greatly outweighed the negatives. The number of sites about Thailand was growing. More people meant more ideas being shared, more perspectives offered and while some lowered the tone, they were tolerated.
Websites started becoming more commercial and webmasters would be reluctant to upset their user base. There remained a notion that the online world and the real world were different - and different rules applied.
But things started to get out of hand. Nasty messages became more frequent and things spilled over in to the real world. Users who had once been anonymous were outed causing some to face embarrassing situations. Private lives became public. The term cyberbullying was coined.
It's only the Internet some would say when users complained of keyboard warriors, another newly coined term. Some users craved a return to civility. Others felt that the Internet was not real, what happened there did not really matter and a free-for-all was entertaining.
As poor behavior increased, the Internet was starting to be taken more seriously and the days when the Internet was about sending email, surfing the net and reading newsgroups were the distant past. There was now so much more.
You could pay your taxes, do your banking or buy a car. TV was being given up for the internet. Newspaper sales nose-dived as readers chose to read the news online.
Post offices reported dwindling mail volumes as email was preferred to the traditional mail system. Even bars and nightclubs were being shirked for dating sites. The internet was now very much part of our so-called real life.
The Internet has enhanced our lives in so many ways and the benefits are numerous and huge, but in recent years the downsides have proliferated.
Perhaps the main problem with anything online is that you really don't know who you're communicating or dealing with. Is that sexy 26-year old you have seen photos of really the person you're talking to or is it actually a Nigerian male?
Does the person who offers you advice about how to stay in Thailand long-term really have a wife who works at the Immigration department? Who is the person who sent you a tirade of abuse because you disagreed with a post of theirs on SlyGeezer and should you take their threats seriously?
The Internet has given jerks, drunks and criminals access to us they would not have otherwise had. And as is so often the case, in Thailand it just seems to be that little bit worse.
In the early days of the net in Thailand, the expat forums were predominantly nightlife-oriented, catering to the most common tourist profile at that time - the single Western male. Regardless of the forum, information was shared, helpful advice given and there was a real feeling of camaraderie.
The disruptive, abusive and arrogant quickly found themselves on the outer. These days the talk can be juvenile, abusive and blow up over silly comments. Those who feel spurned may go all out to cause problems for others in the real world. Some Thailand nightlife sites today are so toxic it's a wonder new users sign up.
Things have been little different with this site and those who disagree with something written can get heated and abusive over the smallest things. The girl of the week photos regularly generate nasty comments if someone doesn't like what he sees.
And where once I'd get one or two emails a month from the unhinged and the troubled, now it's more like two or three a week. The increase in such emails is disproportionately higher than the increase in the site's traffic.
Today there's not one Thailand discussion forum I enjoy visiting; and few Thai-centric blogs I do anything more than glance at.
A friend who ran a website selling HIV test kits to customers in Bangkok eventually gave it up after meeting customers who bought his product. ''I never met people like that back in America, ever,'' he would tell me. It all became too stressful dealing with some he described as serious screwballs.
But it's not just a Thailand thing. From the UK's Telegraph newspaper this week was an article about how Scotland Yard's cyber crime unit is to dramatically expand to deal with increasing cyber crime.
In New Zealand, the public has been outranged by a Facebook page called roast busters run by teenage boys who post photos of themselves and underage girls they boast of plying with drink and having sex with, behavior that appears to be perpetuated by the notoriety gained by writing about it and presenting it to an online audience.
Behavior online seems so much worse. I think part of it is the mistaken belief that you're anonymous and can say and do things online you'd never do in real life, with impunity. Anonymity online is a mistaken belief.
When I get odd emails, I trace where the person has sent it from - and it is often late at night on a Friday or Saturday in the West. I can guess they were messing around online, possibly lonely and probably drinking.
Where once I used to enjoy meeting readers of this site, now I'm reluctant to do so. On the odd occasion that I do, I Google people beforehand - an odious practice but a necessary evil with the crackpots, jerks and drunks out there.
And don't get me started on Facebook or Twitter and these claims of zillions of friends or followers. What happened to real friends, people you know and like, people you meet for pizza and wine, or a good curry and a few Jack+sodas or just meet up to enjoy watching a sports match together?
While there are many undoubtedly many benefits, the whole Facebook and social media thing strikes me as shallow vanity. The way people communicate online and don't see each other notwithstanding that they may live just minutes apart makes me think anti-social media would be a more appropriate name.
Our online activities can be scrutinised and nasty comments, threats or outrageous behavior can come back to haunt us. Today in the West prospective employers may check Facebook or other social posts as part of the candidate screening process. It's not only those pursuing public office who ought to refrain from accessing the Internet.
Online spats can get nasty and escalate. An ongoing dispute in Thailand between two foreign journalists has spilled over in to the real world with claims, counter-claims and a multitude of lawsuits, a huge drain on the time, patience and resources of all involved.
The Thailand dating websites are a great tool, about that there can be no argument. But isn't it sad that so many Thai women who'd love to meet a decent Western guy get put off when within *hours* of joining they receive a barrage of vulgarities, invitations for sex and guys exposing themselves on webcam.
And then there are the websites which encourage reviews, yet which are so often full of spurious reviews, a practice now so widespread that there are businesses which can be hired to write fake positive reviews!
This practice has become so entrenched that as one friend said, if you don't write a bunch of positive fake reviews yourself about your own business you are cutting your own throat - because that's what most of your competitors are doing - along with writing negative reviews about your business too!
Whatever happened to the fun Internet I once knew, where you could learn, meet interesting, like-minded people and discuss topics of interest? I used to love spending time online. I still enjoy the benefits of the Internet but I've modified how I use it, and that's a shame.
I knew a world when there was no email, no web and no YouTube, a world where you called people to say hello or to make plans to meet.
In the early days of the 'net we had the web, email and live chat. It was, for want of a better word, gentle.
Now we have an Internet with keyboard warriors, cyberbullying, revenge porn . . . and who knows what next.
The benefits of the Internet are undeniable and they greatly outweigh the downsides. Life today would be difficult if you chose to live without the 'net.
Before too long it will probably be almost impossible to live like that.
It is sad, however, that increasingly I find the online world is a place to be wary of, and which I at times feel I want to take a long holiday from.
Republished with permission from stickmanweekly.com.
About Stickman Weekly
The Stickman weekly column was first published in April of 2001. Each week there is news, views and gossip for Westerners in Thailand, along with coverage of Bangkok's seedy underbelly. Snippets and news from bars and nightspots popular with Westerners, news from restaurants and eateries of particular appeal to Westerners, general news and issues of interest to expats such as visa laws, work permit requirement changes, gossip from Asian expat files and the odd bit from neighboring countries.