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Autoethnography: Reflecting Upon Computer Mediated Communication

This post was written for UW's HCDE 505, Computer Mediated Communication, to reflect upon personal history of computer usage, attitudes toward being online, and communication habits.

My first experiences with computers were on my family's first computer, a machine that was running some kind of DOS. The computer had a basic GUI with pages of tiles that I mostly navigated through to find games like Commander Keen, Zookeeper, Monkey Island, Treasure Mountain, and Lemmings. In elementary school, I enjoyed the time we got to spend on computers, creating basic navigable pages using a series of hyperlinks, giving me my first exposure to designing digital interactions. Whenever my family visited my grandparents' house, I would spend as much time as possible on their computer because it was connected to the internet. My first online experiences were primarily exploring America Online keywords like "Nintendo" and "Nick" (Nickelodeon), where I also spent time on the bulletin boards and chatrooms.

I recognized early that there was a lot that I could learn by myself via the internet. The information I wanted to learn at the time was primarily cheat codes for my favorite video games, but I eventually began learning more technical knowledge, such as programming. In any case, my early experiences with the internet helped be self-reliable, something that I think has been essential for my personality type. When my family finally got internet access at our own home, I spent a lot of time building my own websites with basic HTML that I'd learned from reading various tutorials. I copied scripts of JavaScript to my websites and made tiny modifications to learn what effects they had on the output, which was my first exposure to scripting. Eventually I found Flashkit.com, a tutorial website for Macromedia Flash, and I followed several of them. I loved that Flash let you combine animations and scripting; for me, it was so cool to be able to make graphical elements that responded to the user's actions, like animating a button with some ridiculous gradient on rollover.

As a teen, I spent a lot of time online. Socially, I often preferred to talk to my friends (or at least certain friends) online via AOL Instant Messenger rather than on the phone or in person, despite my mom always telling me to go play outside. Online communication was comfortable to me, and I think it still helped me build friendships and social skills in a more relaxed manner and on my own pace. Later on, I set up a forum for my friends from high school to use. Even though I certainly had many solid in-person friendships at that point, my friends and I still found our forum to be an effective platform for socializing. It ended up being an exciting place to "hang out" together, as we often had conversations that were as close to real-time as possible, despite a forum being a traditionally asynchronous channel. I met a lot of additional friends through the forum as well, as my friends invited their other friends to join. In that sense, it served as a communication platform to talk to people that I otherwise never would have talked to in the first place.

As it started to become easier to create and share personal content online, such as via blogs, my friends and I found it to be a fun way to document and reflect on what we were doing in the real world. After hanging out offline, we would often blog about what we had done, then respond to each other online. Something about being able to tell the world about our experiences was exciting, though I now realize content creation ends up being a lot more public than one ever intends. Myspace and Facebook made it even easier to supplement our in-person interactions with digital conversations.

These days, I don't tend to socialize online as much as I used to. I use Facebook for interacting with the people I know, though whether through Facebook's changes to the Newsfeed or just my own maturation I feel that Facebook offers less and less content of any interesting substance. As such, I use it primarily for sharing events in my life that are more meaningful to my friends than they are to the public or for contacting specific people.

When I want to have more substantive discussions, I find myself turning to Google+, as it's become an excellent platform for discovering interesting strangers. Until recently, I had been sharing a lot of my photography with my Google+ circles, gaining a fairly large following. I enjoyed being able to reach a large audience and have more meaningful conversations by reaching out either to people who were following me or to the public.

The other community I find myself visiting frequently is Reddit, though I've shifted away from its entertaining sections and toward its educational or topical sections. I enjoy that I'm able to read the thoughts of (and even engage with) people who are much more knowledgable than I am in certain areas. As much as I like to learn from online resources, I find it very compelling to be able to hear the varied opinions and viewpoints of a lot of different people.

Finally, one communicative tool that I've enjoyed very much lately is Google Hangouts, their chat platform. My co-workers and I use Hangouts to talk throughout the day as well as to keep in touch in a less real-time basis outside of work. Being able to control exactly who a conversation is with (whether it's a single person or a specific group) and for that conversation to be able to seamlessly transition between synchronous and asynchronous has been very useful.

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