When did the cool kids discover computers?
March 17, 2006 8:42 AM   Subscribe

At what point in time did computers go from being something the nerds used to something all the cool kids used? I'm asking specifically about high school age and below.

I find it fascinating that what was once nerd hobby is now the central hub of communication and entertainment for kids and it seems to me it was a much bigger shift from, say, vinyl to CDs or the rise of VCRs.

When I graduated high school (1987) if you demonstrated any kind of proficiency at computers your reward was an atomic wedgie. When it came out in 8th grade that I got a computer for Christmas (TRS-80 CoCo kicks the C64s ASS!) I got shit for it. Basically, anyone who knew anything was a marked man.

Now, in 2006, my 14 year old nephew, the star athlete in his school, has friends he only knows on-line. He downloads music. He introduced me to Homestar Runner. He had to do some HTML for a school project. He's one of the cool kids. All his friends are the same way.

Rumor has it that computers have even made it easier to get dates, and not in the Virtual Kelly LeBrock way that we used to dream about. For someone my age this is like acne becoming fashionable. I'm not bitter. Bastards.

When did this happen? Was it gradual or did it happen overnight? Was it a certain technology that kicked it off? Obviously, the 'net was the catalyst but what specific use of the 'net? AOL? The discovery that dad's computer was an unlimited free porn machine? Did the alpha-kids suddenly decide computers were cool and the rest of the kids followed or was it just what you knew if you were born after 198x?

What's the line that separates nerdy computer use from normal use these days? Do the nerds all use Linux? Does the definition of a nerd even have anything to do with computers these days?

"Look at poindexter using a command line! What's the matter, dweeb, your alcoholic dad can't afford a GUI?"

I realize the same thing happened in the adult world but a lot of adults had PCs forced on them through work and fitting in is less important than it is when you're in high school, at least the high school I remember.
posted by bondcliff to Society & Culture (55 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I was in high school from 1994-1998. In my experience, when I was a senior it seemed to reach critical mass. All of the popular kids were starting to chat on AIM, and I think a couple had silly Geocities pages up. I even think there was a little writeup in the yearbook about how everyone who was cool chatted online. To me, the takeup seemed quite sudden and really took me by surprise. In college, use was even more prevalent. I'm sure that the rise of MP3s had something to do with this as well.

There still were computer nerds, and I was one of them. We just did nerdier or more obsessive things on our computers like playing lots of games or programming, and, yes, running Linux.
posted by zsazsa at 8:53 AM on March 17, 2006

Yes, my experience as well. I graduated in 99, and right around that time, there was a serious change in the perception of computers. Many people who were not 'normal geeks' were checking out this MP3 business. ICQ was in its explosive growth period. Before, 95-96, computers were still that geeky thing. After, 2000-2001, everyone was hooked up on ICQ, MSN, etc.
posted by clord at 8:59 AM on March 17, 2006

In 1998, my professors at NYU wouldn't use email for anything critical in the class because a decent percentage of students didn't regularly use email.

When I took classes again in 2000, everything was regularly distributed by email. From my perspective, the tipping point for college-aged people happened some time in between there.

Coincidentally or not, I think 2000 is also when people I knew (who were Not Nerds) started using Napster in earnest.
posted by bcwinters at 9:02 AM on March 17, 2006

E-mail went from basically arcanum when I graduated in spring '95 to heroin when I went to college in fall '95. The difference there was that all of our colleges gave us free e-mail addresses and dial-up service. Socially, computer use wasn't a black mark on your social record, although it was mostly aligned with a lot of not-particularly-cool activities, like the school paper, yearbook, programming, etc. But everyone knew about the games on the school's various Mac labs (TRON!) and everyone played them, so computer use was definitely not a counterculture activity then (say, 1992).
posted by blueshammer at 9:03 AM on March 17, 2006

I went to high school 96-99 had AIM and it was not popular at all, it was the cusp... not 1 person put their email / aim in my yearbook.... just phone #'s

My little bro graduated in 2001, I checked out his year book and everyone had an aim / email address in there...

Like everything related to the internet, it seems to change the world overnight
posted by matimer at 9:05 AM on March 17, 2006

posted by fire&wings at 9:05 AM on March 17, 2006

Nerds will always be nerds, computers had little to do with it. It's a larger personality thing. I was the only one with a home computer in my class growing up, but it wasn't an issue, as I was an otherwise "normal" kid. When the less socially-apt kids got computers, it was an easy target for them to be made fun of. It was just something new and weird.

As computers became more prevalent (by the time I was a senior in HS, everyone had one,) there were still "computer geeks" -- owning and using a computer had nothing to do with this title. If they were "weird" or socially awkward, and by chance were taking a computer class or talked about something online, it was just an easy target. I bet these people are still around to this day-- as a matter of fact, I went to a big engineering uni, and although 90% of the class could program, and all the assignments were turned in through a DEC commandline, there were still a group of kids who were somehow different and often made fun of by the frat kids, etc. The computer thing is a just a nice beige projection.
posted by neustile at 9:06 AM on March 17, 2006

Like yourself I graduated high school in 1987 and got my first computer in grade 8. Everybody knew it, and everybody knew I was into computers before I owned one. I wasn't considered unpopular though. I know classmates who were unpopular too though but they'd probably be unpopular now as well. They were derisive of anybody who didn't get computers - kind of like a jock who's derisive of anybody who wasn't good at sports.

I guess the difference was that I never obsessed over my computer, I just used it. I programmed machine code, played games and made games but it wasn't the focal point of my life. I still did things away from the computer (though at the cost of sleep, I'd come home and go at it after supper and often end up going to school without sleep)
posted by substrate at 9:07 AM on March 17, 2006

Of course maybe it's because I had a TI-99/4A, I mean only a dweeb would have a CoCo!
posted by substrate at 9:08 AM on March 17, 2006

I started high school in 1996, which was around the time that many people in my town started subscribing to AOL. (This was suburban Maine). That's when we started emailing and IMing for fun, getting fun facts off the internet, meeting other kids around the country on message boards and such. By the time I entered college in 2000, AIM and Scour/Napster were running rampant and what with suddenly having ethernet instead of AOL, we were on our computers almost 24/7. Personally, I think AOL was what done it. (At the time) a family-friendly ISP with easy-to-use email and IM applications.

Of course, that's not to say I'm not a nerd. But I'm not the kind of nerd that, like, understands computer programming.
posted by lampoil at 9:09 AM on March 17, 2006

I graduated from high school (in suburban NJ if that matters) in 1997. A little before that time I was the first one among my friends to 'surf the web' and encode my own mp3s. People were just starting to use email regularly.

I think 1999-2000 was when Napster exploded at my college campus, but my friends and I had been using scour and FTP before that.
posted by driveler at 9:10 AM on March 17, 2006

I was in high school from '93-'97, and the shift for us was in about '95-'96, when there were suddenly laptops for everyone taking one of the required science classes (which was a new program, and I was still on the old one). That trickled into other classes as well, and suddenly the internet was there for homework, etc. And since everyone in that class had a computer, they all got into games and whatnot.
posted by klangklangston at 9:11 AM on March 17, 2006

Between 1989 and 1991, having a personal computer at boarding school was relatively uncommon still, but the students who did were often sought out socially to play Dragon's Lair or Leisure Suit Larry. On the other hand, those of us who were doing anything considered slightly nerdy were significantly lower on the social ladder.

While the internet was first getting it's commerical legs, 1993/4 or so, those of us doing anything technical with computers were still social outsiders. The lab at UMass was something of a dungeon with some of the more hideous creatures on campus.

My guess is that the transition to popular usage in high school has been aided by instant messaging, the popularity of cell phones, and the dramatic drop in the cost of owning a computer. I remember selling 486 DX 4/100 for $3,000. Today, you can get a computer for $300.

In other words, I think the transition closely models the move from niche market to commodity combined with the bubble economy. I remember people with MBAs and no computer experience working for start ups thinking they were going to be millionaires and pioneers of computer technology. The same people in earlier years considered me a geek for my computer usage, professional and otherwise.

And Napster. How can we forget Napster? The P2P program, not the ITMS killer.
posted by sequential at 9:13 AM on March 17, 2006

Oh, and before getting our first Windows 95 machine, I did grow up with a home computer, which my dad used for work and I only used for word processing, games and other such things. I'm not sure what it was...a Compaq with a color screen and an operating system more like those I saw on the little apples they had us playing Oregon Trail on at school, but more advanced. No mouse or anything.
posted by lampoil at 9:14 AM on March 17, 2006

I graduated in 1986 - I recall being in a class of only two students (in a school of 1,400) taking programming courses, including machine language for Apple II computers. And the two of us had to flip a coin to see who got the color monitor. I was a complete nerd - but the other guy was actually a cool kid (jock, socialite, nice guy). But I suppose that's too small of a sampling to answer your question.
posted by kokogiak at 9:18 AM on March 17, 2006

12th of January 1992 in Urbana, Illinois.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:19 AM on March 17, 2006

I'm with the mid-90's crowd. Windows 95 and AOL really brought the PC into every household. Porn helped a lot too. It was about that time that every advertisement in every magazine for every product started to show a web address, now they don't even have to bother.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:19 AM on March 17, 2006

I graduated in 1991, and computers were nerd toys then.

Around 1995-6, I started seeing things like Hackers (blech!) or Johnny Mnemonic that showed computer kids as cool in a contemporary or almost contemporary setting. In 1996, I ran into more than one (alleged) teenage girl online trolling for dates/contacts. In 1996, I also began to run into people that were using the 'net and computers in a fundamentally non-geeky, non-utilitarian way, as a social tool. Totally not computer geeks.

In 1996, at college, they had a section on using the web and email in a comp. class. In 2002, it was pretty much accepted that you did everything with the computer.

The internet and world wide web were the catalysts. It began mid 90s, and really reached the tipping point around 1999-2000, I think.
posted by teece at 9:22 AM on March 17, 2006

Nerds will always be nerds, computers had little to do with it. It's a larger personality thing.

I totally agree with that, and I would have been a nerd either way. Still though, computers were considered something only nerds used. Some jocks (and even a couple of us nerds) smoked pot, but pot was still looked at as something only the stoners did.
posted by bondcliff at 9:25 AM on March 17, 2006

I agree too. So the most interesting part of the question that hasn't been answered is: what are the identifying signs of a modern-day high school nerd, if computer use is no longer the dividing line?
posted by johngoren at 9:35 AM on March 17, 2006

It definitely shifted between the spring and fall of 1995 (between my graduation from high school and matriculation into college), and I don't think that it was *just* my change of environment. Email took off, as did AOL chat and IRC.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:35 AM on March 17, 2006

Wow, y'all are so young.

When I was in HS in the very early 80s, the only people who used the TRS-80s and Apple IIs were us dorks.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:39 AM on March 17, 2006

So the most interesting part of the question that hasn't been answered is: what are the identifying signs of a modern-day high school nerd, if computer use is no longer the dividing line?

My point was that the computer never was the dividing line. Maybe an effect of being socially awkward was liking computers-- but it certainly wasn't the cause. Owning a computer in 1984 did not cause kids to make fun of you, no matter what the observed correlation was.
posted by neustile at 9:45 AM on March 17, 2006

I blame Napster, free music made computers cool....

just ask my$pace about that
posted by matimer at 9:48 AM on March 17, 2006

To answer the sub-"Tipping Point" question, check out this set of sales charts. Not sure of the provenance or sources, but 1993 looks like a good time to say.
posted by neustile at 9:48 AM on March 17, 2006

In the early 90s, thanks in no small part to Al Gore (yes, I'm serious), Internet access, which had once been limited to science faculty and grad students, was made available to pretty much every undergraduate at every 4 year institution in the US who could be bothered to write a grant application. Before too long, many of them were taking advantage of it.

I don't quite know how that worked out for HS students, but I'd guess that by '95 or so, the change was well under way for that age group.
posted by Good Brain at 9:54 AM on March 17, 2006

My point was that the computer never was the dividing line. Maybe an effect of being socially awkward was liking computers-- but it certainly wasn't the cause.

Maybe not. So what are the new effects of being socially awkward?
posted by johngoren at 9:57 AM on March 17, 2006

Off topic, but I couldn't resist.
I started seeing things like Hackers (blech!) or Johnny Mnemonic
What kind of nerd will say blech! to Angelina Jolie while letting Keanu Reeves escape without letting people know that his participation automatically includes the movie on the list of Worst. Movies. Evar.

I hereby revoke one geek point. :-P

As far as 1993 being the tipping point, I'm going to disagree, having been in computer sales at that time. Windows 3.1. Enough said.
posted by sequential at 9:57 AM on March 17, 2006

I'd say the 'killer app' for teenagers was Napster, followed closely by AIM.
posted by empath at 9:58 AM on March 17, 2006

So what are the new effects of being socially awkward?

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posted by neustile at 10:00 AM on March 17, 2006

In winter 1996, MTV had a show on called "Yack Live," a pre-cursor to TRL. It was an afternoon (after school) video hits show that split the screen and broadcast a scroll of selected AOL chat comments about the video that was playing. Most of the participants were young high school kids.
posted by xo at 10:02 AM on March 17, 2006

In Michigan it seems to have been around 97 or 98. I was using AIM to chat with the boy I liked (though admittedly, he was a computer nerd, and I might have been sucked in for that reason). I then brought a lot of my friends into the fold by showing them how to set up yahoo email accounts and to use AOL for better things than just chatting (I cringe at the thought that I ever used aol).

When I went to college in 1998 email was everywhere and it was great.

But then in 2003 I worked at a university and, for students and faculty, email was barely present at all.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 10:15 AM on March 17, 2006

I worked at a public high school doing technology work in 1997 and 1998, and it was just starting at that point... the cool geeks (journalism students come to mind) were getting into doing things online.
posted by jeversol at 10:22 AM on March 17, 2006

Nobody's mentioned Mosaic and the World Wide Web? (Again, mid-1990s.)
posted by russilwvong at 10:27 AM on March 17, 2006

Your experience is very different from mine, bondcliff.

I graduated from high school in 1988. Lots of kids, I'd guess well over half, used computers for word-processing and the like. Were they computer hobbyists? No. But they could presumably start a PC, navigate a directory structure in DOS, and use a fairly complex piece of software. Nobody seemed to give a crap, and it wasn't fodder for teasing or abuse. Even people taking a pascal class in HS were not singled out for abuse.

And this at a boring normal HS in north FL.

When I started at Virginia that fall, there were PCs on more desks than not. Again, most of these people were not hobbyists.

I didn't make any particular use of email etc until grad school though.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:39 AM on March 17, 2006

1) Napster
2) Free porn
3) AIM

I'd say all these things really started peaking in 1998. I had just started high school, and don't remember even using ICQ until high school.

That's my answer: 1998.
posted by ruwan at 10:41 AM on March 17, 2006

I'd say about 1998 as well. I graduated in 1997, and that year they were finally starting to let students actually use the Internet at my school.
posted by neckro23 at 10:50 AM on March 17, 2006

I submit for comment that the rise in 'coolness' was directly tied to the moment 56k dialup was superceded.

Teenagers spend a lot of time dealing with bored, nervous energy, and - optionally - being/feeling alone. Once there was a way to channel these factors into the intarweb in a way that is:

a) independent of the home phone line usage
b) fast enough to entertain your average teenager
c) actually a method of crowd interaction, as opposed to one-person-at-a-time BBS's

.. then you have a winner. This can also be viewed as an enabling factor to the AIM/Napster/Porn comments above.
posted by bhance at 10:59 AM on March 17, 2006

I started learning AppleBasic (hooray for my first programming language) when I was in 4th/5th grade, using an Apple ][ that my parents borrowed from school for the summer. Could not get enough. I was a geek.

Shortly thereafter, I started going to a school that offered a Computers class. I was promptly turned off by the fact that this class was really "Learn to type using a computer" and taught us nothing about what a computer could do.

In 7th grade I took a second Computers class. This was taught by a moron who insisted upon calling it a "floppy diskette" and corrected us every time we tried to say "disk" (As if saying "car" instead of "automobile" was wrong... dick). Again, turned off by the experience.

In high school we got our own ][e. Used it to play some simple games, some simple programming, wrote all of my term papers. I was a happy geek again.

When I started college in '92 they handed us our own email. I remember things getting interesting when other kids in the dorms started poking around on alt.binaries... downloading porn, one line at a time. I screwed around on a BBS system I discovered, hooray for my first online community webbish-thingy. Logging on using a NextStep in the math building, 'cause those black boxes were the shit.

In '95 we all got our own web space. I still use that same web space, on my University server, for my page. For me that was when it took off - one minute I'm writing HTML by hand in a text editor, the next minute my friends are onlne for days downloading software isos and then we all got broadband, discovered scour.net and Napster... etc. etc.

So my take on it? It changed when the schools started using computers for something useful, and it changed when the students discovered that these "geek toys" could be used for some fun stuff, like DOOM and free music and naked chicks.

These days it's also useful to remember that computers are now ubiquitous, and it's currently cool to tell people what a geek you used to be back in the day. Some of us can back that statement up, others were really cool kids who pretend they were uncool in high school. I wasn't as geeky as some, but I had my moments...
posted by caution live frogs at 10:59 AM on March 17, 2006

I got one thought for all you foo's: widely available broadband access.

when did this become available in most major metro areas? ohhh... right around the 1998-1999 timeframe.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:07 AM on March 17, 2006

damn bhance beat me to it!
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:08 AM on March 17, 2006

misanthropicsarah wrote: "In Michigan it seems to have been around 97 or 98"

Um... no. In 97/98 everyone coming in to the Michigan universities already had their own email. For those of us who started 5-6 years earlier, we didn't know what email was until we hit college. You were riding the wave just after it broke. I was just early enough to see it happen in college. I think 94-95 is a better estimate.

posted by caution live frogs at 11:09 AM on March 17, 2006

It's not that computers just spontaneously became "cool", it's that computers started being able to do more social things. The "noobs" aren't doing Unix hacking and cryptographic analysis: they're emailing, chatting, looking up movie showtimes, listening to music, looking at naked people, posting pictures of naked people, etc.

That combined with a generation that grew up with video games means that computer usage is no longer stigmatized.
posted by BaxterG4 at 11:30 AM on March 17, 2006

I was at University of Michigan from 94-98. Email was just geting started as a means of sending course work, and by the time I graduated it was pretty commonplace.

I remember around '95-'96 a huge mess on a UofM art history mailing list, because none of the idiots new how to control the order of a mailing list. This generated people bitching about spamming the list, followed by people bitching about the people bitching, then people bitching about those people, ad nauseum and I got about 300 emails in less than a month. I think that is a pretty good indication that they were not yet very internet-savvy..

I also worked in the libraries as an undergrad, and I distinctly remember the first time I noticed cool "hip-hop" kids hanging out at the library computers on a friday or saturday night instead of going out. This was when they all learned how to use napster, must have been around '98 - '99.
posted by p3t3 at 11:54 AM on March 17, 2006

I'm not sure I understand the question. ALL the totally cool kids got Apple ]['s in 1978, played Zork in 1980, started messaging on and downloading files from BBSs in 1981, and emailing intergalactically over Fidonet in 1984. The most particularly ubercool kids switched to i386 Unix in 1986 and started exchanging news and mail via uucp. (Some of the slower learners got Macs--The Computer For The Rest Of Them--about that time, but that idea went nowhere and we never heard from those guys again.)
posted by jfuller at 12:10 PM on March 17, 2006

It's not that computers just spontaneously became "cool", it's that computers started being able to do more social things.

Yeah, this was going to be my point too.

'Nerd': poor social skills, quiet, shy, willing to spend hours of free time alone typing in pages of BASIC code from 101 BASIC Computer Games

'Cool Kid': good social skills, popular, outgoing, willing to spend hours of free time hanging out in Yahoo! chat rooms

You can still use computers for solitary activities (*cough*), but they have also evolved to very efficiently serve the needs of more social types, especially the young folks.

/old timer
posted by Otis at 12:19 PM on March 17, 2006

Shall we draw straws to see who gets to tell jfuller he was a nerd? :-)
posted by bondcliff at 12:22 PM on March 17, 2006

It was my impression that by '98 or so, many or most high-school kids had access to a computer and used AIM and Napster. I don't think this was necessarily connected with broadband though (which was not widely available in many cities at that point.) People on dialup were willing to stay logged in for long periods of time to download songs. A year or two before that, I can't recall many people besides the geeks doing anything computer-related. A year or two after, instant messaging and email were integral parts of socializing.
posted by ubersturm at 12:23 PM on March 17, 2006

If you want some backgrounders on the nerds who were thinking a lot of this stuff up, I'd suggest Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet by Stephen Segaller.

And for a personal perspective, when I started using computers it was because my dad would bring them home from work and if we were lucky we'd get to play with them before he'd take them apart and they wouldn't work right ever again. When I was in high school 82-86, we had a VAX (we were right up the street from DEC and it must have been a big tax write off for them) which I learned to use for email, and when I hung out in the computer room, I was the only girl EVER and also the only one who wasn't typically classified as a nerd, I was more of an art fag or something. When my candid photograph in the yearbook was of me in the computer lab, I was a marked gal.

Now it seems that nerds are the ones who can fix your computers, in a world where practically everyone has one. Nerds are the ones who interact with their computers, instead of only using their computers as a conduit to get to other humans, and shopping for goods and services.
posted by jessamyn at 12:30 PM on March 17, 2006

1999-2001. I saw it happen. Napster was the ice-breaker
posted by petsounds at 1:42 PM on March 17, 2006

In the UK early 80s computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum and the BBC models from Acorn deserve a little credit for starting to bridge the gap between out and out geekiness and the mainstream: you buy one relatively inexpensively and play games on it rather than necessarily having to solder the components together and interact only through machine code.

The Apple Mac must deserve a some credit for bringing in musicians, graphic designers and others who did not grow up in a computer lab and could possibly even score a date or two.

A third, glib, answer is "when girls got online" -the ability to send email to colleagues on the other side of the world - or office - with Microsoft Mail in about 1992 for example.
posted by rongorongo at 3:20 PM on March 17, 2006

I remember teaching a class in our company's CMS in maybe 1999 or 2000.

Most of the participants were young women in their 20s in jobs like assistant or secretary, and I remember being amazed: just about all of them knew and used Napster, which was something I thought only nerds and geeks knew about.

Something about getting an unlimited supply of free music appealed to them in some way that all other internet use didn't. They even had the very clear sense that one should hurry up and download everything from Napster that one could, because it was too good to be true and would be legally shut down.

Anyone who'd heard them talking would have got a very strong "hurry up and get online" message.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:21 PM on March 17, 2006

In 1998, Texas high schools were required to offer technology classes. I began teaching mulitimedia in 98. About 1/3 of my students had computers at home. I taught multimedia until 2001 when at least half of my students had a computer at home. I was the computer club sponsor. They were all boys and they were nerds. When I returned in 2004 to teach, most of my students have at least one computer at home. I am a club sponsor again and half of the members are girls. These kids are not what you would consider nerds.
posted by nimsey lou at 3:38 PM on March 17, 2006

Computers got much cheaper. They got a whole lot easier to use. The number of tasks they could perform started to increase rapidly, such as sound/mp3 and video. Storage became abundant. Games became visually compelling. Internet access became cheaper and faster, and due to the network effect the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

Combine all these things and at some point you just wake up one day and realize that what used to be obscure and marginalized has become the mainstream. I'm sure the very first people to own cars -- back when the pitiful engine could only propel you at 5 MPH and you'd get stuck in mud regularly because there were no roads and you had to crank the engine yourself -- saw the same transformation from obscure hobby to essential part of life for everyone.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:21 AM on March 18, 2006

I sensed the tide had turned in 1998.
That year I remember noticably different reactions from people upon finding out I did stuff with computers and the Internet. Obviously the driving force was the dot-com boom, and all the money behind it. Anything becomes respectable, or even admirable when it produces wealth(i.e., Bill Gates).

Until around 1998 the extent of the average person's experience with computers was exposure to socially inept computer nerds. After 98' the common experience became awareness of the vast amounts of wealth involved in computer technology.
posted by archae at 7:35 PM on March 19, 2006

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