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What has the Web ever done for us?

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Maggie Philbin | 09:40 UK time, Wednesday, 14 October 2009

(Maggie Philbin has worked on a wide range of science, medical and technology programmes, but has deep affection for  Tomorrow's World, where she demonstrated the first  commercial fax machine, the first digital camera, the first car navigation system , even the first supermarket bar code reader. The web featured on the show in 1994 but, she says, few appreciated then just what that technology would mean.  She has a keen interest in  social media and you'll find her on Twitter as @maggiephilbin. The following post is published with kind permission and represents Maggie's views; this does not necessarily reflect the views of the BBC or the Digital Revolution production.)

I never imagined the power of the web. In the nineties I surfed the web for hours simply because I could, bought books and music and felt proud of my seventy year old Dad booking flights and ferry tickets and emailing the pen friend he'd had since before the war.

For me, the web had its greatest moment when it saved my Dad's life. When he blacked out and drove his car into a ditch, my sister and I, alarmed by the hospital's decision to send him home without treatment, went straight on the web. So, we 'knew ' he had a heart condition, that blackouts would recur, fatal if ignored, but that there was a good prognosis with a pacemaker. We made sure he was never left alone and Mum knew to call an ambulance instantly. Three days later that ambulance was called, he had emergency surgery, got his pacemaker and is still going strong. And yes, I know the web has also spawned hypochondria and that medics find our amateur diagnostics infuriating. But hey, it saved my Dad.

We all have our own stories of how access to the right information at the right time made a real difference.

The power of the web now lies in its conversations. Twitter allows you to tell me about your life in Iran, the plane landing on the river outside your office or your row with the gas board. We talk - others eavesdrop. The successful petition for an apology to Alan Turing was amplified across social networks. "Chat" on Twitter about the neglected WW2 veterans and buildings of Bletchley Park has also led to curiosity about their work and a significant increase in visitor numbers. It may even have played a part in their successful application for £450,000 of lottery funding. You'll have more examples.

I can talk to government minsters, to scientists I admire and to witty strangers. My interest is technology and I know my peripheral knowledge has improved. The same would apply if I were a beekeeper, a footballer or a cardiac surgeon. If we choose we can be more aware.

That also applies to modern business practice.

If you're an airline whose baggage handlers damaged a guitar and most significantly were slow to offer compensation, then I can enjoy imagining you squirm at the song up on You Tube. It had 2,000 views when I first saw it. I've just checked and it now has 5,709,097.

Many of my virtual connections have become real life ones, professionally and socially. I've found collaborators for work projects and people who share my passion for food and film.
My generation grew up in an era where most conversations were one-to-one and private. Some conversations are now one -to -many and even one to one conversations are public. My daughter is 21 and she's grown up communicating as a group. Only time will tell how this will really affect her way of thinking.

So what's the most significant thing the web has done for you?


  • Comment number 1.

    Simple really - it helped me find the love of my life.
    Almost four years ago I joined a Japanese penpal website and became friends with a wonderful woman six thousand miles away. Fortunately I knew the culture well and had no trouble in conversing.
    We e-mailed, 'Skyped' and 'webcammed' for just over a year before she came to the UK for a short holiday in December 2006.
    Last year we married in Japan, had a blessing in England and we now live happily together on the Essex-Suffolk border.
    That's what the web has done for me.

  • Comment number 2.

    The internet has given us Google which is used daily in this household as there is always some question that needs an answer or some information that needs finding.

  • Comment number 3.

    My first encounter with computer networking and work was with the OU as a PGCE student- something called First Choice ( I think). The OU did a programme and I met Maggie Philbin fleetingly on that.

    That was useful to compare the trials and tribulations in learning to teach, and also to pass on tips.

    Since becoming a writer I've found work on the web, by joining various networks - and since the employers I've found have been on the other side of the world I've used the web for my work too. I've taken part in brainstorming, discussions...and then my work gets to them as quickly as if I were in the next door office. And it's all without moving from my desk!

    It's also a generally useful tool for publicity - and last but not least making friends. Since a writer's job is a lonely one I think it helps preserve my sanity.

  • Comment number 4.

    The most significant and life-changing thing I have gained from the web is some lovely friends, mostly through Facebook, in addition to my friends gained from "real life". Some of them I haven't met yet, but some I have, and they were just as lovely in person as online. If one lives far away from one's family & old friends, the web is a lovely way of having more contact with people than one would otherwise have.

    As well as that, it is wonderful to be able to access information about any subject. It has proven to be invaluable regarding health issues, and in particular my 2 pregnancies, to see what is "normal" and what isn't, and to go on forums and see what experiences other fellow pregnant ladies were going through, so that I was reassured. Of course one can come across "alarmist" stories too, and one needs to use one's judgement, but all in all if one is wise, it's a positive thing.

    I love the idea that no matter what or whom one is interested in, one can, with a click, find out almost any info one wants. If there is a now obscure song one hasn't heard in years, it'll be on the web. One can indulge one's interests, watch old TV clips (I'm a great one for nostalgia), or anything basically that one wants.

    Booking holidays, flights, and basically anything one wants, is also easier, and there is more choice, thanks to the web.

    The web can be used for good or for bad, but its positive aspects far outweigh the negative ones. In my opinion it's the best ever invention of modern times because it has made such a difference to people's lives.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is really a rather ridiculous memory that shows how quickly technology has changed how we do things. I worked for a computer maintenance company in 1990 and overheard the MD talking about 'electronic mail' and how we'd all be using it soon. I imagined it was some kind of automated trolley system to take letters and envelopes around the building for easy distribution, rather like the old money transfer pots whizzing overhead through shops on wires. (Anyone remember that?)
    Now I have a website, blog, Twitter, order online and regularly browse for info, the Internet always the first port of call with a query. And as for 'electronic mail' how would we SURVIVE without it, particularly for sending attachments?

  • Comment number 7.

    Like Mersonwastheperson, the web enabled me to meet a wonderful woman thousands of miles away, whom I may never have met otherwise.

    Eventually I moved to her home country, the United States, and married her. We're now heading strong towards our 13th anniversary and have 3 children.

    Late in 2007 I moved back to Europe (UK) whilst she and the children (temporarily) remain in the US for various reasons. Although it does not make up for being able to physically hold your loved ones, thanks to the advent of high-quality video chatting, low cost VoIP services and instant messaging the '3000 mile remote relationship' is a little more tolerable.

    Indeed, the web has done many things for me, but this would certainly be the most significant one: a family.

  • Comment number 8.

    What amazes me about the web is the amount of coincidence it can spawn... for instance, I wrote an article on the English Wikipedia about the Israeli sport matkot. This was when Wikipedia was a little less strict about its terminology and sources than it is now and I offhandedly referred to it as "Israel's unofficial national sport."

    ...a year later, I read in the Jerusalem Post an article about matkot, which quoted Wikipedia... as saying that matkot was Israel's unofficial national sport.

    But how about this one? You already know this one, of course - a few years back in my salad days I was working as a call-centre technical support type. I helped your sister solve a problem (I'm a BIG customer service person), and she wrote a letter of thanks.... then a few months I ran into her entirely coincidentally on Twitter - and she remembered me. Interesting coincidence, no?

    The internet has brought amongst its many joys a small but pleasing effect to all of us - serendipity.

  • Comment number 9.

    Having used Prestel and the internet as it emerged in the late 80's, I could see immediately how it could grow and as it has, so has my use of it. The Web has been a part of my day to day life so has done a lot for me.
    We do virtually everything administratively online, apart from physically putting petrol in the family car or paying the window cleaner. For example it takes just 5 clicks of the mouse to pay for your car tax disk ~ why generate travel costs or waste time in a queue at the post office when you can do it almost instantly online?
    Social networking has been a great part to using the internet, keeping in touch with family and friends.
    However it is the internets resourcefulness in holding information like a giant database. You can find out just about anything and access information that previously would never have been made widely and almost instantly available. You can be as informed as you care to be.
    Maggie Philbin's reference to her fathers health issues is a shining example of how the internet can be life saving. Much support for people suffering illnesses can be found and where correctly moderated helpful and supportive.
    Security, administration, moderation of the internet and websites remain areas of concern to me. I have already fallen prey to online frauds and while compensated by vigilant banks etc it could have been much worse.
    I can't impress enough about the need to have the best antiviral and malware software you can afford. Remember when you interact with others online you are not really 'seeing' them behind the screen, unless they are family and friends that you actually know. The media regularly reports about the darker side of internet use and dangers of predators or stalkers. Like any other 'tool' it needs to be used with caution.
    That said, my life would be very different without the internet.

  • Comment number 10.

    Yippee! We have a 50-50 representation of male & female perspectives on personal web experiences on this post, :*).

    I'll write mine later and it echos the comments so far.

  • Comment number 11.

    The web has enabled us to keep up with technological developments in farming, has helped us to diversify into contracting and waste management, helping other farmers comply with defra regulations. It enables us to access the CTS online database for animal movements - if you leave it to snail mail your passport applications can be rejected. My heart goes out to all the farmers who have to travel to libraries in cities to use the internet because they have no internet access at home. When the mail strike happens they will use valuable time and petrol, increasing their carbon footprint because the incumbent telco thinks dial up is good enough and won't supply broadband cos they ain't worth it.
    What a lot the rural people are missing...
    ...so much for a digital britain, when a telco throttles and holds a country to ransom to protect an obsolete Victorian copper network. Tomorrows world will see fibre to every home. Once someone with some guts takes on the copper cabal.

  • Comment number 12.

    It would probably be easier to answer what has the web NOT done for me :) Much of my current life has been shaped by the Internet and the web.
    I met my husband on the Internet back in 1992. We will have been married 15 years in December. There was a Mac Powerbook 16oo at our wedding logged on to a MUD where family and friends who could not attend the wedding were hanging out to attend virtually.
    Shortly after marrying we started an Internet company to bring dial up service to our small rural town in Virgina. For several years it provided the only Internet access in the town and kick started several businesses that have gone on to great success with their Internet ventures.
    I now work as a Web Technology Coordinator at the local University and also design websites in my spare time. I keep in touch with my family back home in the UK via the Internet. I am in touch with friends I would probably have never heard from again through sites like Facebook. I network for my job online through Twitter (as well as following @maggiephilbin :)
    I find it fascinating to watch my son grow up never knowing a world without the Internet. At 6 years old he "Skypes" with my parents and IMs to his father and me. Yes, we use IM like a home intercom :) When I take a photograph of him with my Blackberry he always asks if I am going to upload it to Facebook.
    I continue to keep up with the wonderful programming back in the UK via the Internet and can keep up to date on the latest news in my hometown back in Scotland. When my son asks a question I can't answer I have the world at my fingertips to research and find a comprehensive answer.
    I wouldn't swap this time I live in for any other that has gone before. I am thankful for having grown up watching Maggie Philbin and Judith Hann on Tomorrow's World. Their ability to present science and technology as women was never a question and so I never questioned my ability to grow up to be a geek and an engineer.

  • Comment number 13.

    @APNAB 'Yippee! We have a 50-50 representation of male & female perspectives on personal web experiences on this post, :*).' :D I knew we'd get there in the end! (Although I may have just tipped the balance by commenting...)

    @cyberdoyle - your comment is particularly interesting re the Digital Divide widening for rural communities. Did you see @EnglishFolkFan's comment about the online Ukrainian farmers' story?

    My personal what has the web done for me? The obvious one is that it has provided me with more than a job - a career. Having done a lot of jobs to get here, I find this medium (and its users) fascinating, empowering, enlightening and so rich in creative potential, that I am delighted to have found an active role in it.

    (I also love being able to watch movie trailers and find recipes whenever I like!)

  • Comment number 14.

    I know I did manage without the web but I truly can't remember how! I first realised how useful a tool it was when my Mum was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. I joined a support forum and the ability to communicate with people who were in similar situations really helped me through the worst times. The fact that the support was "virtual" was, for me, an advantage. I felt I could share my fears and worries with people who really understood the devastation that this ghastly illness causes to families - and it also meant that I didn't have to offload on my real-life friends as I truly didn't want to be a burden to them. On a lighter note, I have made some wonderful "virtual" friends (and some, now, in real life) since joining Twitter and have started my own blog which is frightening at times but allows me to do what I've always wanted to do - and that's "write". Of course, the web is an awful time-waster too ... but, hey, the ironing can wait!

  • Comment number 15.

    It will be 2010 and the documentary will already be showing if I list everything the Web has done for me so I'll just keep it short, :*).

    (1.) Educational --- it opened up a world of literature and critical commentary not found in Cliff Notes or my immediate circle of teachers. Ditto for science, humanities, arts, design etc.

    (2.) Career --- in a dotcom, as a tech investor, as editor of an online news service, as a blogger, as an applications developer.

    (3.) Social --- Tim Berners-Lee is right, the Web is "humanity connected". The good people I've encountered online are remarkable: intelligent, open-minded, democratic, collaborative, loyal, witty, genuine, concerned about others, helpful and tolerant.

    They more than compensate for the bad experiences (trolls, flames, spams and myopic dogma).

    (4.) Personal --- when my father slipped into a coma I Googled and pored over everything I could so that when the doctors spoke to our family, I knew what to expect and what to ask (because I'd read it on a forum where others had shared their experiences).

    No one in our immediate circle or neighbors had that experience. I went online and I found it in virtual neighbors in other streets, in other cities, in other countries. That provided some reassurance and comfort.

    (5.) Philosophical --- the Web continuously and consistently challenges my constructs: about people, about our content, about technology, about economic systems, about ecosystems, about anything and everything really......even about what online consciousness is.

    Then there's also the cool stuff like some MMORG games, silly ROTFLOL videos on YouTube, phenomenal artwork on deviantART, DIY "build your own space rocket" guides, 'Can I haz a cheeseburger' pictures of too-cool-for-cats-school moggies.

    Unlike some other commentators here there is one thing I haven't found or gone looking for on the Web: love. It's good to know that it's happened via the Web medium for some.

    @Dan Biddle --- male to female ratio has passed the tipping point over to Venus by now, ha ha!

  • Comment number 16.

    Some fantastic comments. There is some confusion though between the Internet and the web. They are two different entities. The Internet is the computer network and the web is an application on that network. Think of it as a road (the internet) and a vehicle (web). There can be many different types of vehicle using the same road, the same is true of the Internet.

    Anyway, there are probably three things that I have gained from the web.

    1) A career opportunity - much of my working life has been in technology, most recently website development. Obviously the web has opened up a whole new platform to be developed and people requiring training. Not only that, one that continues to evolve and grow, which I can only hope my career does.

    2) Easier access to family history records - I have been researching my family history for a while, but before the web, this required a trip to record offices which was both time consuming and expensive. Having the documents online makes it cheaper and faster but also the ability to share and conenct with others.

    3) On the negative side, and I know this is debatable, but I have seen over the last 6 years or so, students plagarising content from the web for use in their own work. A loss in the ability to use printed materials, to check multiple resources and even the ability to analyse and take on board new content. How this is overcome is another subject altogether...


  • Comment number 17.

    I owe a lot to the internet as without it I would not have been able to set up my web business. This has given me a flexible career after my daughter was born and I now employ 10 other mums so they can do the same. I've also done many things I couldn't have even have dreamed off including being on the front of The Times and winning several awards.

    After having my baby 5 years ago my employer wouldn't even discuss a more flexible return to work, it was a very low time for me but it did given me the boost to make my own flexible career. I set up my first website based on my own need to find activities for my baby with just £150. 2 years later the website was national and then I launched the second website for school children, quickly followed by my third for children's parties.

    This year I bought an established website offering flexible jobs for parents as it's so much at the heart of what I do.

    My websites now attract over 40,000 visitors a month. It's just amazing to think how much we have grown in less than 4 years.

    We also have an established awards scheme to recognise the best activities for children across the UK, this year there were over 14,000 on-line votes! In 2010 we have Prima Baby magazine as our partner and Mister Maker presenting our awards.

    Without the Internet I could never have set up the business so quickly or cheaply or have worked so easily from home. It's still not an easy option as even an internet business needs a good product, marketing, team etc but it does open many doors for many more people.

  • Comment number 18.

    Having access at home to the internet has changed my life - and definitely saved me money. Being retired this is an immediate advantage.
    Changing my life? Well I was adopted in 1945 and taken from my natural mother at 3 days old. I have always known this and my adoptive mother had kept a newscutting of my naural mother's wedding. From this I had her name and that of her immediate family as well as her husbands. Just with this minimal information within 10 days of entering the details on a family tree website I received an email from the first wife of my half brother. From this I have now met my 2 half brothers and their families and have been welcomed into their world without reservation. Unfortunately my natural mother has died but I found that she had the same birth date as myself so can comfort myself with knowing she could never forget me. Also she was asking for me on her deathbed - but the family only found out the truth about me after her funeral through her sister-in-law who had been in the Wrens with her and had even met my natural father - a Dutch naval officer!! All normal channels to track down my mother had failed.
    For me personally the internet is an incredible tool to use. However as use increases unfortunately so does misuse so the onus now I feel is not simply using the facilities to the full without question but having the knowledge to know how to use the internet safely.

  • Comment number 19.

    Just a quick note to say many thanks to you all for sharing your thoughts and experiences of the web - the positive tales as well as the reservations you may have.

    In the midst of the theory and debate, this blog post is proving an oasis of human stories in the online space. Much appreciated.

  • Comment number 20.

    the internet is a waste of time, money, electricity- 10% of all electricity is used to power servers and screens. It has allowed Nigerian scammers and fraudsters to relieve gullible people of their money. It has encouraged millions of teenage girls to become porn stars. It has enabled people of very little talent to self advertise. It has robbed companies of work time- it has caused people to lose their jobs- break up families and get divorced. Libraries provide reference books - just because it is on Google does not make it true. Twitter is a gossipy waste of time- Facebook/MySpace provides opportunities for paedophiles- dating sites are a paedos guide to single Mums. Just because Amazon sends out books faster and cheaper does not make it a success while the rest of society is recycling like crazy. It is yet another way to relieve sheep of their money without thought. Using Mobile phones, i-pods while driving are yet another example of how stupid people are and how the education system continues to fail young people. Advertisers are without any shame when lying to the public whether on TV or the internet. Read the small print people before it gets any smaller! As the economy continues to slow down guess what will not get paid for and used?

  • Comment number 21.

    The comment (20) by Frank Kydd (20) intrigues me; as does the panic I feel when I’m ‘disconnected’. I suspect Mr Kydd and myself are at opposite ends of an Internet users continuum (although for someone denying its value Mr Kydd seems well informed of its content). I agree with lbyrne74 (4) ‘The web can be used for good or for bad, but its positive aspects far outweigh the negative ones’ and libbyextra (9) ‘Like any other 'tool' it needs to be used with caution’. Overall the Internet gives me access to information and enables me to communicate on topics of mutual interest with strangers; the ability to do both needs to be handled with care. With access comes responsibility. My main concern is what the internet ‘could’ do were it more accessible to those needing assistive technology to do what most of us are increasingly taking for granted. The best thing about the internet is that it gives people a voice. Hopefully the BBC will look at not just how the Internet is changing our lives but work towards enabling greater participation so everyone can answer the question ‘What has the web ever done for us?’

  • Comment number 22.

    I first connected to the Internet when I was in the house a lot with a child who was too ill to go to school. In those days it was dial up and I found the whole thing of connecting very exciting (I was quite lonely at the time!) I found discussion boards and email very liberating and even before social networking sites had evolved I found I kept in touch with more people and also made friends. There's one person I've kept in touch with since sending her a private message about something she posted on a forum, I think we may have met face to face less than ten times but we do talk about just about anything via facebook & skype.

    I'm also a 'web pastor', running an online Christian community, and have seen through this how people living in different places can form communities of interest.

    It can feel as if 'the Internet' is huge but actually it seems to me to be largely about forming interconnected communities.

    I'm on of four dispersed siblings and I'm sure facebook keeps us in touch much more than phone calls would. The Internet works in a different way - you don't both have to be communicating at the same time for interaction to take place.

  • Comment number 23.

    I look after my wife who has serious health problems, the Net has made life much easier for me, from being able to order medical prescriptions quickly and easily from the local GP, to being able to contact her specialist when there is a problem equally quickly.

    I am also able to keep in touch with many friends on the Net from day to day, and keep up with my various interests and hobbies.

    Regards John.


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