When the internet was fairly new, you needed to find an internet service provider called an ISP to connect you to the internet. In the early 90s, the main provider was a US company called Compuserve. I paid a joining fee and each time I wanted to go on, the computer I dialled up the phone number. It was a series of then familiar bleeps coming from the hard drive telling you it was connecting to the server.
Once online, you could browse the internet, but there wasn’t really much there, instead Compuserve offered a series of forums on any subject. These forums were like meeting rooms full of messages where you could post you own or read what others had written and follow any discussions. It was easy to lose track of the time in there. While you were online, your phone was busy and your phone bill mounting up. So it was far from ideal.
I met many friends online and some I wrote to or emailed long afterwards. One person I became friendly with I thought was a male and it turned out to be a female; such is the hazard of nicknames. They made life online complicated and eventually we lost touch. I then met Lana from Detroit and we became good friends and pen pals writing regularly over the years. We would dream of meeting up one day and in 2000 I was lucky enough to do that and we are still friends today.
I couldn’t stay with Compuserve because of the cost and begant looking for a UK based ISP and found one in a magazine. There was only a small handful in the UK at that time and I went with Zetnet, based in the Shetland Isles.
I joined in March 1997 and stayed with them for over 10 years. This was a far better option because it also provided access to something called a newsgroup, which was a basically a message board. Once you had dialled in it automatically downloaded the news group contents and then disconnected. You’d read the messages offline adding your own message and the next time you logged in, it uploaded your own messages and downloaded any new ones. It was then possible to have conversations with other people in the group on a variety of subjects. Some topics were serious, other light hearted and as the same people posted, we became online friends.
Unlike Facebook, you couldn’t see or share photos. All you had was a name or nick name and we got to know each other literally by talking, or rather by the words we read. Over the years the names became characters and it was a strange way to get to know people. Even Zetnet’s founder, Tim Cole, sometimes posted and that made it special. We started using the name zet to describe anything to do with the Zetnet local newsgroup and we called Tim, the zetgod.
The Internet was still in its infancy, so I stayed mainly with the main newsgroup called zetnet.local. They also offered other news groups such as zetnet.teens, which I, along with other members let our children have access too. In there we could keep an eye of them and from what I remember the main topic of conversation was always WWF wrestling! It was a safe environment for them and we certainly didn’t have the problems that today’s parent have with their children surfing the internet.
We soon became rather curious as to who we all were and what we looked liked. After a lot of discussion, it agreed a central part of the country to meet up. A few people got together in January 1997 in London, but it was in April when the first official one took place in Kettering. Over twenty people turned up and we were very honoured that zetgod, Tim Cole was able to join us. We went for something to eat and then stayed over in a nearby hotel. Lots of photographs were being taken as those who couldn’t attend wanted to see what we looked like. I did my first write up of the Zetmeet which went down well as those who couldn’t attend also wanted to know how it went.
We then start meeting regularly after that and it was certainly an eclectic group who would never normally cross paths all came together.
In July that year, I arranged a Zetmeet in Manchester and we had an excellent turnout of people, twenty plus. That same year another two were held, one in Shetland and one in Wakefield.
In April 1998, Dave Jackson, a retired school teacher from Frodsham, organised what was to be the first Runcorn Zetmet held at the Preston Brook Premier Inn and being just off the motorway made it very convenient for people to get to.
In August a couple from the Midlands were touring in Scotland and arranged to meet the people on .local from that area. They went for a walk on Hermitage of Braid, a sheltered wooded valley with their dogs and in the evening went to the Hard Rock cafe for dinner.
In November the first Birmingham zetmeet was held and organised by Sue Haley at a local pub. We arrived to find signs telling us where the room was, but they closed it soon afterwards and as the pub was a bit like a spit and sawdust place, Sue invited us all back to her flat. It was standing room only, but we all got a cup of tea. I also remember Trevor Hartley from Carlisle getting lost on the way, but after several phone calls did show up. He didn’t live that down for years to come. In the evening went to a local restaurant for dinner.
Runcorn2, the Revenge, was again arranged by Dave in April 99 and by this time we were getting to know each other as people too. The lead up to the meet was fun on zetnet.local as everyone discussed it and as it got nearer the time we knew who was going and was always exciting when someone we hadn’t met before, but knew very well, turned up.
Beryl Harwood became Mrs Cake as she brought always bought a cake with her usually decorated with the theme of the meet. The meets began to evolve and people brought nibble for later, computers and gadgets occupied the evening and of course a nice meal to finish.
It was the strangest of experiences in the beginning, because there I was in a room full of strangers, young and old and yet, I knew them all by their online persona. Very rarely were any of them just as I had imagined and it was often hard to get the image you had conjured out of your head when the real person was standing next to you.
We soon fell in to two meets a year, Runcorn at the start and Birmingham towards the end. All were varied and all included Mrs Cake, dinner and gadgets. One year we had some of the regulars singing opera, we had quizzes and sometimes we brought ourchildren too.
Then we heard the terrible news that Tim,, our zetgod had had a heart attack and passed away. Paul Martin, who was a regular on local, took over the company with his parent’s backing. For a while things were fine. Then a company called Breathe took over and people found they could dial in and couldn’t get a connection. Eventually Breathe took its last breath.
The good friends of zetnet.local continued to meet up twice a year, until the Birmingham meet stopped and Runcorn moved over to the Blue Cap in Northwich.
The internet grew and wifi made surfing easier. Elaine Jones bought the domain name of Zetwas, and on Facebook I created a group called Chatabout. It meant the old friends and new had a place to meet and talk once more.
The 15th official Zetmeet was held at the Blue Cap in Northwich in 2013 and it is as always a time to remember old friends and chat about days gone by. They will never be time another when people won’t know what others look like and we are glad we were there at the beginning.