Elon University

One Week on the Internet in 2001: William Butler

This feature article about Internet use at the turn of the millennium is part of “One Neighborhood, One Week on the Internet in 2001” a revealing ethnographic study of Internet use during the week of Jan. 12-19, 2001, by 24 upper-middle-class families in a small-town neighborhood. The 26 ethnographic researchers who conducted the study also composed individual magazine-style stories sharing details about their own families uses and applications of the Internet.

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By William Butler

“The Internet will eventually offer every type of good or service in the world to those of us devoted enough to battle through an endless amount of links and cyber dead ends to get to it.” -William T. Butler 

Butler HeadshotThe Internet revolutionized the 20th century. It will go down in textbooks as one of the most important inventions in history along with penicillin, the Model T and the nuclear bomb.

No manmade thing, outside of war, has ever brought people together in such a powerful and simple way as the Internet. It brings people from all over the world closer in ways that they would have never interacted before.

In the Butler family, each member is so diverse from the others that each is a perfect representative of a different stereotypical type of Internet user.

Family interest from early days

A computer has been in the Butler household as long as their son Will can remember. “When I was seven,” Will says, “I used to play a game called Castle, which ran off a 5 1/2-inch floppy. It was the first and best game I have ever owned for a PC. Even though the screen only showed all of its images in a dim phosphorescent orange, the computer had some magic to it back then.”

The children of the Butler family grew up with the keyboard in one hand and a rattle in the other. The patriarch of this family, Bill, has been in computers since the ’70s, and they have always been his business. So, it should be natural that his children are as proficient as he is, right?

Not at all. The Butlers are so scattered in their personal understanding of the computer that saying they all have the same Web knowledge would be like saying a bag of M & M’s has only green ones in it. The members of this 21st century family all have a different take on Internet, and each one’s experience comes from his or her own trial and error.

The father and the Internet

Bill Butler has been around the Internet since its creation. Actually, he claims to have been using the Internet before it was created. This may seem like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true.

“The Internet had existed in one form or another for 10 years before the public ever knew it existed.” Bill said, grinning knowingly. “The military invented a system where if the U.S. was ever attacked in a war, the attackers could never wipe out the main information and communication system, because there would be no main system. A series of computers would all make up one central computer hub where information would always be available. They wanted to create a web of information. Therefore, if one strand was eliminated the rest could go on.”

Here was the birth of the Internet: a top-secret government system to counteract the effects of any attacks during the Cold War.

Not only had Bill been around from the beginning, he had been hooked, too. “At first I used the Internet mainly for military-related topics,” he said. “After the Web became common knowledge to the public, I was surprised at how quickly they accepted and improved what we had been doing for years.”

Bill’s use of the use of the Internet morphed over the years. His first business-related work on the Web was e-mail. “While working for P.R.I., Potomac Research Inc.,” Bill said, “I used the Internet to keep our clients up to date on the progress we were making on their proposals and to keep in touch with staffers on the proposals which might be working elsewhere in the country, for instance, in Alabama or Aberdeen, Md.”

After several years at P.R.I., Bill, then living in Arnold, Md., just outside Annapolis, had to move to Northern Virginia because the P.R.I. headquarters moved from Washington, D.C., to Fairfax, Va. Bill was driving 2 1/2 hours to work every morning and every night. He left the household at 5 every morning to make it to work by 8. “Needless to say,” Bill recalled, “after three years of running this commute every day I just didn’t have the energy for it any more. So, the family and I packed up and bought a house in a small rural town called Purcellville, just 30 minutes outside Fairfax.”

Now the Internet became a tool to help Bill stay in the loop while at home. He still went into the office every day as he had for the last 30 years, but when he was at home, it was essential for him to use the Internet to gain information for projects since he now lived “way out in the sticks.”

“The Internet gave me a way to keep in touch with the office, access information from online sources and check my stock portfolio without ever leaving my study at home,” Bill explained.

A business dream is realized

Finally, his usage of the Internet took another turn. After switching jobs from P.R.I., to A.T.S., Advanced Technologies Systems, Bill decided he would make his dream of owning his own business a reality. In 1999, Bill Butler bought the Columbia School of Broadcasting. This school trains students how to become television and radio broadcasters through an in-depth broadcasting curriculum. While Bill’s field his entire life had been computers, he bravely stepped into the broadcasting business with high anticipation. The Internet, however, would be his key to success in the 21st century.

The Columbia School of Broadcasting was the first school in the country to offer students training in Internet Broadcasting, a course designed by Bill himself. This field is one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. As technology expands to meet the needs of the Netizens of the new millennium, users are now beginning to watch television and listen to radio on the Internet. Some of the streaming feeds of information are copies programs from regular TV or radio, but some are programs specially made for accessing on the Internet.

These are the people Bill hopes to train in his Internet Broadcasting course at his school – students who are particularly looking for a career which joins Internet technology with the best of broadcasting.

“We are training broadcasters for the 21st century,” Bill said, “by giving them the edge technologically and through their education. By teaching a class in Internet Broadcasting, we are training a new wave of journalists who will gear their efforts toward, not just local, regional or even national audiences, but to a worldwide audience via the Web.”

Bill uses the Internet now as one of the main tools through which to communicate with students. He uses the Internet to send correspondence at least 10 times a day, keep tabs on graduates and school affiliates, receive and send information on prospective students in other states and countries, and gain more information on new technologies which may be of use to his students.

Son of S.A.M. (Superfast Automatic Man)

“Superfast Automatic Man was what I used to call my dad, Bill, when I was seven” Will Butler recalled. “The man never slowed down for anything, and he always had an answer to every question I ever asked him.”

Will Butler had opportunities the Bill Sr. never had. “I got the opportunity to grow up with a computer, learning what I did through my father, but mostly through trial and error, something the older generations never got to do right off the bat,” Will said.

Will, a student at Elon University with “aspirations to become a billionaire,” has been using some form of computer since 1985, when he was only 5 years old. Using a Texas Instruments gaming console on the family’s TV, Will would spend hours programming small games which mostly consisted of dancing animals and army men.

“It was a great way to get started” Will reminisced. “My parents gave me a tool which stimulated my imagination first and at the same time drove me to educate myself.”

Will’s interests began to draw him toward the computer at about age 7, when he found himself virtually glued to the small screen of the family’s home PC for hours on end. Slowly, and with the constant help and supervision of his father, Will began his PC education. He learned DOS and word-processing programs at an age when many of his peers had no clue about computers. At age 14, Will had a grasp of almost every aspect of the personal computer. “I was using the PC every day” said Will, “for school and for recreation as well.”

Bill made it a point to sit down with Will every night and teach him a new aspect of the PC. “My dad would quiz me on what he taught me the night before and then teach me something new. I hated the idea at first, and fought it furiously. But after a while came to enjoy having that knowledge, and I began to impress myself.” In addition to the crash course at home, Will took two classes at the local community college and an advanced course for gifted students in computer fractals and graphics at the United States Naval Academy.

The Internet brings more father-son bonding

Later that year the Internet would enter the household, and to Will the innovation came as no real shock. “My generation,” Will said, “has a serious advantage over any others. We grew up with the Internet and computers, while previous generations had to study about them and adapt. We have the advantage of not knowing any boundaries in the cyber world because for us it has been there while also being omnipotent and servile to our needs.”

The Internet also became an additional way for Will and his father to bond. Many hours were spent battling over the Web in the first-person, gore-filled shootout game called Doom. Will’s computer was in the same room, not 10 feet from his father’s, and was hooked up through a dial-up modem which used the home phone line to dial out and be received by his father’s computer which was attached to the study phone line.

Will and his dad used to spend hours a night shooting it out in the virtual world of demons and automatic weapons. “Playing Doom with my father every night was probably the activity that I looked forward to the most every day,” Will recalled. “It made me want to spend time at home instead of out with my friends. It probably kept me out of a lot of trouble in the first two years of high school.”

The perfect tool for college, business

Will now uses the Internet to gain and access information for college- and business-related research. “The Internet has replaced the library as the number one source for information in the world,” he said. “Soon libraries will simply become warehouses for hard copies of what you can find on the World Wide Web.”

Will only uses the e-mail function of his Net hook-up once or twice a week. He said he also prefers the telephone for communication over AOL’s Instant Messenger. “There’s nothing more annoying than someone trying to IM you every 10 seconds while you’re downloading a program off the Internet,” he said. “It slows everything down and eventually ruins the download every time I use the Web.”

Will created a colorful Web page for the Columbia School of Broadcasting. It took him about a month to create and perfect the site. The Web page gave the family business a way to advertise to a whole new audience. Will also created a Web-based system for his father to receive e-mails from prospective students and send them a detailed information kit and entry tests via online technology versus the old system of several sometimes expensive post-marked packages and letters.

“The Internet will eventually offer every type of good or service in the world to those of us devoted enough to battle through an endless amount of links and cyber dead ends to get to it,” Will said.

From Barbie to the bourgeoisie

As Nicole Butler, age 16, first logged onto the Internet about a year ago, she entered the cyber realm very shyly and with an extra amount of trepidation. Nicole had hardly any knowledge of computers except for the fact that the family owned several and her brother and her father were always fighting over who would use them.

Her initial anticipation turned to excitement when she realized that not only were there boys talking online, but you could shop too. A dangerous tool was now in the hands of a formidable person. A 16-year-old girl who was previously safely confined to school and home with no drivers license as of yet, now had the capability to shop through endless malls and catalogs as well as talk to myriad boys, all while blaring Brittany Spears in the cozy expanse of her large yellow and blue room. Could parents ask for a graver situation?

Nicole has spent the last year familiarizing herself with every teen chat room and cyber mall on the Web. She talks with friends from high school on topics ranging from whether or not the members of N’Sync have girlfriends to whether the school assembly was really boring. She and her girlfriends have access to local and international gossip 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I’m waiting until I have enough money so I can afford a credit card,” Nicole says. “Then I can finally have some of the things I’ve wanted online.”

Instant Messenger is Nicole’s main form of communication on the Web. E-mails are secondary forms of correspondence which are bypassed if possible. “IM’ing,” Nicole said, “is like talking on the phone to somebody and e-mail is like passing a note in class. When you have to write out an e-mail, the effort seems like it’s too much. E-mails, I save for greetings, forwards or serious subjects and questions. If I e-mail you,” she smiles, “something is up.”

Nicole has found a use for the Internet outside of school and friends. She was diagnosed with diabetes four years ago. Three to four times a day she has to test her blood glucose levels to make sure she is maintaining an accurate balance of insulin in her bloodstream to prevent her from going into shock. Diabetes is dangerous and can bring about blindness, nerve failure and heart disease. Many advancements in this field were not always readily accessible to the public by conventional means until the advent of the Internet.

“I use the Internet to look up information about new technology coming out that will make checking my insulin levels easier and less painful,” Nicole said. She has found a wealth of information on new machines and surgeries that may help cure the disease in the future, in addition to online support groups in which people with a common thread can share friendships and hope.

The mother of dilemmas

Nicole is fairly new to the Internet, but the one Butler family member who is behind the times when it comes to entering the digital information age is its matriarch.

“I have really no use for the Internet,” said Linda Butler. Linda is the traditional mom. Being a working parent has set her into a routine which she sees no need to break. “My priorities,” Linda said,” consist of my family and my football – the Steelers.” When asked to comment on the current status of the team, Linda had only a scowl in reply.

Linda finds no extra time in her day. She makes up one half of the dynamic adult duo of this household, both of whom seem to thrive on coffee and long hours of work. She runs from the house in the morning to her job as a guidance counselor at the local high school. Then she runs to her second job at the family business, the Columbia School of Broadcasting. Here she finds herself elbow-deep in paperwork and phone calls until the end of the day at 9 or even 11 p.m. Then, it’s an hour-long ride home, most likely spent listening to ’80s music but spent thinking about what her daughter and son did that day.

When she reaches home, between cleaning, preparing food and doing laundry, Linda deals with the latest little family crises. When she finally finds the time to take a second for herself, she rests on the couch and watches her favorite TV shows, “Nick at Nite” and “The Golden Girls.”

“There is just no time for me to learn the Internet,” Linda explained, “let alone use it. I leave that stuff to my son and husband.” Linda’s hard and active stance in the real world, leaves her no time for the virtual world.

“They couldn’t get a computer to do all the things I do in one day,” Linda said laughing, “it would crash and then Mr. Butler would have to try and fix it which would just make a bigger mess for me to clean up later. Besides, even if a robot could clean my house for me, I’d still do it myself.”

A friendly family of differing connections

This family has it all, from the owner of a business he hopes to use to capitalize on the dot-com radio craze to the non-dot-com mom who has no time to go online.

Every member of this family has a niche which he or she fills perfectly. If one would take a sampling and categorize each type of Internet user, each one of them could be filed under a Mr., Jr., Mrs. or Miss Butler type of user.

The entire family may find itself together online someday, but for now, its diversity that unites and sweet chaos which prevails.

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