By Karen J Mossman
When the worldwide web was fairly new, you needed to find an internet service provider called an ISP to connect you to it. In the early 90s, the main one was a US company called Compuserve. I paid a joining fee and each time I wanted to go on; the computer dialled up the phone number in a series of beeps coming from the hard drive as it connected to the server.
Once online, you could browse the internet, but there wasn’t much there, so Compuserve offered various chat rooms that all had subject. These forums were chat rooms full of messages where you could post your own or read what others had written following any of the discussions. It was easy to lose track while online. Your phone number was busy, and the bill mounted up. So it was far from ideal.
I met many friends online, and some I wrote or emailed for a long time afterwards. One I became friendly with I thought was a male, it turned she was a female; such was the hazard of nicknames. They made life online complicated. 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 through Facebook.
I couldn’t stay with Compuserve because of the cost and began looking for a UK based ISP and my brother-in-law recommended the one he used. There was only a small handful in the UK at that time and so I went with Zetnet, who were based in the Shetland Isles.
I joined them in March 1997 and stayed for over 10 years until their demise. This was a far better option because they provided access to a newsgroup which was a basically a chat room. Once you had dialled in it automatically downloaded the newsgroup contents and then disconnected. You’d read the messages offline adding your own and the next time you logged in, it uploaded and brought back any new ones. We had lots of interesting conversations on a variety of subjects. Some serious, others light-hearted. It was a closed group with the same people posting. It wasn’t long until we became online friends.
Unlike Facebook, you couldn’t see or share photos. All you had was a nickname, and we got to know each other by talking.
Over the years the names became characters, and it was a strange way to get to know somebody. Even Zetnet’s founder, Tim Cole, occasionally posted, and that made it special. We started using the name zet to describe anything to do with the newsgroup, and Tim was the zetgod.
The Internet was still in its infancy during the nineties, and zetnet.local was all I needed. They also offered other groups and one was zetnet.teens, in which our children used. It was a safe environment and we could keep an eye on them. From what I saw, the main topic of conversation was always WWF wrestling!
It didn’t take long for us all to become curious about each other. What did we look like? Who were these people in real life? They had become good friends, but if we crossed the street, we’d never know each other. It was a strange way to make friendships.
We were based all over the UK, and various Zetmeets started taking place. Photos were placed on websites with names attached to faces, so we could see who everyone really was.
The very first zetmeet was held in Kettering in January 1997, and over twenty people showed up from various parts of the UK. Even our Zetgod came. We met in a pub and went off for a pre-booked meal. I arranged another in Manchester at a Premier Inn, and more travelled and stayed overnight. I would do a write-up, and there were plenty of photos posted and those who couldn’t attend eagerly devoured them, getting to know people who they only knew the nicknames of.
In April 1998, Dave, a retired schoolteacher, organised a Zetmeet, and Sue arranged one in Birmingham arranged. Partners joined us, and sometimes we brought our children. Gadgets and computers were brought to play with and discuss. We had the occasional quiz, and one year some formed a choir and sang for us. Beryl brought a cake each time and soon became a tradition. The lead up was fun, and it was always exciting if a new face turned up, someone we knew but had never met. We always enjoyed a pleasant meal wherever we were, and after a few years, the Birmingham meet stopped.
After the first couple of year’s, Dave moved his Zetmeet to the Blue Cap hotel at Northwich, another Premier Inn, which meant people would travel from afar and stay overnight.
In 2003 we heard the terrible news that Tim, our Zegod, had a heart attack, and passed away. From that point, Zetnet changed and became intermittent. A company called Breathe finally took it over, and it was never the same. The die-hards hung on till they took it took last breath.
Zetnet has its own Wikipedia page, although I don’t think all of what it says is correct, but at least Zetnet has its own little corner of history now.
Two groups emerged so we could stay in touch, one on Facebook, and the other elsewhere. Every year since we continue to meet up dutifully organised by Dave.
The 22nd Zetmeet didn’t happen and old friends didn’t meet for the first time. The COVID-19 pandemic stopped everything in 2020.
We now look forward now to April 2021 where we can catch and chat about days gone by. They will never be another time when people won’t know what others look like, and we are glad we were there at the very beginning.