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Once Upon A Time

[Update: As is often the case when lots and lots of people (say, the whole Internet)
look at a problem, I came to this conclusion independently along with a
whole bunch of other folks.  I wrote this freshman effort at
blogging prior to becoming aware of the “Eternal September” concept;
however, this trope of pre/post-1993 Internet quality is much more
concisely described by the “Eternal September” entry in Wikipedia:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eternal_September .  My take on it
doesn't put as much blame directly on AOL users as the folk wisdom of
Eternal September does; I try to look at structural differences in the
modes of communication and speculate as to their effects on the types
of interactions that went on.]

Once upon a time, the Internet was cool (circa pre-1993). At that time
there was a lot of info with a decent signal to noise ratio, and a lot
of knowledgable people, You could read the FAQs for a newsgroup on a
subject (anything from hang gliding to Germany) and get a fairly good
dose of knowledge on the topic, as well as a direct line to a bunch of
people who knew it well. Is there a way to get something as cool as
that back out of today's incarnation of the Internet (that is, the
largely Web-mediated experience)? I hold that maybe there is some hope
and that we can get the Internet back to being somewhat collaborative
and useful again.

If the Internet was so grand, what did people
do with it back then? There was the normal Internet stuff that still
goes on today and will probably go on forever: email and FTP, which
respectively served the most personal and most technical needs of its
users (sending letters and distributing software). There was real-time
chatting of various types, much as there is today. But the big
difference in the way people interacted then and now is the difference
between Usenet and the Web.

Usenet (a.k.a. netnews or
newsgroups) provided for the syndication of so-called “news” messages
grouped into subject-matter categories. In practice, these newsgroups
weren't really news per se. They were rather forums for discussion and
debate by people, often quite knowledgable people, about defined
subject areas (of all sorts, but most commonly political/religious
debate, hobbies, and computer/technical issues). People built up their
reputations by contributing constructively to these discussions but the
most presitigious thing you could do within the context of a newsgroup
was to help maintain its FAQ. The Frequently Asked Questions list was
kind of a “greatest hits” of the newsgroup's content. Most of the
active newsgroups had these FAQs, and they were routinely made
available in the context of the newsgroup itself as well as being
archived and distributed as ends in themselves. The maintainers of an
FAQ of course had to be able contributors who would structure and even
add novel material to the FAQ, but the document really represented a
collaborative effort of the group's active members, and was often
largely paraphrased or excerpted from newsgroup postings (with
attribution; another honor for the constructive group member).

(There
was of course no such thing as a newsgroup that had only one member who
wrote the FAQ based upon his own discussion with himself and the
questions he had answered. The idea would be preposterous; newsgroups
were collaborative centers.)

(Note that the kind of knowledge
I'm discussing here is not the easy kind, like stock quotes, movie
times, sports scores, etc., which various companies have already
handled quite well [and which, I may add, were not nearly so easily
available during the Usenet era]. I call that the “easy” kind of
information because it's easy to imagine the SQL statement that
retrieves it, e.g. select showtime, location from movie_showings where
film_id = 38372 and city_name = 'boston'. I'm more interested in domain
knowledge of a particular field, such as “what are some good books I
should read to learn about hang gliding,” or “what does it mean if
program foo version 4.21 says 'error xyz-2?'”)

Sometime after
1993 a bunch of things started happening: commercial spam began to fill
up Usenet and folks' email boxes; waves of the uninitiated began
incurring the wrath of old-timers by their breaches of netiquette,
leading to a general lowering of the signal-to-noise ratio; and, of
course, people got turned on to this whole idea of the Web. Here was a
medium in which anyone could become a publisher! If you were expert on
a topic, or if you had a cool digital photo, or if you just happened to
know HTML, you could publish a Web site and become sort of famous! Of
course, this was a pain in the ass: posting on Usenet just meant typing
an email message, but having a web page required knowing and doing a
lot of tedious but not very interesting stuff, so you really had to
have some time to put into it.

However, the Web had pictures and
clicking with the mouse, while Usenet had boring words and typing —
and AOL users were starting to come onto the Internet. So the Web took
over.

The dominant mode for interaction on the Internet — but
more importantly, for publishing of subject-matter knowledge — moved
away from Usenet to the Web. (Of course, Usenet is still around, and
the newsgroups generally put their FAQs on the Web, but a newcomer to
the Internet might never even hear of Usenet during his Web-mediated
experience.) Rather than posting an article to a group and waiting to
read other articles posted in response, you now published a “site” and
counted how many visitors came. (Plus, you could enjoy hours on the web
without ever using your keyboard, which meant of course that its users
were even physically disconnected from the means of actually inputting
any information.)

Everyone who was an aspirant to Web fame and
had an interest in model trains, say, would create his own model trains
Web site, provide his own set of (supposedly) interesting content, and,
often, maintain his own FAQ of questions asked of him by visitors to
the site. At first, these aspirants were individuals, but soon enough
affinity groups or associations and commerical interests got involved,
doing basically the same thing. Perhaps you see where I am going with
this, gentle reader. The way in which personal knowledge was packaged
up and distributed became centered on the individual, and the
relationship changed from one of collaboration between peers to one of
publisher and reader.

A well-known lament about web publishing
is that unlike print publishing, the cost is so low as to admit
amateurs, crazies, and just plain bad authors — anyone with sufficient
motivation to brave the arcana of FTP and HTML. On the other hand, I
have just complained that the model simultaneously changed from a
peer-to-peer to a client-server relationship. Could it be that both of
these charges are true? It seems this would be the worst of both
worlds: not only are people no longer as engaged in the constructive
addition to the commons, but those that control the production and
distribution of knowledge aren't even filtered out by the requirements
of capital investment. It's like creating a legislature by taking the
worst parts each from the House and Senate. Sadly, this describes much
of the past ten years of the Internet's history.

However, there
is some hope. Whereas previously, “anyone” could have a Web site but
precious few put in the many hours it required in practice, the promise
of Weblogs is to actually open Web publishing to “anyone.” This won't
filter out the crazies, but at least it won't artificially inflate
their importance by raising the bar just high enough to keep everyone
else out. Comment forums, content-management systems, Wikis,
trackbacks, and the like are helping to re-enable the sort of
collaboration that made the Usenet system work.

Bottom line: it rather feels like we're almost back to 1993.

Next time: future directions, pitfalls, and why blogging (alone) is not the answer.

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