Will the Web ever support on-line communities like the best of what we had in the old days?
I am a pack rat; I save all kinds of stuff. But moving four times in two years has cheapened the growing tons of archival printed matter I began putting in boxes and storing away in my twenties. So lately I've been yielding to the urge to purge my life of crap.
In my latest purge I emptied 40 boxes; about half of them were filled with books going back to college days. Want a manual for QuickBooks 1.0? Netware 2.0? How about ones that compare WangNet, DECnet and OmniNet? All of those went into recycling, along with about half a ton of paper in loose-leaf binders.
But I kept one binder. It was full of printouts from on-line discussions. Some were from the Compuserve Broadcast Professionals Forum (BPF), and some were from a forum called The Buzz, which was run by my old friend, Denise Caruso, on AOL. The Buzz and Denise were the only reasons I had AOL.
Both The BPF and the Buzz were communities in the deepest sense that word can apply to a virtual space. The BPF was where disc jockeys, engineers, program directors and music obsessives would get together to ask and answer tough questions, help each other find better jobs and comment wisely on the gradual decline of a business they all loved, however corporatized and heartless it was becoming. The Buzz was a mix of techie and intellectual types that hit its peak during the Gulf War.
The BPF was a collateral casualty of Compuserve's gradual suicide, completed by its sale to AOL. The Buzz died faster than the BPF, mostly because nobody could stand staying on AOL. Both, however, were doomed by the same design flaw: everything posted scrolled to oblivion.
The main business model for both AOL and Compuserve back then was metered use. Compuserve also charged customers to download files. No value at all was placed on archiving what people said; that was up to the users. That was why I printed out so many of those old postings.
The Net and the Web are natural and liberating environments for communities. Nobody needs to depend on clueless and uncaring corporate entities. In fact, clueful corporate entities can get together with free-range hackers to improve everybody's environment. That's what's been happening with weblogging, which has produced RSS, XML-RPC, SOAP and other handy standards.
Weblogs form communities in much the same way that people do. Follow the links from Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit, and you'll find most are in agreement with Glenn's libertarian/conservative political philosophy. Glenn is widely considered the leading “warblogger”. Dave Winer, the prime mover behind the acronyms in the last paragraph, is widely considered the leading “techblogger”. There are blogs focused on photography, music, raising kids, women's issues, you name it. What makes them radically different from any other kind of on-line forum is they aren't contained by their categories.
Eric Olsen, whose main blog, TresProducers, is more or less in the warblogger camp, also is a music producer who has organized a bunch of fellow bloggers at Blogcritics.org. Group blogs and hot topics gather people the way cuisines cause restaurants to gather certain kinds of customers, who are also customers of other restaurants and fond of other cuisines.
Still, I think we're missing something we had in the best of those old on-line forums, especially The Well. One of my life's regrets was that I never participated in The Well, even though I went to the trouble of belonging to it. I have similar feelings about Woodstock: I drove people up there, then turned around and went home in the rain.
With all due respect to Slashdot, Kuro5hin and Advogato, I don't think there are any Wells on the Web yet—including The Well itself, which still exists. I'm on half a dozen e-mail lists that are excellent (I'd name them but I don't want to burden them with more participants than they already have), and most of them are also exposed on the Web. But I still don't think any of them meets The Well standard.
However, I think it will happen because I think we're still early in the Net's evolution. How will we know that Well-grade communities are happening big-time on the Web? Here's my guess: they'll matter politically. They'll mobilize to elect some people and prevent the election of others. They'll also bring down bad companies and industries and raise others up.
Why politics? Why muscular market action? Because the Web is a public place; it's the commons; it's where public communities gather; it's utterly uncontained. Ultimately, our communities are going to keep it that way.