Will the Web ever support online communities like the best of what we had in the old days?
I'm 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 boxes and storing away in my twenties. In another twenty years I'll be 75, if I'm alive at all. So lately I've been yielding to the urge to purge my life of crap that will only live to burden my heirs.
In my latest purge I emptied forty boxes. About half of them were filled with books going back to college days. Most of those went up on new shelves here in my office, which now smells musty as a mausoleum. Most of the boxed books were keepers (one dates from 1849), but a many were absolutely pointless. Want a manual for QuickBooks 1.0? Netware 2.0? How about ones on LANs that compare WangNet, DECnet and OmniNet? All of those went into the recycling, along with about half a ton of paper I'd carefully stored in loose-leaf binders.
But one binder I kept. It was full of printouts from online discussions. Some were from the Compuserve Broadcast Professionals Forum, and some were from a forum called The Buzz, which was run by my old fiend Denise Caruso, on AOL (in fact, 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 disk jockeys, engineers, program directors and music obsessives would get together to ask and answer tough questions, to help each other find better jobs, and to comment wisely on the gradual decline of a business they all loved, however corporatized and heartless it had become. The Buzz was a mix of techie and intellectual types, and hit its peak during the Gulf War. There are postings in that binder -- from both sides of various arguments -- that are suitable for etching on granite today.
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 or using its brain-dead non-threading system. 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 to download files. No value at all was placed on maintaining an archive of what people said. That was up to the users. That's was why I printed out so many of those old postings. In those days, hard drive and floppy storage were scarce. Paper wasn't.
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 very much the way people do. Follow the links on Glenn Reynolds' Instapundit blogroll (his list of other blogs) and you'll find most of them 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 gathered around photography, music, raising kids, women's issues... you name it. What makes them radically different than any kind of online forum is that they aren't contained by their categories. Dave is on Glenn's blogroll and vice versa. Eric Olsen, whose main blog, TresProducers, is more or less in the warblogger camp, is also a music producer who has organized a bunch of fellow bloggers at Blogcritics.org, "A sinister cabal of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, and technology -- updated continuously." I'm on Glenn's and Dave's blogrolls, and on Eric's and Blogcritics' too. Group blogs and hot topics gather people the way cuisines gather customers in restaurants -- by coexisting with other cuisines and other restaurants visited by the same customers.
Still, I think we're missing something we had in the best of those old online 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 (at $15/month, for years). I have similar feelings about Woodstock: I drove people up there, then turned around and went home in the rain.
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 email 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.
But I think it will happen because I think we're still very early in the Net's evolution as a habitat for everything that happens on it, including communities.
How will we know that Well-grade communities are happening bigtime on the Web? Here's my guess: they'll matter politically. They'll mobilize to elect and unelect people. 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 the bazaar. It's where public communities gather. It's utterly uncontained. Ultimately our communities are going to keep it that way. That's the nature of the place they occupy.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.