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Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Bars of Usenet and Blogistan

Doc Searls quotes Don Marti to the effect that "The distributed online forum called 'blogs' is slowly reinventing all the features that the distributed online forum called 'Usenet' invented 20 years ago. Who will reinvent 'kill thread' for the RSS aggregator?"

The correspondence between Usenet and Blogistan is not exact. I believe that Usenet fostered a sense of community and conversation much better than Blogistan does, and for one reason: for any given topic, there was generally one "location" where discussion of that topic was appropriate, or at most, a few. You wanted to talk about shortwave radio, you posted in rec.radio.shortwave. You wanted to talk about the travails of being single in the late 1980s, you posted to soc.singles. Blogistan, on the other hand, is far more fragmented. The watering hole of Usenet is now a million different bars, and getting a drink in one doesn't mean someone getting a drink in another is going to hear what you have to say. Most bars have only a few patrons. Tools like trackback and Technorati and RSS keyword searches are patches on the system to try and recreate that singularity of location, but they don't work well, and with Blogistan's tendency to expand like the universe in the wake of the Big Bang resulting in ever increasing fragmentation, they may never work as well as the simple classification scheme of Usenet. And I say Blogistan, but I really believe that this fragmentation is an endemic characteristic of the web as a whole. The web combines the worst aspects of fragmentation and asynchronicity to make for a terrible combination when it comes to community building.

I wrote a long post a few months ago about how well or poorly different Internet protocols/tools were suited for community building and making friends. Since I'm well out on the edge of the "long tail", nobody noticed. I used to write such posts more often, but now, not so much; the nature of Blogistan ensures that the "conversation" is taking place somewhere else if it's happening at all. On Usenet, people would have seen the post, and it would actually have been part of a conversation. It makes more sense for me to write in this medium for my mom; I know she'll see it if I post it here. (Sorry, Mom, this one isn't for you.)

I miss Usenet as it existed in the late '80s and early '90s. I made a lot of friends there, some of whom I'm still friends with today. I met my wife there. When the spammers showed up and poisoned the well, I felt a real loss. I think of the newsgroups I used to frequent almost 20 years ago the way my mom thinks of the house in Detroit she grew up in that decayed over the decades (after her family left, of course) to the point of becoming a crack house before being burnt to the ground.

With all the discussion about A-listers as the new gatekeepers and such, Doc mentioned that one way he finds articles on sites he doesn't frequent is by subscribing in an RSS aggregator to keyword searches on his name, among other topics of interest. So, hi, Doc. It's not much of a system if one of the best ways to get noticed is to mention an A lister by name. And especially since Doc mentioned this, it seems like the incentive is now there to game the system and get attention by mentioning A-listers like Doc the way I do here, or popular keywords for that matter. No doubt the spammers are already beavering away, and those keyword searches will become less and less useful. That's one area where the correspondence between Usenet and Blogistan is approaching 1:1.

(Later: there's a followup to this post in the next post.)

Posted at 10:15 PM

Comments

Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

Oy. I feel the need to wander through the comments on my old posts, to remind me why this used to be fun.

As long as I can avoid posts where I was sucking up to an A-lister, which I fear I probably did too often.

Posted by Phil Ringnalda at 11:19 PM, February 16, 2006 [Link]

I think there's hope for RSS yet. The information that you need to build an interface with "groups" and "threads" is already in the RSS, and we just need an interface that presents it in a way that makes it as easy to participate in topics as to subscribe to an author.

zgp.org/~dmarti/blosxom/software/blognet.html

Posted by Don Marti at 12:48 PM, February 17, 2006 [Link]

There's no doubt that RSS and Atom are interesting technologies and make some cool things possible. But I think that the poor support for "conversation" is something that's deeply baked into the web and the assumptions that fed its design, and that anything that tries to build on the web to support it is a nasty hack. Saying that RSS or something like it will make it possible to have conversations across blogs is kind of like saying that if I put a big head on my screwdriver, I can use it to pound nails. It's true, but it's not right. You're still better off using a hammer to pound nails, because hammers were designed to pound nails. A screwdriver with a big head is always going to be worse at pounding nails than a hammer. I disagree with the assertion in your article linked above that the problem is that RSS aggregation tools are bad newsreaders. I agree more with Schwartz that RSS/Blogs/The Web make a bad Usenet. The fragmentation of the web makes this an inherent quality of the web, and I don't think it's something that can be completely overcome.

That's not a good thing or a bad thing. It's just the way things are. There are other tools that support what the blog triumphalists have been claiming as the best features of blogs and the web for all these years (IRC, IM, Usenet, etc.). I've got a post cooking in the back of my brain about what the web *is* good for, and hopefully I'll post that later today.

Posted by ralph at 2:32 PM, February 17, 2006 [Link]

I guess my only significant comment is to take issue with the notion that Blogs are in any way similar to usenet 'conversations'. The whole point of a Blog is to cast your words out on the wind and any feedback you earn is simply because of the small number of people who might actually be aware of your launching pad. Expecting to develop community in such a forum is foolhardy idealism at best. It's kind of ironic that people seem to come into blogging (at some level) thinking that it's their chance to tell the world something when they should realize at the heart of it these words are for themselves and anything past that is gravy.

Believe it or not many many 'groups' (usenet or otherwise) are still going strong with likeminded (or interested) people discussing every topic under the sun. I don't know how to put this diplomatically but anyone who complains about Blogs not being the same sound like bruised Egomaniacs.

Posted by Grondzilla at 11:55 AM, February 22, 2006 [Link]

'zilla, that's my point exactly. There's so much blather about how blogs are for discussion and conversation, and I think it's just wrong headed. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what blogs and web sites are good for and tries to shoehorn them into being something that they're not particularly well suited for. I think there are fundamental characteristics of blogs that make them quite different from those tools on the net that *are* more conversation oriented.

Posted by ralph at 12:14 PM, February 22, 2006 [Link]

Yup...I can't help but agree wholeheartedly. It almost seems to me that the folks pushing this notion have a distinct disconnect between what they *want/imagine* and what *is*. The sad thing is that the ghost of Warhol is playing large in the Blog world convincing people that whatever inane thing they blather about is suddenly worthy of attention. As long as we keep our aspirations in check it doesn't get out of hand.

Posted by Grondzilla at 2:09 PM, February 22, 2006 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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