These days it is common to speak about the blogosphere: the ill-defined cloud of websites organised in a similar fashion (chronologically, then by category), with similar features (commenting) and natures (stories built from linking). The blogosphere is a kind of community, and has within it many subcommunities. It is loosely connected via the use of hyperlinks; though for some clever coders that will never be enough.
But the thing is that it’s not new. The blogosphere existed before it was called the blogosphere. In a previous generation it was known for particular sites such as Slashdot or Kuro5hin. And before that were the dim and distant days of true nerdery.
Let There Be Code …
In the beginning there was Unix. As an operating system it has continued to dismay purists and dominate the computer industry in one form or another. The family tree of Unix stretches back three decades and it was intimately related to the growth of the Internet.
In the early days, everything was done at terminals by keyboard alone. There were no mice and no icons, though beards were (and still are) quite common. The openness of the system meant that programmers were forever tinkering and adding to the features of Unix; by itself Unix was a corpus of latin and the code that followed a body of great literature.
There came the emergence of the
finger command. This cheekily named command allowed one to query information about anyone belonging to a conforming system. It could tell you when they last logged in, if they were online currently, perhaps some details about which office they worked in. It also allowed you to read a “plan file”, which the
finger‘d user could update themselves with details about what they were up to.
Plan files are the first blogs. They held currency even into the 90s. Graphics programming god John Carmark’s plan file was eagerly followed by legions of fans. It was frequently republished on game news websites and dissected by experts.
There also came the emergence of
uucp. This program allowed two Unix systems to copy files to one another over a phone line. It led to the creation of the Network News Transport Protocol — NNTP — which underlay the Usenet.
While plan files have mostly died off, Usenet is still with us today. Its genius is that it works by individual sites synchronising with each other at various intervals. No one master server handles all traffic, instead messages are copied from server to server, fanning out across the entire Usenet network. The propagation of messages was based on cooperation on a site-to-site basis, and not every site carried every Usenet group.
Today Usenet messages propagate in minutes. It used to be that days could pass between propagations. Apocryphal legends refer to tapes being sent via airfreight to distant sites as it was quicker and cheaper than propagation via long distance modem connections, leading to the quip that “you should never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes”.
Usenet was the first community of its kind: a vast, loosely connected cloud of subject-specific groups. Over time these groups gelled into subcommunities with different norms, rules, injokes and histories. Among other things, we owe the acronym FAQ to Usenet groups.
The Swiss Connection
The Hypertext Transport Protocol and Hypertext Markup Language were created by Tim Berners-Lee at the CERN physics lab in the early 1990s. As a protocol and language they were mostly static. However it did not take long for clever coders to start serving websites out of databases and hacked up Perl code, which led to the second generation of community code.
This generation was marked most of all by the emergence of Slashdot, which in its heyday acted as a central clearing house for an emergent worldwide Internet-connected geek culture. Even today Slashdot has millions of users and the “Slashdot effect”, where tens of thousands of Slashdot readers click on a link within the space of a few minutes, is the benchmark phrase by which crippling surges in traffic is measured.
Slashdot pioneered the weblog as a movable feast of links to interesting webpages, a function which it continues to this day. Slashdot also added a comments mechanism on a per-story basis, which led to the formation of a Slashdot community of sorts. Slashdot’s ornate system of two-tiered moderation, ‘karma’, comments ratings and threading show the intensity of troll activity and the resultant evolution of defence mechanisms. Even today, the community-management code of second generation platforms like Slash (the code driving Slashdot) and Scoop (driving Kuro5hin, Daily Kos and others) is far more sophisticated and capable than third generation platforms like WordPress.
Slashdot and other second generation sites like Kuro5hin — which was initially populated by Slashdot users dissatisfied with aspects of how Slashdot worked — mostly inherited from Usenet. The details vary, but the spirit is the same. In Slashdot users submit stories to the site editors, who pick which ones to publish, similar to moderated Usenet groups. At Kuro5hin anyone can write and publish stories, some of which can be voted onto the front page, a bit like unmoderated Usenet groups. In both cases the website is a community, a group. It is a multiuser system designed to be driven by users from the bottom up, not top down.
The third generation platforms — best typified by Movable Type and WordPress — went a different way. They originally recaptured the simplicity and individuality of plan files. The earliest versions of these programs did not have a multi-poster capability. And none of them is really driven by users in the same way as the second generation are.
After a fashion this is being reversed. Platforms like WordPress MU and its flagship site WordPress.com are aimed at creating a cohesive “ecosystem” of blogs: a sort of Usenet of plan files. Whether this works remains to be seen.
Still to Come
Will there be a fourth generation? I’m not sure, and of course such a fuzzily defined subject defies objective decision. I do expect that either third generation platforms will eventually co-opt the second generation focus on community, or that some fourth generation platform will simply overtake the third generation by returning to a focus on community. It may be that social networking sites are the fourth generation, except that they violate the own-installation many-sites model which the first three generations of community code have followed. It might also be that the Semantically Interlinked Online Communities project linked to above will create a more Usenet-like experience by more tightly linking conversations together across multiple blogs. Or it might prove to be too complicated to use and thus fall by the wayside.
From the Bible comes a saying that seems apropos: “there is nothing new under the Sun”. This is probably more a reflection on the ways of human nature than the cycles of technological change, and indeed the various authors of the Bible would probably goggle at the strides technology has made since they decided that nothing really changes. So perhaps a better image is the wheel of dharma, of death and rebirth; that what dies is reincarnated as a ‘new’ idea, freshly minted. That we all live, all of us, in the fascinating glow of the Once And Future Internet.