"… by *GOD* I know what this network is for…"

I was cleaning out a directory tonight (this is what I do these days when I’m tense or angry, I go and clean out my hard drive) and I came across the original version of Russ Allbery’s magnificent rant about… I’m not sure what it’s about, actually.

Superficially it’s about Usenet, my first true love on the net, but if you dig a bit deeper, read a bit between the lines, it gets at some of the core issues around the Internet and inter-networking generally — how the network itself, while interesting and fun to play with, is entirely secondary to the goal of allowing people to connect with each other; the value of the relationships forged on the network; the exclusivity of some of those relationships; the ability of this phenomenal tool to bring people together, and what happens when it is under threat from people who don’t understand that.

The post is ten years old this month. It feels, in its broad images, like it could have been written yesterday. It dates only because the technology and the specific source of the problem has changed; the essence, its core, is as true as it ever was.

Now nearing the end of my second decade on the Internet (and its predecessors), I see this more clearly now than I ever did. Spam, trolls, denials-of-service, flooding — all of this is, in some way, an attack on the infrastructure itself. Yet although no one cries when a router screams because its table is overloaded, a great many people cry when jerks invade their bboard or flood their favorite blog. We don’t care about the physical reality of the Internet — most of us probably never did, and wouldn’t know a router from a switch if it bit us in the face. We care about the space in our heads, the collective space we all made, the space that was special to us and meaningful, the space that got chewed up when some vandal came roaring through.

I used to argue about spam as though it were some kind of stolen resource. It is, in the purest sense of the term, but I didn’t get sad because my mail client had to spend a few more seconds processing mail. What saddens me about the e-mail spam problem is that I’ve had to implement filters, wall off entire countries, and disable even the most basic diagnostic messages because I can’t deal with the volume of junk flowing back to me. The platonic ideal of e-mail, to my mind, no longer works — and while there’s a technical side to this, I’m not really upset that no one with an e-mail address that ends in .hk or .tw can send me mail. I’m upset that no person with an e-mail address ending in .hk or .tw can reach me anymore. It’s sad that we’ve reached this point, yet I don’t know how a reasonable person can do anything else. This was, ultimately, one of Russ’s points. “The difference, to me, between those things that Usenet is for and those things that Usenet is not for, is one of manner and quantity. Not one of content. I do not want to see any person excluded from Usenet, even if they believe that Usenet should be used for machine-generated spew. I just want to stop the spew, because if it goes unchecked it will drown out and destroy the beauty of what Usenet is.”

Perhaps I am not explaining this well; perhaps I am rambling. It’s late and I’m up past my bedtime. But I am thinking about the things that I love, and have loved, and how they make me feel, and I think back to the arguments we used to have about the nature of the network, and I keep thinking that we were all missing the point — that maybe we’re all still missing the point. The point is the contact. The point is the connection — the ability to reach out and find someone to make you feel less lonely. I think we sometimes forget how precious and special that is, and how sad we are when other people ruin it for us.

Talking about the problem in that sense — in terms of the effect it has on people trying to reach each other — somehow feels more honest than worrying about computational cycles and mail server load. Russ’s rant was shocking because he put into words what many of us felt but could not explain; we couldn’t defend the emotional damage we felt when a part of Usenet (or the network generally) broke because of someone else’s malfeasance. But he could, and he could focus that hurt and anger like a laser beam on a very specific example, which gave his rant a shocking degree of power. It’s not the anger that amazes me, ten years later — I remember being plenty angry on Usenet. What amazes me is the passion.

I wish I could write such an empassioned defence of the Internet.

All right, that's IT.

The Internet is officially out of money. All you new-media punks and johnny-come-latelies (and by that I mean, “anyone who got on-line sometime after about 1995”) can go home right goddamn now.

I’ve been thinking this for a while. 15+ years into the mass-popularization of the Internet, we continually see the re-emergence of trends in on-line communities that we saw before. The problems and the dynamics are the same; the only thing that changes is the interface. We’ve always had trolls and agents provocateur; now, instead of infesting newsgroups, they infest blog comment sections and Web bboard fora. People are continually trying to solve the same problems we solved back in the Dark Ages, usually with less grace and less skill than we did. I won’t belabor the point, but the problem essentially boils down to a failure to correctly disseminate information, and a tendency to disregard prior art and experience as a guide to developing contemporary solutions. It isn’t uncommon to run into Internet software developers who are wholly ignorant of the history of their chosen medium, so it probably isn’t surprising that we see the same solutions to the same problems re-invented over and over (and frequently less elegantly than in the past).

It’s bad enough that the Web as a whole goes through these phases where we seem to be trying to solve the same problems we solved on Usenet in the 1980s, but we’ve now reached a point where the Web is dealing with the same phenomena we dealt with eight years ago. By which, of course, I mean the goddamn blahgs.

The current meme in the circles of blogs that I read is the New Media Mob: A collection of young writers who’ve managed to parlay their blogs into paying gigs at formerly respectable publications. Roy and Sadly, No — particularly directed at this post by Cool Kid Garance Franke-Ruta — sum it up quite nicely. It comes down to this: A group of people have, for reasons that are not fully explained by their literary or cognitive skills, been elevated to the status of superstars within a particular community, and everyone else wonders why that happened.

We’ve been here before in the blog world. Oh, my, how we’ve been here before.

If you flash back to 1999 or 2000, back when blogging was beginning to take the world by storm, you remember the A-List. You may even remember the prescient article by Joe Clark that described the phenomenon. At the time the blog was primarily personal and anecdotal, driven by technology, and its superstars were technology “pioneers” and developers; now, seven years later, the blog is primarily political, driven by people who seem to complain about the current crop of pundits while at the same time lusting after those gigs themselves.

I mean, Clark basically nails it (to use an old hoary blogging cliche):

The A-List: “Jason Kottke… is widely admired among bloggers as a thoughtful critic of Web culture…. Getting blogged by Kottke, or by Meg Hourihan or one of her colleagues at Pyra, is the blog equivalent of having your book featured on Oprah.”

  • Finally, independent confirmation of an obvious fact that is self-servingly denied by the Weblog aristocracy itself: Despite no appreciable difference in the “thoughtfulness” of their respective Web criticism, some Webloggers are superstars.
  • The myth, of course, holds that all bloggers are equal, because we all can set out our wares on the great egalitarian Internet, where the best ideas bubble to the surface. This free-market theory of information has superficial appeal, but reality is rather different.
  • Jason’s commentary is quite good (Meg’s less so), but so is the commentary written by literally a dozen other bloggers I read, none of whom can create a miniature Slashdot effect by mentioning you. (I’m not citing any other bloggers here, by the way, whatever their fame or acumen. I’m limiting the name-dropping to the bloggers Rebecca Mead introduced into the discourse.)
  • Jason’s fame cannot be attributed solely to his cuteness (mentioned explicitly by Mead). I can think of two other A-list bloggers who are better-looking, not to mention having a bit more meat on the bones, and I am aware that there are a lot of attractive bloggeuses. Moreover, one A-list blogger is spectacularly ugly, but that has not impeded his star status.
  • Web-design skills cannot account for everything, either. Jason’s site, in its various forms, offers a middling level of programming complexity. Yet I can name three other A-list bloggers, and a far greater number digging for coal with their bare hands in the caverns of the net, whose sites are more complex and better-looking.
  • A small number of A-list bloggers run Weblogs that are effectively undesigned, a positioning statement that aims to showcase their ideas more prominently, but their ideas aren’t markedly superior to other bloggers’ in the first place.
  • Any way you cut it, there is no rational or even pseudo-rational explanation for the distribution of fame in the blog biz. Fame is like that.

It’s exactly the same thing, seven years later, and we’re all acting like it’s a brand-new phenomenon. Replace “Jason Kottke” and “Meg Hourihan” with “Matt Yglesias” and “Megan McArdle”, and “web design” with “commentary,” and Joe Clark has managed to preemptively capture the annoyance of a number of bloggers. That no one that I’ve found so far has managed to notice this is, frankly, shocking — and we should all be ashamed at how fast we collectively forget the history of our own medium.

This does not, however, detract from the fundamental irritation that most of us feel when we read this stuff. There isn’t a whole heap of difference between this:

Rio just came out with a new MP3 player shaped like a walnut – and about the same size. They say it’ll sync with my Palm, which is too damn new for me to have synced it with my old Palm, let alone the Cube or the PowerBook. Anyway, something to pick up on Saturday morning.

And this:

Brian is/was Ezra’s roommate. Sommer is Matt’s friend. Ezra is staying with Matt here in NYC while we are all up here for the Clinton Global Initiative. Alex and I are friends, as are Alex and Megan. Matt and Ezra and Megan went shooting together on Yom Kippur (bad Jews!), along with Dave, who is throwing a joint birthday party with Brian later this week. Also, Megan and Matt work together. And I used to work with Matt and still work with Ezra. And I think we are all Facebook friends.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We’ll come back to this idea in a second.

Once again, we see the development of an us/them dichotomy between the blog superstars and the common masses toiling away in relative obscurity, and, once again, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to differentiate the two groups in terms of quality of output — there is no clear reason why, for instance, Matt Yglesias should be given a prominent place at The Atlantic and someone like Amanda Marcotte or Jim Henley or Radley Balko isn’t, at least not on the basis of the quality of their commentary — just as there was no clear reason why Jason Kottke and Meg Hourihan were elevated to the status of blogstars in their day. (I suspect that the real reason has to do with comfort levels: Radley and Jim and Amanda all suffer from fairly advanced cases of Stickittothemaniosis.) The qualifications Brian/Ezra/Sommer/Matt/Alex/Garance/Megan bring to the table — an Ivy League degree, connections, and an Establishment Media gig — seem to be more fungible and even less impressive than the qualifications the Original A-List possessed; at least Hourihan could, by working at Pyra, claim to have played some role in the development of the medium she would ultimately represent in the pages of the New Yorker. I’m not sure you could make the same argument for McArdle and her merry band.

Clark again, with his own emphasis:

I would be less inclined to complain if I were able to share in the Internet bounty in even the most trivial way. None of us Webloggers is particularly wealthy; few of us became dot-com millionaires. It’s just that everyone but me gets to make a living. It bugs me that the A-list kids are not really any smarter, or any better at Web design, or have anything particularly better to say than so many of the plebes. Their fame is inexplicable, but famous they are – and able to keep their heads above water. It’s the combination I resent.

Elizabeth Taylor was at least beautiful and could act, when not knocking back the sauce and buying diamonds by the barrel. What causes an anointed cadre of objectively undifferentiable Webloggers to be viewed as demigods escapes me. And it does in fact chafe against my egalitarian instincts. Many of us are as good as they are.

What’s worse this time around — and the big difference between this A-List and the last A-List — is the degree of incestuousness. It’s truly shocking. These kids all come from the same part of the world, have roughly the same educational background, have the same upbringing, have worked at the same places, and essentially think the same way on every given topic. Again, we’ve seen this before — Jason would link to Meg who would link to Robert who would link to Dave, and round and round we went, and it was rare to find one who disagreed with the others. Which was creepy enough, but ultimately harmless when the topic of discussion was blogging itself, or Web standards, or whatever. Now, however, we’re turning to blogs as an alternative to traditional media, to discuss issues of vital importance, and we’re still seeing mass agreement and bland traditionalism. Because the New Media Mob hang out together and work together — because, as Garance says, it’s a cocktail party with the same 50 people over and over again. This isn’t good. It suppresses minority and radical viewpoints, the same viewpoints that desperately need to be heard — the same ones that, paradoxically, the Internet and the blog revolution was supposed to promote. That bland conformity was bad enough when it was on the editorial pages of the major daily newspapers, but the blogosphere was supposed to be the antidote to that. Instead of competing with Maureen Dowd, we have a group of writers working hard to be the next Maureen Dowd. And they’re not even interesting Maureen Dowds.

How is this helping, again?

Network Nostalgia: Cutting One's Teeth

I was there at the dawn of the third age of mankind…

One of the more interesting side effects of the commercialization and popularization of the Internet is that those of us who can legitimately claim to have been around In The Beginning are becoming an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. Nobody listens to us, because there aren’t enough people to form a critical mass on any given problem — yEnc is a good example where old hands were ignored for a variety of reasons.) The Network, through its growth, is beginning to forget its own roots — witness the recapitulation of most of the major problems as new technologies evolve. (Off the top of my head, one could easily argue that comment trolls and impostors on blogs are merely a revision of the age-old Usenet troll problem… with roughly the same solution — moderation. Moreover, private Web-based fora continue to suffer from all kinds of issues that were well-documented and mostly solved prior to the development of things like uBBS and phpBoard; how much simpler things would be if we could just shift stuff over to NNTP and be done with it. As Matthew says, “These problems aren’t caused by being on the Web; they are caused by failing to learn the lessons of the pre-Web history of electronic discussion fora.”)

Here’s the thing, though. Lots of us can claim to have upwards of two decades of Internet time behind us (holy crap!), but many many more lay claim to a much different kind of network history: The BBS. Remember those? Yeah, I do. I remember all kinds of things: How I never managed to get RemoteAccess to work for me, how much I loathed QuickBBS, how Maximus seemed to offer some kind of relief, how thrilled I was the first time BinkleyTerm successfully passed a connection from the front-end to the back-end system, how I ended up playing a fairly important role in the development and growth of a fairly robust FTSC network (MetroNet) that would ultimately shape my views about how voluntary networks should operate together. (That this network ultimately imploded shortly after I left probably doesn’t mean anything interesting — it was concurrent with the proliferation of cheap Internet access, and everyone who cared about the thing was moving over to Internet-land — to name@host.domain addresses, rather than, say, 201:5500/100.)

I don’t miss this era of the network, exactly — it was populated by very strange people and the small user base made the very strange seem much larger than they really were, and the phone bills could be atrocious if you ended up as the NEC — but it is a part of our history and as such it does deserve some special place in all of our hearts. I don’t miss fighting with badly-documented software (heck, I can get all that and more whenever I screw around with my Linux box), but I do miss the way it made me feel. You could spend quite a while wandering around this category on Wikipedia spotting familiar names and old favorites — perhaps the best example of “painless nostalgia” you’ll find in this area.

What YEAR is this? (Part 45)

I feel very torn about the existence of this Web site. On the one hand, it’s frustrating because I can’t find anything on it — what useful information is present is basically buried in there, somewhere. On the other hand, it’s kind of charming, in that retro throwback-to-1994-’cause-we-just-got-a-bunch-of-clip-art way. I mean, holy frick: You got endless images. Blink tags. Clashing colors. Scroll bars until tomorrow. Links to just about everything in the world. Twelve years ago we would have swooned over how much graphical content was on this thing; six years ago it would have seemed kind of dated. Now it might just be so awful it’s cool again.

I can never tell. Maybe I should send the link to the cool kids and see what they think. (“Dr. Hazmat sez: “Check out this hilariously 1994-esque Web site I found while doing frivolous research on the Web!” Indeed. Heh. Posted by: Xeni.”)

Don't you miss him, too?

I was poking around my bookmarks in an attempt to distract myself this afternoon and found myself at James Wolcott’s place. He’s got an item up there right now that talks about the rhetorical excesses of some dip who writes for the National Review. It seems that Andrew Sullivan, who is still not being directly linked from any Web site that I have any control over, used the word “fellatial” to refer to someone else’s writing. Personally, I’m more than happy to compare sycophantic writing to a hummer; I think it’s funny. But J-Pod goes all non-linear over this point (which is odd, if you consider J-Pod’s posting history and his proclivity to express a subtle, wink-wink-nudge-nudge interest in teh gay).

Wolcott, however, said this: “Shouting in caps like a crazy person, Podhoretz is understandably…”

And you know what the very first thing I thought of was?


If you came late to this party known as thu Innernet, you probably don’t get this joke. That’s fine; I’m making this joke for about six people out there, all of whom will think that we had a much higher caliber of kooks and nutters on Usenet than we do on the Web today. Whether that was a self-selecting thing, or a concentration thing, or a representational thing is a question for another day.

I never thought I’d be in the position of saying I missed people like Serdar Argic and Robert McElwaine, but here I am. At least everyone thought they were nutty…