The new new vast wasteland

Sep 13, 2005

I'm continuing to work my way through BBS: The Documentary. It's really interesting to think about how much that particular piece of technology influenced my life — I hadn't really considered it before. I don't think there's any way in hell I'd be in the industry I'm in if it weren't for the BBS fascination I developed in junior high.

There's a woman I met in Italy, who I've been friends with for years now. I remember she told me (this was circa 1995) that she didn't use the Internet much because she thought it isolated people. I thought that was bullshit then — not sure I'd say the same now.

Maybe it's just a time of life thing, I don't know. I was pretty actively nerdily social when I was in junior high and obsessively logging on to boards. These days I barely manage to keep in contact with my friends via email, when email is so much more centralized and simple. Back then I'd log onto a given board several times a day, maybe exchange several messages back and forth with each of dozen people. Now I just talk to people at work, and there's very little time for anything that's not directly task-related.

I guess the thing about BBSes is that it really felt that you were part of a group conversation. It was a small town, everyone had a sense of each other's personality, everyone was on the same level. Now it's more like reading, or watching TV. There are a very few people who generate content and information, which is consumed by a huge and far-flung group of people. The content generators are elevated to a certain level of nerdy celebrity, and the people who read what they write are completely invisible.

At their best, I think that blogs and the Web provide a similar sort of discourse to what there was in Newton's time; the best minds of the day responding to each other in published essays, shoring up or dissecting each others' ideas. A great deal of valuable understanding can come out of that sort of information environment.

It's not a conversation, though, and it's not much of a way to bring people together. There is no sense of place. The group isn't small enough for everyone to contribute, and so most people just disappear.

So how do we fix this? Is there a technological or procedural solution? How do you have a community when the population is so large?

Am I just being overly nostalgic for a particular piece of technology that popped up during my formative years? Was it just that it was such a revolutionary thing, whereas the Internet technologies that replaced it seem like an evolutionary improvement? Was it the location-based nature of the beast, whereas the Internet has no geographic boundaries?


If you liked this, you're welcome to read more of my blatherings.