ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Place Has Really Gone Downhill —

People occasionally ask why I don’t run my own blog or my own BBS or message bases on My answer, in a basic sense, is I don’t have the time to run things correctly, as I think it should be. To ask me what my definition of “should be” is gets to the heart of the matter.

The online environment suffers from the same problems a lot of communities suffer from: power issues, political infighting, and a wavering sense of the sanctity and baselessness of the entire endeavor. These issues are human, not electronic; they happen in spelling bees, book adaptation efforts, and quilting. Trying to solve human problems with electronic solutions is hit or miss at best, but shouldn’t be considered a huge surprise if it fails to do so.

About all I can do to contribute something helpful to this discussion is point out two rules I’ve encountered in studying this history. Community breeds controversy, and communication breeds contempt.

Descending even further into theoretics, and summarizing what some people fill their college careers studying, the core goals of most communication technologies are not to foster conversation, but to prevent controversy and conflict. Phones are designed for end-to-end communication over the same wires as millions of other calls without a conflict. Phone conferencing, an incremental change in the experience from a person-to-person call, requires a heap of added features to allow the “conference operator” to function and maintain order. Ethernet, I probably don’t have to go into much detail about, but the same issues apply: avoid conflicts, avoid things interrupting other things.

From the first moment a “Sysop” decides what’s going to be discussed or what the name of their BBS or blog is going to be, there’s a steady set of restrictions, rules, goals and mores that get placed upon the forum. And with all of that imposed order, the natural process of decay begins. I’d compare it, in some way, to swimming; you land in the water and begin paddling. Paddle (maintain) at the same rate, and you’ll stay afloat. Stop pouring energy in, and you sink. Pour too much energy in and you end up with an out-of-control splashing maniac. It is that ability to balance and to be a part of things while not overdominating them that’s so difficult to keep around.

And again, it’s not the controversy-of-the-moment that causes the problem. From about five feet away or further, many of the controversies are distinctly entertaining, but they’re far from it for the people involved. That’s because the controversy is besides the point; it’s the group mind-set that’s being fought for, the way things will be for the group at large. If you truly believe there’s a “there” there, then you’ve got to buy into every aspect of it, leaving you in some amazing positions to defend.

The unspoken words are the ones that define a place, even an electronic one, but they’re never clearly stated: we are all alike of a way, we are all huddled against the darkness, we are here for this moment but that moment may end in an instant. That’s what keeps us coming back, and if we find those feelings betrayed, based on whatever internal scale we measure them by, then we feel the place is “lost”.

Throughout the interviews I’ve had with people about their experiences with BBSes and related discussion groups, I’ve gotten a very wide spectrum of thoughts on the art of online conversation. Some ruled their boards with an iron fist, while others remember logging onto a BBS where the sysop hadn’t logged on in years. (There are still a handful of BBSes out there, still up, still having their phone bills paid, just running alone, on autopilot. Bless them.) And in many cases, the BBS software itself (or the blog software or the discussion software) contributes or hinders the style of order that the community will express. The reason that I have over 700 BBS programs listed on the documentary site is not just because there were so many platforms to program them, but because the balance of the software and the hardware against the very root of humanity’s nature is a problem, a difficulty, far deeper and greater than any specific issues of the moment.

The cycle is often stated as “birth, flourish, death” for a community, but it’s almost always “birth, flourish, change, change, change (…) death”. With each change comes nostalgia for how things were and comparison between now and then, when perhaps the best thing to do is consider how things are now compared to how they’ll eventually be.

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