I was helping out a friend of mine the other night – a blogger who’s stopped blogging but wants to start again (i’ll leave the question of exactly who that is open, in case he doesn’t actually get so far as starting).
While working on importing his entries into a current movable type install, I remembered how much a miss doing this; not just the blogging, but the tools and support stuff – the technology itself.
I enjoy problem solving, and for some reason I have a particular gift for it. If I were a medical doctor, I’d be the hack and slash guy doing battlefield surgery, or I’d be doctor house solving the mystery while not really getting all that involved with the people (and gobbling all the vicodin I could get my hands on). This is why I’ve wound up doing what I do at work. I’m not a programmer (though I can program), not a hardware engineer (though I work in hardware engineering). What I do, when I’m at my best, is to delve into why something broke, what made it break, and how to un-break it as quickly as possible. It’s a combination of pattern recognition skills, memory for trivia (I remember why we made some choice eight years ago, and what wraps what where, and why), and the ability to step back and look at the whole system, not just the micro-point that broke.
I’m not, however, your guy for long range planning. I’m an improviser. I’m Ornette Coleman, not Gil Evans. I wouldn’t write symphonies, and I’d never play it the same way twice. I cook the same way; when I write down a recipe of mine, every line contains an implied ‘or whatever’.
That’s why I like this sort of work; I can help solve one specific problem, for one specific person, tuning and customizing to need. A can find the tools to solve something and make them work in ways they’re maybe not intended to work. And that? That’s just fun.
The trouble I have, of course, is that I suffer from a lack of attention span. That I’m significantly ADHD should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever had lunch or dinner with me; I’m visibly thinking three different things most of the time, and I can’t really sit still without fidgeting for more than 15 minutes unless I have something useful to do with my hands. I have both the classic short attention span and lack of attention to detail, and the occasional hyper-focus state that lets me drill into something intensively to the exclusion of everything else.
The trouble, obviously, is that there’s no known on switch for hyper-focus. We can’t shout ‘engage!’ and have it come on like jump. It comes, unfortunately, when it comes; and task switching on a constant basis seems to make it all the harder.
Working with Movable Type more the last few days has reminded me of how much I miss the days when we were all blogging with a frenzy; when we’d all sit at some social function and think this would be great in my blog. I knew that my words would be read and commented on my people all over the globe, and in some cases, I’d inspire my friends to write on similar themes (or they’d inspire me, in those classic ‘started as a comment in someone’s blog’ posts). There was a wild energy in the loose community of bloggers; like a party where people came and went but the music didn’t stop.
What I miss isn’t just my own easy productivity; what I miss is that community dialog.
One of the sad truths of on-line communities is that they’re always temporary; almost ephemeral. From Usenet to early BBS systems, from AOL to the WELL to Friendster, from the Primitives list to Orkut to mySpace, from FetLife to Twitter to Tumblr, they all follow a set pattern.
They start quietly, only the creators talking to each other. Then after a bit, friends join, and then friends of friends; dialogs between almost-strangers begin. After some time, two or three additional orbits of acquaintance join up, and sub-communities form; and around this same time, a greater community begins to exist. Communities, in a general sense, share certain language, certain references, certain jokes. They develop jargon. So it is with all on line communities, as with Orkut’s games of random-comment, memes like laser-beam eyes, hot-link chains ending always at the donkey punch.
This is the point where the bubble begins to grow; where the energy coming out seems exponentially higher than the energy being put in. Where the community carries and addictive draw. People lose sleep, avoid work, get in trouble with family. But the bubble has a life span. In human terms, it’s short; the lifespan of a mouse, or less. Months, or if the community is very successful, yet has limited growth, maybe a few years. And then, sometimes suddenly and sometimes slowly, the air is let out, or the bubble breaks. The community may remain in name, but the real community, the one built of people sharing a common experience, expires a sad, quiet death, silent and barely noticed.
So why do they die?
There are two major triggers I’ve personally noticed over the years. The first is uncontrolled growth. There’s a limit to our ability to group up in meaningful ways; image a dinner party where everyone is in a group conversation. One couple, two, three – how many can we hold in a group? At a certain point, noise becomes factor, two many voices compete, and sub-groups spin off. We simply can’t maintain a singular group with more than a certain ceiling.
Now expand that to a forum of some sort. The scale is different, because we have better tools to screen noise. So instead of being capped between six and ten people, we have a cap in the range of (arbitrarily picking a number) a couple of dozen. After that, again, conversation fragments, because not everyone is having the same conversation.
Communities are groups of groups; many small ‘families’ in a larger unit. But crucially, most groups know most other groups; we cross over. This is the same pattern we see when small towns grow into large towns, and then cities. For a while, everyone visits the same barber, eats in the same diner, sees the same sheriff, drinks in the same bar. Families all know each other, by name and repute if not face to face. But this begin to change we we have a dozen diners, a dozen bars. The small town does not scale. We can no longer keep track.
This happened in USENET when the number of news groups went from dozens to hundreds; the same discussion might spring up in many places, and a friend community would split out, some following one, some following another. The sense of community, of consensus, breaks down, diluted by the volume of voices. USENET people will remember what’s called ‘Eternal September’; in 1993 when AOL embraced the internet, and tens of thousands of new, ignorant, young users flooded USENET all at once. This conveniently provides a definitive end point for USENET’s golden period.
Every single on-line community I’ve participated in, though, has hit this point; this strangulation by volume, this dilution of community.
The other factor is management. USENET didn’t have this problem to the same extent, because it’s architecture is wide open, and it’s governing body is more like the UN than the Senate. So when USENET began to run slowly off the rails, there was nothing anyone could do (this is both good and bad; USENET still exists in some sense of relevance, but it’s dilute to the point where only technical forums continue to thrive).
But most sites differ in that they’re not publicly distributed, and publicly managed. Almost all meaningful forums are owned and controlled. This means management, and of course, where there’s management, there’s mis-management and abuse.
People in large groups tend to be incredibly stupid. Take, for example, the re-election of George W Bush (in fact not a re-election since his first term wasn’t legally valid, but that’s another rant). Take the passage of Proposition 8 in California. We all know someone intelligent who voted for one of these things, or other mindless, poor choices. People will vote with a herd, and not step back and think. The larger the herd, the louder it’s voice, and the harder it is to resist. So when we get a large community, it’s majority tends to be 1) ignorant 2) reactive, and 3) fucking loud.
Large community forums quickly run into the problem that community members all want to run things. They want to make the rules, enforce the rules, and have everyone play their way. Complainers are the loudest voices in the world, and those who are offended tend to be the loudest complainers. What this means is that, almost always, at some point there’s outcry on community behavior. Topics of discussion censored, etc. The problem is, though, that in general the loudest cries for censorship tend not to represent actual community feelings. Very few of us, in general terms, want to be told we can’t do something. But the few, the loud, the uptight, they prefer to step up and define what others can see and say.
It’s a slippery slope from the benign anarchy of a local community to the rigid controls of a nation; but this is what begins to happen when forum managers listen to cries for censorship. They begin to pass arbitrary rules, penalizing the innocent for fear if the small possibility of guilt.
The other issue is simply poor technical choices. Facebook is the best example of this I can think of.
Facebook began an incredibly simple thing. Unlike some other sites, it was clean, simple, offered almost no modification by users. While It wasn’t feature rich, it was incredibly easy to use. And that one factor drew people in; that’s why kids, teens, adults, and even grandparents all were happily conversing.
But, driven by some ill-considered idea that they needed to be better, they began to ‘fix’ what wasn’t broken. And began to over-lay one bad idea on top of another, until they’d all but destroyed the thing that made they successful. They’re lucky they have critical mass, that they’ve become (for now) the defacto universal on-line community. Because now, with the inherently poor design, they would not have the draw they had.
I’ve watched dozens of communities come and go over the years; some victims of management stupidity and censorship. Take for example the ‘BABES’ list (an local SF community BDSM mailing list that spun off of the primitives list; I’ve forgotten what the acronym stood for). It was a thriving community, with real-world social events and wonderful conversation. But then the list manager began to feel paranoid; she first changed the name (for fear someone might connect the name ‘BABES’ with kids), then began moderating posts, then began to kick off members who disagreed with management choices. The list blew up quickly, after being one of the best groups around at the time.
We saw Orkut implode; unchecked growth, poor management, arbitrary rule enforcement, random technical failures. We saw Friendster blow up similarly. We’re seeing mySpace become irrelevant, due to it’s attractiveness to spammers and it’s generally terrible interface design. We’re seeing fetlife succumb to hysteria and censorship with un-published rules being enforced arbitrarily. The list goes on, and most of us could add a couple of communities to this list.
We’re seeing Facebook and Twitter go that same way, due to a fundamental mistake in interface design. They’ve both opted for a ‘single stream’ concept. This may seem like a great idea (everything comes down one pipe, so you don’t have to look for anything or move around), but it breaks down quickly for two reasons. One is simply that inputs are not all alike; imagine trying to watch a news show interspersed with a sit-com and a documentary, scenes alternating. You could track them for a while, but it would be fatiguing, and you’d burn out and lose interest quickly. Second, it requires that you monitor your stream constantly, because the window of attention is limited to a couple of computer screens worth. This means that users who drop in occasionally are completely out of the flow and thus, no longer are members of a community. This is shockingly poor interface design, and it’s very clear that the people designing it are not actually intelligent users of what they’re making.
Add the volume of success to these sites, and you can see how they’re both at or near a crest; they’re about to hit the tail-off point where people loose interest due to the usual on-line community problems.
Blogging was closer to the USENET model than to the friendster/orkut/myspace/facebook model. Since bloggers are so rarely held to community standards, and since so many of us work on different sites, we were a wide-ranging community without single failure points. Yet we fell victim, still, of success and volume (too many blogs, too many bloggers). But there’s a unique failing point with bloggers, which is that of identity.
Because we all began with a sense of anonymity, there was a freedom to say anything. When I began blogging, no one at all was reading, so I could be as brutally honest as I wanted. Most of my blogger friends went one further, blogging under fictitious identities. People confessed fears, misdeeds, affairs, crimes, tragedies. They described personal sex escapades. They narrated themselves through crises, death, divorce.
But eventually, there are people reading. And eventually, even anonymous bloggers tend to reveal personal details, both in text and in trails of links in hit counters). What once was a voice shouting fearlessly into the empty void became a voice muted by fear. I know bloggers who were stalked physically, and more who attracted crazies who went after them verbally. One sex blogger friend was exposed to her employers, one was tracked down by people who are, fortunately, continents away.
One by one, many of us stopped. Some from fear, some due to legal restrictions. But many more due to a general apathy as the community began to dissolve. I see dialog that would have been on our blogs now turning up in a temporary stream on facebook, or worse, in 140 character nibbles on twitter. We don’t work as hard at it; we’re able to type in a few words in a status line and be done, instead of having to actually be coherent for the hour it takes to write something in a blog.
We have two many options now; the medium is dilute.
To be sure, some of us carry on. Some of my sex blogger friends are still blogging daily, some of them even with multiple blogs. My oldest (I’m sorry, longer-term) blogger friend Circe is still at it, still chronicling the daily life of a single mother in the armpit of north texas, with goats and chickens and all.
The community of bloggers, I think, is a thing of the past, though. Those of us that still blog are out in the wilderness again; and maybe that’s better. Maybe it’s better to try again, writing like no one’s reading. And see what happens.