Electric Community Part Two:
Here Comes the Weblog
The members of electronic communities like Slashdot come together in the first place because of some shared interest - in this case a complex, sometimes highly technical range of acquired knowledge - Linux, open source, programming. An individualistic community with a common purpose, sites like this attract focused, like-minded participants, programmers and developers whose shared experience was mastery of a complex operating system, a willingness to endure technical hurdles, and an almost secret common language.
Newcomers, drawn to see what's going on or foraging for information themselves, often enrage the established dwellers of an e-community. They don't know as much, ask stupid questions, speak a different language. Intruders, they throw the ecological balance out of whack.
Mark Stefik of the Information Sciences and Technology Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, likens this resentment to the problem of assimilation when natural disasters or wars cause mass exodus to new lands. When the rate of immigration exceeds a certain level, the resulting chaos in the host country can evoke tremendous resentment and backlash.
Size is a factor, too. As an electric community grows, so do the maintenance costs - hardware, bandwidth, the pressure coherently present more and more information, the need for revenue to support all these functions. As more and more people move through the site, it's harder to recognize addresses, message styles, or individual personalities.
So an electronic community faces, from the beginning, a serious dilemma --- whether to stay small, but remain marginal, or to grow, and becoming more profitable and acquiring more bandwidth and software. In a sense, it suffers either way. If a community stays small, it starves. If it grows, it suffers in a different way. The WELL, one of the first and most important electronic communities (I've been a member for years) has survived by remaining small, smart and simple.
Many of its members have reasons for avoiding too much hostility. They have continuing, powerful, very personal ties to one another. Topics range from science and technology to culture, movies and parenting. And the WELL has been successful in part by providing strong, experienced moderators with authority who discourage eruptions of hostility and keep conversations on track without discouraging free speech.
E-communities without personal forums - jobs, parenting, family life - have a tougher time forming a sense of community, since there's no real way for members to get to know one another. People aren't attacking human beings they know, but disembodied voices and messages.
From the beginning, the Net and the Web have been about individuals creating their own media. This process evolves constantly as people online struggle to find communities where they can glean information, keep up with new technologies, receive help, make human contact.
Some online sociologists use the club analogy when it comes to differentiating large and public versus small and exclusive e-communities.
Exclusive discussion groups - those that limit membership and topics - are like private clubs in that they offer membership by invitation or even fees. In these smaller e-communities, people can speak more freely, perhaps say things they wouldn't say in public.
Stefik writes: "To take the private-club idea another step forward, consider the possibility of private clubs with exclusive memberships, rules about confidentiality with real bite, and limits on the ability of the excluded public to post'There might be private newsgroups for people who are generally inaccessible - for example, major financiers, philanthropists, leaders of powerful companies, or even scientists."
The recent surge in classy, well-designed, intensely-linked weblogs - almost all, essentially reflecting the interests and tastes of their creators and a small number of like-minded people -- suggests a non-commercial version on Stefik's idea.
The weblog isn't a new term on the Net, but it's being used in a new way. One previous definition of weblog is an archive of activity on a web server. Another is an online diary. But in the context of the e-community, the weblog is new, and evolving rapidly, despite the fact that specialized and idiosyncratic sites have been around for some years.
On Camworld.com, Cameron Barrett has written about and developing his notion of the weblog - he calls it a small, eclectic site, usually maintained by one person, with a high concentration of repeat visitors, plentiful WWW links, and a zero tolerance for flames.
Barrett, an interactive designer, writes on Camworld ("Anatomy Of A Weblog" ) that he heard the term "weblog" for the first time a few months ago, but isn't sure who coined it.
Weblogs are a perfect example of the biological evolution of electronic communities. Very personal foraging sites, they are limited in membership, their links continuously updated, and are often focused on a single subject or theme.
They seem to almost all be ideologically opposed to hostility, including essayish commentary and observations. Because the site creator limits and approves membership, they don't need to be defended as intensely as bigger sites, nor do they attract - or permit - posters who abuse others. One obvious payoff is that the flow of ideas is strong, uninterrupted and impressive.
Barrett calls weblogs "microportals. Some weblogs: Smug; Flutterby; Scripting News; ; Stating the Obvious -- I was startled to come upon a column by Rogers Cadenhead about why I don't belong on Slashdot (weblogs may be less hostile, but don't look for sweet, either); Obscure Store, and Joshua Eli Schachter's very smart memepool.
Some webpools are designed by their creators simply to revolve around what they find interesting. Writer Keith Dawson describes webpools as "filtered news," but as with anything having to do with the Net and the Web, there are lots of different points of view.
The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, e-mails Christine Booker, was "weblogging" their own publication earlier this week. That is, an editor provided synapses of articles of interest, with links and particularly notable quotes. The editor was providing pre-digested highlights of his paper, only without commentary. Thus "weblogging" has even come to journalism, not usually an institution on the forefront of digital change.
The point is, Booker wrote, instead of asking readers to scan headlines to decide what to read, they have a section at the top of their World report that says, in effect: our international editor puts foreign news coverage in perspective so that you can go straight to the meat. In a different way, that's what weblogs do - interesting stories for pre-selected communities.
Booker, who designs and manages websites for the University of Washington Department of Surgery, and is an avid reader of weblogs, says it's important to convey their personal nature. "Even sites that don't contain any original content or much commentary give me a glimpse into the mind of the weblogger. What someone chooses to link tells me what they're interested in, what they think is funny, what they find absurd. Some webloggers offer links embedded in one or two lines of more or less oblique commentar" (jjg.net) Booker says that as far as she can tell, many, if not most of these sites started very informally and then, one way or another, the URL got passed around soon these "hobby sites" developted devoted audiences, readers who visit them at least daily, sometimes more.
Jesse James Garrett, content editor for Ingram Micro's Web site and editor of the weblog jjg.net says that "weblogs are the pirate radio stations of the Web, personal platforms through which individuals broadcast their perspectives on current events, the media, our culture, and basically anything else that strikes their fancy from the vast sea of raw material available out there on the Web. Some are more topic-focused than others, but all are really built around someone's personal interests. Neither a faceless news-gathering organization nor an impersonal clipping service, a quality weblog is distinguished by the voice of its editor, and that editor's connection with his or her audience."
One of the best weblogs I found was Peter Merholz's peterme.com. "How freakin? cool is this?" he asks in the lead item for May 12, writing about tracking satellites live and real-time using a 3D Java applet. The site mixes the best of web design and technology - interface, design, web development - with pop culture: movie reviews, an essay on the late cartoonist Shel Silverstein.
Merholz has decided, "for what it's worth," to pronounce "weblog" as "we? - blog."
While weblogs don't have the reach and influence - thus, the commercial potential -- of larger, more inter-active and open sites, it's easy to imagine them as powerful supplements to the major foraging sites. And, depending on their members, could be influential at sharing memes, essays and ideas.
Cameron Barrett's thoughts on weblogs can be found here, along with his list of favorites. Keith Dawson, who runs the Tasty Bits of Technology Front site - in some ways a pioneer, classic weblog, also has written about weblogs at here.
To me, weblogs may embody personalized media on the Net - enterprising geeks creating interesting new sites that set out to define news in different ways, to be both interesting, coherent, and more civil. This is the complete opposite structure of conventional media, which is top-down, boring and inherently arrogant.
They may be among the first e-communities to successfully overcome online hostility and abuse as well. That alone could make them highly popular.
Weblogs, however personal, are foraging sites in the classic sense of the term.
But Weblogs aside, the idea of electronic communities as encompassing distinct biological types is irresistible. And it makes sense. I'd identify these species of electric villagers. Add your own:
FORAGERS ( Stefik would call them Wolves): the people running sites or submitting and linking to discovered information.
LURKERS (Stefik's Spiders): The largest group, professionals, academics, researchers and others whose needs for information is practical, and who wait for it, usually in silence.
FISHERMEN: People who trawl selected sub-topics or discussions for specific data, such as information about a kind of information or software.
HELPERS: Electronic communities often have a compliment of knowledgeable veterans who welcome newcomers, and are happy to counsel them in the ways of the site. The helpers don't see newcomers as a threat, but an opportunity for the village to grow and prosper.
IDEOLOGISTS (as in priests and theologists): Vigilant for deviations from what they perceive as the site's purpose, they disagree and criticize, sometimes sharply, but rarely with venom or cruelty.
DEFENDERS (as in warrior bees or ants): Ideologically- driven flamers who seek to keep their communities pure, free from intrusive outsiders, whom they see as threatening and de-stabilizing.
ANONYMOUS COWARDS (Spies, informers, information bringers and Braying Hyenas): Two types, people with legitimate information that they can't share under their own names, and exhibitionists who get to express hostility without consequence. The single biggest cause of the destruction of communities, they are the most frequently cited reason newcomers flee, veterans tire and advertisers move on to more hospitable environments.
TECHS (worker bees and ants): The people in any community for whom the construction of the site is its own reward. They are constantly working to offer options and services, improve software and access.
Some questions: What does an electric community need to work? Are there other identifiable types of e-community members? Are new kinds of sites like weblogs the future, or a minor step on the evolutionary chain?