Friday, July 11, 2008

Why I trust the internet

Someone on one of my message boards today posted that Urban Legend about the Nova not selling well in Spanish speaking countries because it means "no go" in Spanish. I've heard this a thousand times and there's no evidence that this is true, or at least that it was true at the time the Nova was on sale. (The ubiquity of the myth on the internets has muddied the waters.) I posted the standard refutation – the Snopes page. It's not perfect, but it's available and it's readable and well-researched. He wrote back to say "I tend to rely on at least one other source than the internet, which is often my memory" with the clear implication that someone "relying on the internet" was a moron.

Now, what I posted, was, admittedly, available on the internet (that's the only thing you *can* post) but was written by people I've known vaguely - as well as I know this guy – since 1995 or longer, about 15 years. Endless discussion over this issue took place on a Usenet newsgroup called alt.folklore.urban, where about fifteen regulars, using real names or unmunged handles, discussed and sifted information on this and every other Urban Legend as it came in. I believe them, because I've interacted with them for years and they are actual people who have devoted considerable time to this, and many other more fascinating issues. But to this poster, Snopes is "the internet".

It made me wonder about "the internet". The people whose only interaction with the internet is to read information from it, or watch porn, or both, must think the 'the internet' was put into place by Magic Overnight Fairies, who are capricious and frequently wrong, and therefore the internet is an unreliable place of great pitfalls and lies. And yet on this particular group, where the post quoted above was made, there are the usual sprinkling of wizards or gurus who Know What the Frell They're Talking About. I won't name names, but let's say that Jimbo has every Led Zeppelin bootleg ever released and Elisa can date a picture of any concert from the band's costume, stage set and audience. If Elisa tells me that a particular picture is from Kezar, June 2, 1973, and Jimbo tells me the available bootlegs are Who's Next, Imperial Kezar and so forth, then I have a choice. I can put the information into the "my trusted friends" category and act on it, or I can put it into the "found on the internet" category and discount it. In their case, I'll act on it.

Random photo of me, 1999 to break up the text

So, where did I get my confidence in 'the internet', which clearly and self-evidently is stocked by con-artists, politicians, amateur liars, mad people, people with an axe to grind and folks who want to sell me something?

I got that confidence by being here before 'the internet' was built. Let's look at that for a minute. Searching on "who built the internet" and "history of the internet" brings up thousands of posts about Tim Berners-Lee, Al Gore, Transatlantic Cables and Arpanet. B-O-A-R-I-N-G! I don't, at this point, care that deeply about nodes, the Department of Defense and/or hypertext mark up language. No wonder the fairy theory is popular.

Who actually put all that content up there?

Well, I don't know. I thought I'd better put that up front since this post started out with a "I know what I'm frakking doing" statement. Web and Usenet history is so well-known to the real pioneers that if I say I know, I will be corrected, forcefully. So, I admit I don't completely know. But I've been told. And unlike most people, even people my age, I have lived it. I just didn't write it all down as it was happening.

I started off in Usenet, before there was a web. Usenet was first up and running in 1979. It was originally designed to share "news" articles written e-mail style by one person and uploaded to a backbone of computers where the article could be grabbed and read by other users. To help sort the articles (even though only a few a day were anticipated), there was a naming hierarchy so that the articles could be sorted and placed in a number of "newsgroups". A post to a newsgroup could be replied to by any user and all other users could see both original and reply. If you read the original article and the reply together, you were reading a "thread". Usenet is not hypertext based (of course, there are html news articles nowadays), so a thread was a thread. To find a related thread, you had to keep up with the news and remember where the original was.

The original computers in the system (1980) were:

......uok ----duke---unc
............. ./......\

Arpanet and various mailing lists joined on to this until it became – wait, get this – a world wide web! (But not *the* world wide web (WWW). That came later.)

Within a few years, thousands of users were sharing news articles. Gamers, of course, were early adopters. Unix wizards appear to have been 97% [1]of the population, but despite that, the number of articles continued to grow rapidly until there were literally tens of thousands of newsgroups available, millions of articles and hundreds of thousands of users.

I was online in 1992 (possibly earlier; I can't remember) through Compuserve at home and a work email address borrowed from a friend's workplace. The original newsgroups I subscribed to included alt.folklore.urban, which discussed Urban Folklore, as in the commonly passed-around material that Jan Harold Brunvand wrote books about – the baby in the microwave, the Red Velvet Cake Recipe, the Death Car and so on. In those days, since there was no internet or even email for most people, all folklore was passed by word of mouth, or by careless media called 'vectors'. (Now that the internet exists, urban folklore eats its own tail, and so alt.folklore.urban is basically useless. If you go and look at it today, you'll see it's a pale shadow of its old self.) The first recognizable post of mine still in the Google archive was to alt.folklore.urban on February 27th, 1995.

Usenet is very different from what most people call the internet, the WWW. You don't need a browser to connect to it (although most people these days do connect through a browser), and you don't read "webpages" written by businessmen or salesmen or media outlets. You talk, in an email-based way, with thousands of users of like mind, who have self-sorted based on the newsgroup names, or their charters, or in some cases have squatted an unused newsgroup and just began chattering on it. Take a look at one of my favorites, uk.rec.sheds!

What is usually known these days as the internet is the World Wide Web. This is a series of documents (now a rather large collection) which are linked together by navigation elements called hyperlinks. A document hyperlink is an address that can be typed into a "browser" which will then display the document on the user's computer. In the document may be other hyperlinks, which a user can click on to go to the next document, and by "next" I mean the next one to catch the user's eye. The documents aren't actually in any order, and anyone can upload a document to the WWW, tell someone the hyperlink address, and that person can find it, read it, and link to it – but not alter it.

The WWW took off in 1993 with the introduction of the web browser. Funding for the first high-profile one, Mosaic, came from the High-Performance Computing and Communications Initiative, a funding program initiated by then-Senator Al Gore's High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 also known as the Gore Bill . (I thought I'd just throw that in, in case anyone asks.) Mosaic was rapidly displaced by Netscape, and then Netscape was more or less destroyed by Internet Explorer, which started in 1995. With the introduction of IE, the WWW was readily available to people with PCs and little computing experience.

Much of the WWW is composed of documents put together by big companies, governments, health organizations and so on, who need a big soapbox to shout from. Other documents come from grassroots people – fans, collectors, hobbyists, photographers, anyone who has interesting stuff to share with others. A middle ground comes from larger companies who put up web pages and then ask their users to fill the pages with "content" for free, which they then sell, or they sell the advertising. YouTube will take your videos. Flickr or Photobucket will take your photos. will take your fanfiction. Allrecipes or Foodnetwork will take your recipes and publish them, asking little except a treasured family secret in exchange for nothing at all. IMDB will take your movie reviews and your hard-won knowledge of movie crew and cast. Clever sites do many of these things at once – Amazon will try to sell you something, but it does it by having previous buyers rate what they bought and review it, providing content; and their software aggregates buying habits of people like you and they like in order to prepare suggestions for what you should buy next. Some folk believe in the Wisdom of Crowds and have built Wikipedia, to which you can add your own information.

Google has made a point of providing astonishing tools to people and not actually asking for anything in return except your personal details, every document you've ever written, whether uploaded or not, every email you've ever sent or received, every trip you've ever taken and every web search you've performed, which they will sell to the Martians in 2009 in exchange for nice uniforms and swagger sticks. [2] And I for one welcome our new Martian overlords.

Another subset of WWW comprises the areas set up by companies to allow people to express themselves. Blogspot and LiveJournal give you a place for a personal soapbox. MySpace and Facebook and so on provide an area for you to advertise yourself and keep friends informed. Tens of thousands of message boards, many with minimal advertising and owned and operated by private citizens paying out of their own pocket, have been set up on thousands of topics.

The last category is similar to Usenet, and it is still the way I spend most of my online time now I've mostly transferred to the WWW. I belong to literally dozens of Message Boards, User Groups, Notice Boards, Groups, Live Journals, Blogs and so forth. The content in these web pages is dynamic, and is almost entirely written by individuals. Most of it is in the form of posts, whether at a regular frequency, like a blog, or in response to other's posts, as in a message board. The individuals may be named Gandalf, or JimmyPage666 or RavenRoseGoth, or whatever, but each one is a human being, not a conglomerate or an agency. I have half a dozen names out there myself, mainly to keep straight what I'm supposed to be talking about, although, to be honest, there is a certain amount of not wanting my friends to meet my other friends, and god forbid, talk about me behind my cyberback.

Each of these people is known to me. I haven't been round their houses. Most of them are a continent or more away. I don't know what most of them look like. But over the weeks and months, the ones who come back, who make sense, who can read and write, who are respected by their peers – these people float to the top in internet culture. They used to be called gurus or wizards, but I guess the web doesn't bother with titles like old timers did. The respect is earned the old way, over the years. I trust them, at least in their chosen fields. I don't trust 'the internet'; I don't trust Exxon, or, or Wikipedia, or But I do trust the wizards.

[1] Made up figure
[2] Made up business plan

Further reading: 1993 article by Bruce Sterling on the History of the Internet.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Web 2.0: A man in a suit stands next to a wall graffitied with adverts, handing out stones to passers-by, and inviting them to throw the stones at the wall.


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