There Is No Cat

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Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Run for the hills! AOL is coming!

Shelley Powers notes the buzz around the impending release of AOL's blogging system, and in particular the reactions from current bloggers fearing what the influx of AOLers will do to the pristine environment of Blogistan, taking particular note of what happened when AOL loosed hundreds of thousands of participants on Usenet. (I have to note that Shelley favors the changes she sees.)

I was around for Permanent September, as the AOLization of Usenet was known. I don't remember it fondly. AOL's software was buggy, so for a while, every time someone from aol.com posted, you would see something like eight copies of each message. The users were completely unaware of the culture of Usenet, and stomped all over the delicate balance that had emerged over the years. About the only good thing I can think of is that after aol.com became the domain name commonly associated with clueless idiots, everyone forgot that the previous holder of that distinction was psu.edu.

That said, Usenet != Blogistan. I don't think the impact will be nearly as severe, or in fact, negative at all. Blogistan is already much larger than any one person or cabal can get their heads around. There are hundreds of thousands of Blogspot weblogs, Radio weblogs, and LiveJournals that are maintained by people who already have no idea who Jeff Jarvis, Meg Hourihan, Nick Denton, Anil Dash, and Clay Shirky are. There are already different settlements here; tech blogs, warblogs, etc., etc. ad infinitum. The "a-listers" are already only "famous" within a relatively small segment of Blogistan's residents. The coming of AOL will change this in degree, but not in nature.

The other thing is that the nature of Usenet and Blogistan are very different. Usenet is subject-centric, and generally read in threads. You select those subjects within a newsfroup that interest you, and you read those. Within a newsreader, there's very little scope for differentiating between posts by different members of the group; maybe you can highlight posts from one person, kill posts from another, but that's about it. The focus is on the subject, not the person, and the tools encourage reading all posts on a given subject. In this ecosystem, it's very easy for newbies to break into the conversation, and possibly even disrupt the ecosystem, as the introduction of AOL to Usenet did.

Blogistan, on the other hand, is person-centric. A blog is the product of a single person or group of people. The tools for threading conversations are quite primitive in comparison to Usenet. Many (most?) blogs don't have a commenting mechanism, although it's more prevalent than in the early days. Most blogs with commenting mechanisms lack the critical mass to create a steady community and therefore get few if any comments. Very few of the comment sections on blogs are threaded, and those that are are typically difficult to follow. (It's certainly possible to read Usenet in a non-threaded manner; the command line client rn did this. But Usenet makes more sense in threads, such as displayed in rn's descendent, trn.) Rather than throwing everyone into a soup the way Usenet does, Blogistan is an archipelago of islands, and the bridges between them can be hard to build. It's not easy to break into the conversation just by posting something to your own site. Trackback, which is intended to address that shortcoming, feels bolted on to the side of most websites where it's used rather than integrated into the flow of what little conversation most blogs generate. It's very easy to ignore people you don't know in Blogistan; in fact, it's the default. If you don't know about a blog, you can't read it. Shelley hopes the introduction of AOLers into Blogistan will lead to "complete and utter anarchy". But that's what we've already got.

In short, most AOL bloggers will likely be voices in the wilderness, just like most other bloggers today. Certainly a few stars will emerge. Some of them may even be disruptive to current social patterns. There may be a bit more balkanization than there is now. But the overall impact is likely to be minimal, because the "noise" of a million or five cheese sandwich blogs doesn't impact the ability of the widely-read bloggers to communicate the way it does on Usenet. I don't see the AOLization of Blogistan as being anything but more of the same. And that's fine by me.

Posted at 4:21 AM

Comments

Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

USENET failed not because of the AOL cluelessness factor, which was real, but because the sudden influx of new users proved to be too large for the newsgroup community with its closed culture and etiquette. I agree that weblogs by their very independent nature won't suffer from the same problem but really, what's so sacred about "Blogistan" that needs to be preserved? Intellectual ideas that remain fixed become stagnant and die.

Everybody has to learn sometime. I consider anyone who says they were never a novice at something to be dangerous.

Posted by Mike at 9:59 AM, July 8, 2003 [Link]

I don't think it was just because the numbers were too large. I think there was something inherent in the structure of Usenet. On the positive side, it's possible for anyone to participate in a conversation. On the negative side, it's possible for anyone to participate in a conversation.

Blogistan doesn't have this design artefact, so it's relatively immune to the disruptive quality that it can produce. On the down side, it's not as small-d democratic, in that it's not as easy to become "well-known". It's possible to write well, create compelling stories, have an accessible design, and be completely (or almost completely) ignored. With a million-plus blogs out there, it's inevitable that there are bloggers every bit the equal of the ones everyone reads, but who get minimal exposure.

I don't think there's anything sacred about Blogistan. It is what it is, it will be what it will be, and what it is today isn't what it was yesterday or what it will be tomorrow. Everything changes. I agree that ideas that remain fixed die. I just find it interesting that there are people who fear the changes that AOL will bring to Blogistan based on what happened to Usenet when AOL opened the floodgates (which I think is generally overstated; it wasn't AOL that killed Usenet, they were just the proximate cause of a highly visible instance of disruption), but who don't consider the differences between the two phenomena.

Posted by ralph at 6:48 PM, July 9, 2003 [Link]

Agreed. A better comparison might be to the online journalling community (which was well-established prior to even JJG's old school weblog list). Some in that community were annoyed at weblogs and webloggers (for a variety of reasons), but both communities have continued along their merry way, with some overlap and some confusion (weblog v. journal debates, etc.), of course, but I don't have the impression that the development of a weblogging style of writing harmed that community in any appreciable way. (Disclosure: I keep both a journal and a weblog.)

Posted by Medley at 10:51 AM, July 10, 2003 [Link]

Care to see an actual AOL Journals blog? Click the link above, or go to

journals.aol.com/eja9300/akablog

Posted by Eric Akawie at 12:56 PM, July 16, 2003 [Link]

The link in the comment above isn't working, so just click on my name.

Posted by Eric Akawie at 1:24 PM, July 16, 2003 [Link]

I don't think that "Usenet failed" and certainly NNTP is flourishing. For example, look at what's going on at free-conversant.com, genecast.com, gmane.org, nntp//rss, and SyndiCache: All of these are using NNTP to help people communicate and organize information. I'm collecting a list of such things here

www.ii.com/internet/messaging/imap/isps/#msgDeflexion

and still holding onto my old dream of easy noise-free communication with people all around the world.

Thanks for your interesting site!

--Nancy "there is no blog" McGough

Posted by Nancy McGough at 6:37 AM, July 21, 2003 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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