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The Evolution of Digital Communities

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We're going to jump in and talk on this panel about the future of digital community and I've been asked to try to provide some context by providing a little bit of the history of digital community. And this is an interesting thing to do in front of a room full of broadcasters because the truth is journalists are pretty good at writing the rough draft of history and as a result, most of us know who famous journalists are. On the other hand, geeks are really bad at history and even the geeks in the room for the most part cannot tell you who these men up on the screen are. I will tell you, they are the guys at BBN who came up with the Interface Message Processor which was basically the first internet router. These guys, not Al Gore, are the actual fathers of the internet. I want to talk about the fact that, literally, from the moment people have connected computers to one another we have been using them to talk to one another. In fact, even before that the internet, as we know it, came into being in 1969. But email, as we know it, came into being in 1965. Even when people were sharing a single machine at MIT they figured out they needed to talk to one another. And so what happened as the internet, first ARPANET, came into play the first packets were set in 1969. By 1971, email was in use on the network. By 1973, it was the main thing people used the network for. So this is a good example of how people put computers towards the purpose of communication even if the network wasn't designed for it. And what you're looking at up here is the very first internet mailing list in 1975 and it will come as no surprise to any of you that the second message sent out on the first internet mailing list is an apology from the system administrator for the fact that he's doing a lousy job of keeping up with everybody's concerns. Some things really don't change over time. For people of my generation internet community meant bulletin board systems. It mean these computers that you dialed into to borrow software that others had found somewhere that you might use. And in fact the first BBS came up in 1978, it was called CBBS. It was put together by a guy named Ward Christianson. And the story is that Ward got snowed in in Chicago and over the course of 2 weeks wrote a program on this miserable machine here which let people come in and share old IBM CPM software. So that's 1978. By '79, we had Usenet and this is the precursor to all the threaded message boards anyone has ever used on the web. Usenet had thousands and thousands and thousands of topics most of which were completely irrelevant even to the people who participated in them! Also in 1979 we had a wonderful phenomenon, MUDs - Multi-User Dungeons. The ability to walk around in little text spaces and kill dragons with other people, and most of us thought it this was completely irrelevant until we started having basically the same thing with really pretty pictures, and people said it was really really important, and they call them Massively Multiplayer Online Games. This is World of Warcraft that we're looking at. But again, 1979... This is the time in internet history where we invented the emoticon, right? You know we actually see it for the first time... I'm sorry I don't have it in here... But it's just a dash and a pren was meant to be 'tongue-in-cheek' We don't actually get eyes attached to it for another 2 years. Look, in 1982 we have a critical moment in the development of online chat we have Minitel. This is what happens when you let a national government engineer the internet, it's little and pink and very hard to type on. But what happened with Minitel, was Minitel introduced a chess program and the chess program had a chat feature and people quickly discovered that you could flirt with people you'd never met before in the chat feature, and this is the birth of IM as we know it today. In fact there's a lot of people from a certain generation in France who all you have to do is say 3165 and they refer to anything as 3165 as being about sexual content because that was the number you dialed on Minitel to get the chat lines. We haven't come so far... In 1990 we get the World Wide Web and some people start realizing that this is something that isn't just used by people who look like me! And this is the first homepage we get at CERN. It actually looks very much like this today. In 1995, we suddenly have companies like Geocitites and Tripod allowing anybody to build pages that should look look like this and instead end up looking like this! And despite the fact that in 1995 most of the web does in fact look like this, we have in 1997 people dedicating themselves to trying to find the best within this mess and putting it together in something that they call weblogs where they're annotating what they think are the best bits of it. And by pointing all of these blogs at one another we get this sort of emergent community of people pointing to one another. If everyone stands here and points to somebody else we basically get the same sort of community we're used to having in the blogosphere You can all try it right now, you're now a blogger. Ward Cunningham, 1995, figures it's not enough just to have one person edit a webpage, why not have everybody edit a webpage? Which sounds like a phenomenally stupid idea until you try to run an encyclopedia on top of it which works remarkably well and it actually turns out that if you put dozens and dozens and hundreds of monkeys together in a room they actually write encyclopedias. And they're pretty good. So, why now, at the end of this internet history where I'm trying to make the point that a lot of the really interesting community stuff was invented in 1982 or 1979... Are we all suddenly paying attention to it? The simple answer is that there's a whole lot of graphs that look like this one. This is the graph of hosts connected to the internet but you could make a graph of total internet connectivity, you could make a graph of total number of webpages, you could make a graph of total number of web users... They all look more or less like this one. And what this leads us to is a world in which %68.6 of Americans are currently connected to the internet. Some of us seem to be connected %68.6 of the total hours of our lives. And this leads to things like hundreds of millions of people creating pages on things like MySpace and otherwise semi-sensible news organizations paying $600 million for it. Which leads us to our panel today.

Video Details

Duration: 7 minutes and 13 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University
Views: 165
Posted by: xenophiliac on Oct 15, 2009

Ethan Zuckerman talks about the history of digital communities as a primer for a panel on the community dimensions of the media. The panel was part of Beyond Broadcast 2006.

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