Jan 15 2009

I Miss the Olden Days

Believe it or not, the Internet used to be fairly organized.  If you wanted to exchange or download files, you did it on FTP servers.  Text documents and small bits of information were on the web, or before that, on gopher.  Long-term, BBS-style discussions were on Usenet, which was organized into a simple hierarchy of groups, so everyone on the net who wanted to discuss Cardinal baseball subscribed to alt.sports.baseball.stl-cardinals. For real-time discussion you went to IRC, which had a channel for each topic. Everything had its place.

Of course, there are probably a hundred times more people now, and a million times more information, so it had to expand somewhere.  IRC channels that had 100 users then couldn’t handle 100,000 now; it’d be impossible to keep up.  It’s too bad everything got shoehorned into the web, though.  Now the comments areas of popular blogs get used as discussion forums, even though they don’t have threading or killfiles or any of the other features that Usenet readers came up with 20 years ago to make discussions easier, so they’re a pain.  Services like Twitter become a sort of blog/chat hybrid that isn’t as useful as either one.  Social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook that have their own internal forums and mail are like the bad old days when services like AOL and Compuserve had their own proprietary features no one else could access.

Fortunately, people keep inventing new ideas to make the new services almost as useful as the old ones.  With RSS, I can track all my favorite blogs in a bookmarks folder, so it’s easy to see when one has been updated.  (I still can’t see when someone has replied specifically to a comment of mine, but maybe someday.)  Search engines make it possible to find almost anything in the chaos.  They’re the only thing that makes the whole mess work, really.

With the old services, since each one had a single purpose, it was always obvious what to do with them.  With the new ones, I’m not always so sure.  Like with this Twitter thing.  Ok, so I can use it to announce blog posts and new sites, and get more visitors that way.  But before anyone will see my announcements, I have to get them to “follow” me.  That means I have to post consistent and interesting “tweets” for a while first, so I don’t look like I’m using it just to advertise.  So, in theory, after a few weeks of posting about the events of my day, from what I had for breakfast to the length of my afternoon nap, I’ll have a pack of followers who will click on the links I give them and boost my traffic.  Link sharing sites like Digg and social networking sites basically work the same way.

It all seems like a roundabout way to get there, and a lot of work.  I guess that’s fair, since traffic equals money, so it shouldn’t be too easy to get.  I wish it didn’t feel quite so much like stumbling around in the dark, though.  It takes an awful lot of optimism and committment to assume that if you post tweets or diggs or whatever several times a day, people are going to start seeing you as an authority they want to “follow.”

On the other hand, in the Olden Days you couldn’t really make money with this Internet thing at all.  (In fact, before the Republican Congress turned it loose in 1994, you weren’t really allowed to make money on it, but that’s another post.)  So I shouldn’t complain.  It’s great that ordinary people can build profitable sites with good content and elbow grease and persistence, without needing big advertising budgets and marketing departments.  Maybe the chaos hasn’t been such a bad thing after all.

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