But it's not as if I was hanging around the BBSes in the 1980's.
LOL. I was.
The software was obviously a lot different in 1985, when I logged on to my first Commodore 64 BBS, but a less obvious difference was that all the participants were local, usually living within a hundred miles of each other. I eventually met, IRL, many of the people I initially met on-line. Of course, that was also back before we had all these quickie, quirky acronyms like IRL (in real life). I think the tone of the BBS era was often milder in those days, even with little or no moderation, if only because you knew the guy you were getting ready to flame might live only a few blocks from your house. Politeness seems to come easier to some when they can imagine someone knocking on their front door?
There were three or four active C64 BBSes in Southern California back then, but only one that was substantial. I later discovered, when I met some of the people IRL, that my advent onto the boards had been regarded with some suspicion. I had already been writing software for the C64 for the better part of a year and knew pretty much every bit and byte of the 8K operating system by heart, so I made my entrance by answering a lot of questions and asking very few. What I didn't immediately realize was that a lot of the people on the BBS, probably even most, were there to swap pirated software. Everyone apparently thought I was a narc, a ringer sent from Commodore to spy on them.
I was also, like Diane, a part of the original JimWorld forums in the late-Nineties and remained an Admin there until 2005, some few years after Jim's death.
Jim Wilson, I believe, set the tone for most SE forums and many web design forums that have followed through the years. He was a pioneer, in part at least, because a lot of the people who would eventually start their own SE forums grew up, so to speak, in Jim's World. People like Brett Tabke and Doug Heil disagreed vehemently with Jim on how forums should be run, so they would go off and start their own, only to mimic almost everything Jim had already introduced. It's only been in recent years, in my opinion, that a newer generation of forums (like Cre8 and HighRankings) have begun to evolve apart from the original searchengineforums.com. The tone has finally started to change, becoming much less insular. That's a good thing, I think.
Jim was also instrumental, I think, in establishing the look and feel of today's modern forum.
UBB redefined the previously threaded and somewhat myopic forum software of the early- and mid-Nineties. Jim was an early adopter and active promoter of UBB, and Ted O'Neil, the author of UBB, was an SEF member. Ted made a lot of changes to UBB based on Jim's input and, while I'm sure the software would have succeeded without Jim, it probably would never have grown so big so fast. I know I personally switched to UBB in 1998, after starting two previous forums running on threaded software, and my writing forums are still running on a heavily modified 5.x version of UBB today. My newer forums run under vBulletin, though.
UBB was written in Perl and used flat text files as a database. We have long since moved to a PHP and mySQL dominated world, but while the foundation has shifted immensely, every single one of the major forum packages available today look almost EXACTLY the same as UBB looked in 1998. Ted and Jim pretty much invented the linear discussion format and it has changed very little in almost ten years.
(This software, and most others, also offers threaded options, where you can ostensibly reply directly to another reply instead of to the originating post. It's available up there under the "Options" button at the top of each thread, listed in the "Display Modes" section. Most people who accidentally discover it seem to get frustrated and a bit irritated until they can figure out how to switch back. That has included a few of our Moderators, I think. )
Understanding the dynamics of on-line communities is something of a passion of mine. I registered communityprime.com a ways back in hopes of exploring that passion further, but never quite seem to find the time. I've even thought about writing a book. This thread, obviously, isn't the place for either. Still, at the risk of overstaying my welcome, I feel compelled to respond to a few comments made earlier.
Just a few, I promise.
Adrian: Things can be a lot more distributed now. In times gone by Forums could be relatively closed communities.
Exactly so, Adrian. And generally, I think, this was by design.
Jim and I discussed this as early as 2001, I think, though I was never able to change his mind about keeping SEF insular. It remained so after Jim's death, as have several other big forums in my opinion. I honestly don't believe that's going to work in the long run, though.
In the writing world, it's called a cross-over. Sort of like when Spider-man met Superman? In my opinion, the only way a forum can survive in today's world will be to acknowledge that there's more inter than net in the word Internet. Like flowers and vegetables, we desperately need cross-pollination to evolve and grow.
I still remember the analogy I used in 2001. How often do you drive twenty miles out into the sticks to eat at a lone restaurant? In contrast, how often do you drive down to restaurant row, where a handful of fast food eateries are intermingled with several family restaurants and maybe one or two more high-end dinner houses? They're not competing, but rather co-supporting each other. Quality will always be important, but choice is paramount.
BTW, I also remember telling the SEF moderators, in the private back room, that if they posted only at SEF, I believed they were short-changing both themselves and the SEF community. I would offer the same advice to everyone at Cre8. There's a very good reason, I think, why society has historically frowned on incest.
In the years I've been involved in on-line communities, this has been the single biggest change I've witnessed. And, in my opinion, we're at only the beginning as boundaries between sites will continue to blur.
In my opinion, Kim, that is one of the big myths about on-line communities.
Kim: This is the part about forums that blogs don't tap into. The responsibility for the success of a forums lies with the Community.
Like most myths, it contains just enough truth to remain deceptive. Yes, no community can long survive without the people that comprise it. And, yes, each Member brings something unique to the community, something that either hurts or helps the whole. That much is truth.
The greater truth, however, is that as long as someone is pulling the strings, deciding which conversations stay, which conversations are challenged, and which conversations are immediately vacuumed into cyber-space, the tone and atmosphere of that community is going to be a reflection of that individual. The greater the control, the more clear the reflection. It may not be the politically correct thing to say, but I'm nonetheless convinced it's true.
It does get complicated, though, which I think is what makes on-line communities so darn fascinating. The complications arise because the person pulling the strings is always influenced by the people who pulled the strings before them. That's why Jim Wilson's influence is still felt, and why Aaron was able to change TW so little after Nick left. It's why when a Founder relinquishes active control, the admins and moderators rarely attempt to set a new course -- and usually fail if they try. Community Momentum is an incredibly powerful force, one that can both create and destroy when allowed to run amok.
DianeV: That said, for me, forums are a place to hang out. Yes, to answer questions, maybe to learn — but really a place to hang out. (I "discovered" cre8 when I was looking for new a new forum to hang out at.)
I think that is equally true of blogs and all the other social media deviations. Some people hang out in bars, some in bowling alleys, some at the local library. Those places aren't competing with each other so much as providing different needs for different people. Each is necessary to the greater whole.
I'd like to close (is that the sound of raucous applause?) with a few paragraphs I wrote in 2004 (prompted, ironically, by a conversation with Diane) for the JimWorld Gazette. The article, titled Where Everybody Knows Your Name, includes several resource links that I hope are still available and perhaps even valuable. I think the more we can understand this thing called community, the more we will be able to garner from it.
Ray Oldenburg, another one of those Ph.D.s like Google has made so famous, is a sociologist who wrote a book some ten years ago, called The Great Good Place. In it, he writes about the vital importance to society of informal public gathering places, essentially dividing our social life into three "places." Our first place is the home, our second place is work, and the neighborhood bars, bowling alleys, and coffee shops are our collective "third places."
Unfortunately, these third places are becoming increasingly difficult to find. Following World War II, according to Oldenburg, older neighborhoods have often lost their cafes, taverns and corner stores to the ravages of urban renewal and freeway expansion, while newer neighborhoods have developed under single-use zoning restrictions that make these critical third places illegal to even operate.
"Life without community," writes Oldenburg, "Has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community." Later in the book, he writes, "What suburbia cries for are the means for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly, and pleasurably -- a 'place on the corner,' real life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family that do not necessitate getting into an automobile."
Gee, sound familiar?
Now, I'm certainly not going to suggest that on-line communities can or should take the place of the real-world ones Oldenburg contends are so vital to a healthy life. I don't expect Sam or Woody to serve me a beer, and I'm going to be real surprised if Cliff and Norm sit down on the stools beside me. Still, the camaraderie and friendliness of a good forum shows some marked similarities to a place like the fictionalized but very real Cheers. Spend a few weeks interacting with your peers, and SEF can quickly become a third place for you, a place "Where everybody knows your name."