Community Network Architecture — From Electronic Mailinglists to Weblogs

Geert Lovink*

b #04

Discontent with Internet mailinglists must have been as old as the application itself. Moderation and filtering is the one issue, the linear character of postings another one. Lists have a maximum of topics they can deal with at the same time. Not more then three or four threads can take place simultaneously. As far as I can remember, discussions inside the Nettime circle and neighbouring lists about the necessity to build a web-based multi-layered ‘workgroups’ environment go back to 1996 and 1997. It took a few more years for something to happen. The step from majordomo list software (plain code) to mailman (linux with a web interface) had not made a huge difference for the way in which list communities themselves operated. The mailman code wasn’t developed by new media culture initiatives but initially came from the Linux community. Around the same time system administrators and programmers started their own web platform to discuss technical matters. (“News for Nerds – Stuff that Matters”) was launched mid 1997. In 2000 Slashdot made its underlying ‘slashcode’ software available which a number of web projects started using.

Around mid 1999 a Sydney-based group developed Active, an open source web platform, similar to Slashdot. Active was going to become the base for the global activist open publishing site. Indymedia was launched during the WTO-protests in Seattle (December 1999) and rapidly spread with the growing movement against corporate globalization agendas. Local initiatives, mainly in the USA and Europe, duplicated and modified the Active code and set up their own Indymedia site.

Slashdot and Indymedia were only two of thousands of so-called ‘weblogs’ that popped up in the 1999-2001 period. Originally weblogs were often-updated sites, ran by individuals that linked to others weblogs. David Winer runs one the oldest weblogs called Scripting News. In his defintion a weblog is a “continual tour, with a human guide who you get to know. There are many guides to choose from, each develops an audience, and there's also comraderie and politics between the people who run weblogs, they point to each other, in all kinds of structures, graphs, loops, etc.” Noah Shachtman described ‘blogs’ as a “constantly updated combination of diary and link collection.” According to David Winer the first weblog was the first website,, the site built by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. From this page TBL pointed to all the new sites as they came online. NCSA's What's New page took over this role, then Netscape's What's New page was the big blog around 1993-1995, until the Web exploded. Other early weblogs include Robot Wisdom, Tomalak's Realm and CamWorld.

Weblogs could be described as the follow-up of the ‘homepage’ and act as a grassroots response to the corporate takeover of the Web by news portals and directories such as Yahoo!, AOL, MSN and CNN. One could also stress the empowering aspects of self-publishing. Bloggers seize the the means of production, as Andrew Sullivan points out in Wired Magazine. In the past “journalists needed an editor and a publisher. Even in
the most benign scenario, this process subtly distorts journalism. You find yourself almost unconsciously writing to please a handful of people - the editors looking for a certain kind of story, the publishers seeking to push a particular venture, or the advertisers who influence the editors and owners. Blogging simply bypasses this ancient ritual.” Because weblogs are all about linking to other sites, they reflect the longterm trend from content to context. Weblogs are collective context generators. Miles Fidelman of the Center for Civic Networking: “There is so much content these days that we all have to do a lot of filtering. Where we read something (the context) provides a lot of the filtering, editing, validation for us – and controlling a trusted context would seem to convey a lot of power.”

Blogging is also described as a mentality. “Webloggers typically offer pithy, sarcastic commentary about the links.” Others emphasize the speed with which weblogs update news and links. “Weblogs, typically, are personal Web sites operated by individuals who compile chronological lists of links to stuff that interests them, interspersed with information, editorializing and personal asides. A good weblog is updated often, in a kind of real-time improvisation, with pointers to interesting events, pages, stories and happenings elsewhere on the Web. New stuff piles on top of the page; older stuff sinks to the bottom.” Evan Williams: “the blog concept is about three things: Frequency, Brevity, and Personality."

Others stress that blogs are in essence media platforms for individuals, not more than personal diaries. But for Ziod Slashdot is more then just a blog: “I remember trying to tell my dad about Slashdot way back and told him it was like reading the newspaper and submitting your letter to the editor in a matter of seconds with other people commenting on you letter to the editor within a few minutes. He responded ‘so it's total chaos.’ That's when I decided I had no idea how to explain Slashdot.” All seem to agree that blogs, either run by usergroups or individuals, got have an lively, interactive audience. The users build up a common personality and give the weblog its own, unique charteristic. Over the years weblogs have become associated with the easy-to-install software that had been developed for this genre of sites. Software is the message, as often the case of the Net, initially brings together people with widely different interests and opinions. Greymatter, blogspot and blogger could be mentioned as examples of weblog software.

Critical new media culture had largely ignored the steady rise of weblogs. After an initial period of network euphoria (1995-98), a consolidation phase for Internet culture set in. Overwhelmed by the dotcommania storm, chronicallly underfunded the cultural arm of new media faced a range of conceptual dilemmas. Squashed between the freedom of passionate dilletantism and greedy professionalism of ‘the suits,’ the cultural sector had manouvred itself in a vulnerable charity situation, somewhere between non-profit, commerce, living off state support, grants and sponsership, if available at all, while doing commercial work to pay the bills. One of the burning issues in the outgoing nineties was internal democracy and how to deal with political and cultural differences. The Kosovo crisis in March-June 1999 had excellerated the tense atmosphere. It had brought different approaches on the surface, way beyond the pro/anti NATO bombing of Yugoslavia polemic. In this tense climate in which the new arts sector worldwide struggled to establish itself, the desire to have open and stimulating online conversations wasn’t on many people’s minds. The 2001 breakdown of the unmoderated Syndicate mailing list illustrated this worrisome trend.

There had been a growing discontent with the way in which (both majordomo and mailman) Internet mailing lists operated. Yet, there seemed no way out of the dilemma between open and closed lists. Open lists tend to become noisy and irrelevant for those who prefer less traffic and more content. Moderated lists on the other hand show a tendency to become quasi-editorial magazines, thereby losing the ‘informality’ of email exchanges of ideas and material. ‘Collaborative filtering,’ the magic word of the Nettime lists, was in danger of losing its lively, social aspect. The discussion about open or closed lists was exhausting itself and showed signs of repetition.

With the overall Internet still growing at a considerable pace, existing list channels are becoming slowly institutionalized. But how else can list-owners manage the increased traffic? This is an issue that effects all users. There are growing suspicions about those who moderate and others who ‘chat’ or even ‘spam’. The net result is a standoff: increased tensions, and more troubling, silence - a breakdown of communication, an increase of suspicion and the loss of an invaluable exchange of information and arguments. There is no reason why this situation should be passively accepted. A ‘weblog’ could quickly bring the new media culture uptodate, overcoming the current list problems. Existing websites and list in the field of new media culture have not (yet) adopted open conferencing ‘weblog’. An initiative for a web-based platform was long overdue.

It is time for the new media arts scene to move to the web and build up a weblog where multiple threads, debates and news threads could take place, in a way that was not possible within the linear electronic mailing list structure. The compilation technique of the Nettime moderators to filter related messages into one only partially helped. The more moderation was done the lesser partipants had the exciting feel of a intimate and ‘live’ exchange. Slowly Nettime lost its community feel and was turning into a new-style publishing channel. The advantages of a weblog over the lists were numerous. Whereas a list could only carry a limited amount of parallel threads, weblogs could represent an infinate numbers of conversations, including hundreds of responses on each individual posting.

It seemed important to not just complain about a corporate takeover of the Net, the closure of the ‘digital commons’ or the decline of virtual communities but to actively reshape the Net by writing code and develop our own ‘weblog’ project. Yes, the Net was in danger but there was plenty to be done. The dilemma between ‘noise’ and ‘quality’ should no longer paralyse us. There had to be a way out. “The real struggle at stake now is between old and new,” Lawrence Lessig writes in The Future of Ideas. Lessig describes “how an environment designed to enable the new is being transformed to protect the old.”But the dangers for the Net were not just coming from intellectual property lawyers. There were also internal dynamics at hand, besides the “burdens created by law.” The ‘new’ was not just a fixed set of funky ideas which were waiting to implemented on a large scale. The restorative forces of ‘old media’ were on the rise, and in this defensive atmosphere ‘the emergence of the new’ could all too easily become an empty phrase.

The hotly debated issue of open vs. edited channels, be it on email or the web, can be dismissed as a minor technicality, only of interest for Internet nerds. I don’t think this is the case. The material presented here could be read as an allegory of electronic democracy. Are trolls the online Other, in need of our sympathy? The fight over the architecture of net-based conferencing systems goes to the heart of the ‘new’. It is this uncarved, yet to be defined element which makes the new different from the old. Media history had shown how revolutionary means of production were constantly retrofitted into profitable and controlable top-down channels. But was there a way out of the cynical loop from innovation and hype to mainstream adaptation, ending up in regression and blues? Did the Internet inevitably had to deteriorate? Were there ways to escape wellknown patterns? What happens if users and developers no longer buy into the fateful historical cycle argument, from hype to sell-out and decline? Was there a way to sabotage the course of history from experiment to sell out and decline? Both weblogs and peer-to-peer networks were encouraging phenomena, pointing at a turn of the Internet, away from corporate and state control. Are innovative and creative forces Lessig speaks so highly of in his Future of Ideas condemned to start all over again each time a new round of technological innovation comes into view?

One thing weblogs were not going to change is internal democracy. Founders and owners (also called ‘admins’) of weblogs could not be voted off. As in the case of mailinglists, weblogs did not aim to democratize the ownership of online forums. The owner remains to possess the paswords to root access, the domain name and the server(space). It is the owner(s) who, in the end, will have to pay the bill for the Internet traffic and other costs. Ultimately, therefore, there is no real democracy for the ‘readers’ unless they become owners themselves. Owners install and configure the software. That is why there is always is an (invisible) meta-level in blogging which reduces the power of users to ‘participation.’ In the last instance the user remains a guest. As with mailinglists weblogs in theory have the option of editors being elected by the user base. In practice, this is not happening. At least, not so far. Elections within lists and blogs are rare (though technically easy). The ‘openness’ of a weblog is constrained to the content level. The explanation is a simple one. The admins/editors will not easily give up the ownership of a project in which they have invested so much of their (free) time. Money is a secondary element here as we are speaking about the culture non-profit initiatives but it can play a role as well. This all puts often unspoken limitations to the idea of ‘free speech’ of so-called user-driven weblogs.

Online forums are to be compared with nineteenth century salons. As their historic ancestors online salons form a keystone for democratic culture, but salons are not democratic, decision making institutions themselves. Polling is now a common feature on weblogs and news portals—and so is vote rigging. The reliability of online polls is next to zero as users can vote as many times as they like. Even though reliable voting software is available, it’s not being widely used, mainly because of the anonymity of many Internet users. In the world of old media is taken for granted that neither the publisher nor the editors of newspapers can be elected by the readership. Open publishing channels on the other side create an expectation of freedom of spreech by giving users editorial control. Sooner or later users will find out that this is not the case and the fight over the degree of openness starts. Much like a Paris salon it is up to the blog owners who will be included and excluded, despite all the tresholds. This very fact is often denied by those who are running online forums, an attitude which only further fuels debate. It can be expected that the tension between the official Internet ideology of access for all and the actual power of the owners/operators will only further increase. The contradictions as described here could therefore lead to an increase in fights and frustrations amongst users. On the other hand, limitations of weblogs could as well lead to a new generation of software that will bring online dialogues on a higher level of internal democracy without having to compromise on the quality expectations on the content level--no matter how high or low.

*Recent books by Geert Lovink

Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture
The MIT Press, September 2002

Uncanny Networks

In Dialogue with the Virtual Intelligentia
MIT Press, December 2002

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