This is not what you would call a lede per se, but indulge me for a few paragraphs. This will take some explaining.
It started somewhere on my commute, about a week ago. I was scrolling through an AvantGo newsfeed on my PDA, reading the daily Suck.com column. In case you’ve never read it, the Sucksters, originally escapees from Wired, are masters of meta-satires, writing editorial commentaries sprinkled with sly annotations, linking seemingly innocuous words to punch line URLs of elucidation.
Suck columns are also full of acerbic insights and irritating insider obscurities. To call Suck irreverent would be an insulting understatement. Slow learners are not tolerated here. Either you get it — or you don’t.
Naturally I was surprised to read that Suck creators and their peers were launching a public forum site called Plastic.com, which assembles other similar brands into the loop.
What’s that? The Sucksters want to meet their public? Open the floor up to a discourse? And — Lord forbid — build an in-ter-active com-mu-nity? Surely, I thought, this was the Suckster’s biggest prank yet.
I ran to the office at full sprint, typed in the address and the page loaded. “Look out honey, ’cause we’re using technology” greeted me on the site’s top banner and I sighed with relief to that see that this Iggy Pop lyric was being appropriated by the right people. So far, so good.
On the front page, the Plastic people — which include Feedmag.com’s interface guru Steven Johnson — announce that their raw power will come from bringing together “smart editors and smart readers,”‘ and thus create a “new model for news.” Those editors come from The New Republic, The Modern Humorist, Inside, Nerve and other cutting-edge sites. And with this crowd, they stand a good chance of assembling that critical mass.
The vehicle is fairly simple (and one that was pioneered by the renaissance geeks at Slashdot.org). Under categories such as Politics, Work, Media and Sex, editors post links to content outside the site. These can also be suggested by users. Users comments are then logged, but unlike the free-for-all of a newsgroup, editors or moderators then rank the comment, thus making it easy for readers to filter out the noise and receive clearer signals. Likewise, the good stuff (i.e. links that inspire swells of discussion) float to the top of site.
I liked what I saw, but I didn’t see the big picture until the next day — during my usual AvantGo session. Katie Hafner of The New York Times ( www.nytimes.com/2001/01/18/technology/18SELF.html?pagewanted=all) spelled it out for me: Plastic is one of them new fangled “self-organizing sites,” like ThemeStream and TheVines.com. These are sites that let users determine what flies, what runs, what gets killed. Writers and news hunters bring their content and opinions to the site and the code organizes into a survival of the fittest. This model has also been put to use at consumer sites such as Epinions
(and to a lesser extent at sites such as Amazon.com and the Internet Movie Database).
After getting over the shock of discovery, memories of Cyberias past came flooding back. Slowly the neural synapses began to snap and crackle, bringing all those trend-threads together — open-source code, aggregated content, Web log filters. Could this be it? That leap to a higher of intelligence?
Hafner’s piece in the NYT helped me finally switch on the light bulb by linking me to Everything2.com — where everything came together.
Everything2 started as a simple attempt to create a browsable database, open to modification. The big difference between Plastic and E2 (the second incarnation of Everything) is that all of E2’s links point inside; nothing goes out. One imagines monklike scribes and editors working in a cloister, but instead of faithfully transcribing the word of God they are assembling an electronic tree of knowledge (with plenty of ephemera on the branches).
The site is awe-inspiring in its expansiveness and depth. Discovering E2 is like stumbling upon a huge Dungeons and Dragons game that has been continuing nonstop for years, developing self-governing codes and a social stratum in the process. The similarly massive Slashdot.org projects a feeling of constant flux; at E2 — a Sim City of knowledge management — you can see evolution slowly progressing. E2’s creators admit it can be very, very confusing at first, so take your time.
What is significant about sites such as Plastic, E2 and Slashdot is that they offer no financial compensation to their contributors. All they get, perhaps, is respect and exposure. The Vines does offer the promise of some kickbacks, but Hafner pointed out that contributors obviously aren’t there for the big payback.
While this fact might lead some to dismiss these sites as wastes of time, remember that they are working models, coded infrastructures that other sites can adapt to different uses.
Old-school journalists and publishers would do well to study the dynamic relationships developing within these Petri dishes. Silent readers are speaking up and deciding how long a story will live after it is uploaded. Sure, publications have always had pages reserved for readers’ mail, but one has to wonder how much these have influenced editorial mandates.
As an editor I filter for a living, working in my cloister as it were. When I do meet readers, I usually get an earful of feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Do I feed it back into the loop? Can I? Maybe, but at the end of the day, I’m just one editor in the forest. Then again, as they say at E2 “Everything is nothing without you.”
While spelunking through E2, I was intrigued by a large body of carefully written work by someone called “sensei,” much of it devoted to Japanese film and classical literature. According to one long message, sensei says he is 67 years old and that his ailing health might prevent him from continuing his work on E2. He sends thanks to all the users who helped him along the way.
Yes, Plastic people could have a laugh at the warm fuzziness of it all, but I hope that if a sensei arrives at their doorstop, they don’t filter him out. Raw power aside, they might learn something, using technology.