the future of social networking is in the past

Posted by on Nov 30, 2007 in blogosphere, cinema, corporatism, grassroots, media, technology | 4 comments

Bill McKibben has written an interesting article in The Atlantic on how internet radio trumps satellite radio because internet radio makes local radio global. His point being that community is what people crave, and local community allows people to connect in a way that a disjointed, chaotic or simply programmed (24 hours of music but no talk.) does not.

The web will be the venue of the next media movement, but first it needs to iron out the kinks. It will be community based and the closer it can get to real time, the better. At first, like Facebook and Twitter, the social communities will be random and somewhat disjointed, the result of who is in your address book and using the application too, mixed with connecting via random interest in a plethora of searched words, links and web sites, all brought together by curiosity, the technological newness of the application and the desire to reach out and touch someone.

The process is similar to how AOL chats worked in the mid 90’s.- a new computer, new connection to “cyberspace”, and lots of people just like you, looking to talk. Both ICQ and AOL were great at bringing strangers and friends together, but the common elements that create a lasting and growing community were lacking. It was pretty chaotic. People coming and going, not really getting any farther than idle chit chat, which is pretty much the scene on Twitter and Facebook and My Space. IM’s function in a similar manner, as do text messages.

At first, the AOL chat rooms that were so popular began to morph into something else. The ability to create your own chat became the popular choice and established AOL created chat areas faded away. But, not all of them. Some of those prefab chat rooms on AOL began to coalesce into more specific communities, and you’d notice that the same 50 to 100 people were now regulars. Like a cyberspace bar.

The binding connection was like minded lives and interests. You could find anything from car talk to conspiracy talk to bondage in the AOL chat area. My hangout was a public chat called Hollywood Tonight, and once the membership became solid, it evolved and moved into the Hollywood Cafe, a place hidden away in a mostly forgotten area of AOL, which meant that it wasn’t really monitored by the AOL police and that you pretty much had to know where it was to find it. So, it was pretty exclusive.

The “HC” was a den of thieves and Cheers all at once- celebrities, producers, agents, writers, directors, crew and wannabes- all hanging out at the wee hours of the morning talking about pretty much everything under the sun, but most especially movies and the biz. And, when you entered (assuming you’d already gone through the ritual verbal hazing for a month or two), a bunch of people knew your name. (Or your screen name actually.) It was the flamiest place on the web and the most fun. But, you had to pay your dues. Everyone knew each other in either the cyber world or the real world or both. And, relationships were tight. The famous mingled with the infamous and the nobodies. The real action was in IM’s of course.

What linked everyone together was their love of the movie and tv industry and networking. People networked for everything- agents, scripts, connections, introductions, cyber sex and in a number of cases, real sex. And, there was even a real world meet up at an LA bar where everyone could actually meet the people they’ve known only through a bemusing screen name. They’d chat about work, and network. It was quite the hot spot. We affectionately referred to ourselves as “the dorks”.

In the end, it was destroyed by the elements that destroy most communities- a deadly combination of outside forces and inside acrimony. Whilst the members of our little community devolved into clique fighting and petty arguments, the little virtual bar we called the Cafe was under assault by the corporation that was AOL. The area that we inhabited was to be discontinued. (The chat room was part of the Hollywood Online area, and it was dismantled when AOL acquired Moviefone.) For awhile we moved into a private chat, but the member limit was too low, and only allowed 30 members at a time, when it wasn’t uncommon for a daily chat to flow to over 50 and the active members on “the dork list” numbered easily over 100. Plus, being a private chat meant that new members couldn’t join unless they were invited and sent a link to the chat by an existing member. So, new blood was cut off. All in all, a deadly combination that doomed the Hollywood Cafe to the dustbin as a place of legendary social interactive networking on the web years before anyone had thought to call it that.

It’s the great example of how AOL pretty much killed itself by eliminating one of the most popular features for a good number of users. They could not see the value in a community of people all congregating in large groups, at the same time, nearly every single night of the week, but especially on weekends and during big industry nights (the Oscar night chats were incredible, especially when it wasn’t uncommon for someone we knew to be there.). It would take another ten years before corporations like AOL would see the value (on their terms, which means collecting information on users) of social networking at its best.

Today, much of the social networking applications are weak substitutes for the intensity that was a good AOL chat room. From sex talk to philosophy, it was all there. But, more importantly, relationships were built and nurtured and destroyed and rebuilt and abandoned and kindled and ignored, new friends found, enemies were made, just like the real world.

The lesson is that in order to foster a strong social community, the sense of place – even a virtual one- has to be solidly established. It’s essential. Not just a location on the web, not just a web page with all of your likes and information on it. Facebook and Twitter are both lively and interesting communities, but that sense of place and of intimacy is not there yet. Information about what you are doing and thinking moves back and forth, but that sense of place isn’t. Even a virtual Cheers is better than the emptiness of open cyberspace. It’s about the people in the space, it’s about the ability to mimic what we do in person- congregate in groups together and talk and hook up. Simply knowing what someone is thinking or doing at any given moment isn’t enough. You have to be able to take it to the next level, to connect on an intimate level and make a friend or an enemy.

Otherwise, it’s all just chit chat, an endless loop of nothing. Like 24 hour all country radio on Sirius or XM satellite. No signposts in the road. Just fence post after fence post after fence post.

I can think of nothing so boring.

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