Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ NewsTrolls at 3

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 04, 2001

When NewsTrolls was founded in the fall of 1998 we were just at the beginning of the Dot Com frenzy. It was the end of the age of innocence on the net, the year Wired sold itself and its soul, the year IPOs and stock options replaced software and cool sites as the top tech headlines. Netscape was still a going concern, AOL was best known for distributing millions of 'frisbees' and Microsoft was reinventing its internet strategy for only the second or third time. It was the start of, we were told, the "Long Boom," and we were in for a ride that would never end.

It ended, of course, not long after we survived the non-mayhem that was Y2K. It ended with the wail of a thousand venture capitalists, people who jumped in with open wallets in 1998 and couldn't wait to get out in 2001. It ended with newly minted Dot Com millionaires selling their Jaguars, their companies never having sold a unit. It ended as online advertising revenue slumped, then collapsed. It ended as online enterprises realized that they had to attract more than just eyeballs, they had to attract credit card numbers and full shopping carts.

Today most of the wreckage has passed, the survivors are picking at the bones of the carrion, mergers and consolidations are the order of the day and the internet has become just another slot in a newly converged media, just another option in a media buy, just so much background noise, a cacophony of spam, popups and popunders, poster-sized banner ads, solicitations from the Ivory Coast, pandering and pushing. The cheap side of town, more than a little unsavory, a shadow of the promise we all hoped and dreamed the online world would become.

For all that, the internet has also become more than we ever thought it could be. From the text-only stomping ground of a few thousand nerds in the 1980s it has become not only a household word but also a household appliance, accessible by almost everyone in the developed world and millions more in the developing world. The estimates - 500 million users as of last month - actually seem low to me. The internet's influence is pervasive, and except in some final enclaves, the vision of a worldwide net has been realized. Oh sure, the internet may be a little messy and rough around the edges, but that's the way the world is today as well. We are, ourselves, reflected in the internet.

NewsTrolls is one small site among hundreds of thousands, an online enterprise that somehow managed to miss completely the rush of Dot Com investors, that somehow managed to attract thousands, not millions, of web readers, a site that itself remained under the radar for most web users. NewsTrolls is today in 2001 much the same as it was in 1998, a little older perhaps, a little less green at the gills, more experienced, more saavy, more cynical. It's odd to have been part of the Dot Com frenzy and yet to have completely missed it, to have been observers rather than manic participants, sardonic commentators rather than sacrificial lambs.

More to the point, NewsTrolls (almost alone, it seems) survives. Having been passed over by the venture capitalists, we were not one of those many sites cast adrift in the collapse of 2000. Having nothing, we had nothing to lose. What keeps NewsTrolls going today is the same thing that kept us going in 1998: our passion for watching, reporting and commenting on the news of the day. Perhaps we could have printed mousepads and distributed them at ComDex, attracting some deep pockets (and editorial controls), but that didn't happen, not because we didn't care about the site, but because we cared more about the site than we did about the mousepads.

That's the way it should be. And while quite honestly I would like to have made a million from NewsTrolls, I think that in the end NewsTrolls has become worth rather more to me. Not just a weblog, not just a stream of observations, it has for me become a place to watch the rise and fall of the internet, to witness the ebb and flow of new, then despoiled, internet publications, and to place them all in a context: to see the internet not merely as a vast corporate investment tool but as a living, organic embodiment of our collective intelligence, the next step in the evolution of human knowledge, the germination of an entity that could - will - live for a thousand years, shaping as it has been shaped by, the hopes and dreams of all who logon.

What's really interesting about the internet is not the dizzying array of new technologies, not the latest browser of messaging system, not the wireless devices, broadband access, not the companies or even the personalities. What's interesting is the stuff printed on the hundreds of millions that make up the web: everything from wire news services to corporate poster-pages to personal weblogs to discussion board rambles to items in my email from Nigeria to ICQ messages from Turkey. What's really interesting about the internet is not the set of artifacts that we have built online, but the glimpses into the lives of five hundred million people (or as many of them as I can encounter in a single lifetime).

With all the talk about online content and publishing and advertising it is easy to miss the fact that the internet provides a portal to individuals. We see so much more when we look at what people have to say about themselves, their friends and their world. While in the debates regarding copryight, encryption and personal privacy there seems to be this endless urge on the part of some people to own everything published on the internet, there is beneath all this an undercurrent of life that can't be owned. For every Salon in the world there is a thousand personal web pages. For every Yahoo there is a million discussion posts. No person, no company, could possibly make this stuff up, much less package it and sell it to the highest bidder.

Despite the corporate hoarding that is the most common topic of internet news, despite the attempts from all sides to control what people read, write and think, the internet has become the greatest exercise of individual freedom ever seen. In no other environment could I, for example, even dream of working on and writing for a site like NewsTrolls: and even were I to publish pamphlets and posters like the activists of old, in no world other than the online one could I expect my thoughts and ideas to have a global reach. This is the realization that is striking not only myself but millions of others around the world, and on the net we see a flourishing of self-expression published not just for friends but for humanity as a whole.

Why cares if nobody is reading? For the first time in history, history belongs to all of us. For the first time in history, an individual can publish with as much voice and as much authority as the Pope or the Prime Minister. Page views become a matter of ebb and flow, as much a result of the rising tides of internet popularity as the result of control over the means of production and distribution. Each of us watches and witnesses and sometimes creates the events that characterize Life Online, each of us comments (or not) in our own way, and collectively, from chaos, chaos emerges. As it should be.

NewsTrolls is, in part, my voice. My observation. My synthesizing, theorizing, proselytizing, haranguing, wheedling, reflecting, reminiscing. My contribution to the roiling mass of opinion on the net, and at the same time, my attempt to grapple with and understand that same mass of opinion. Because the ultimate question is: once given virtually unlimited freedom, what do people do with it? To understand this is to glimpse a deeper level of human nature, a not-so-subtle level perhaps (not-so-savory, either, in many cases).

And what I have learned is that, in the vast majority of cases, people create a little pocket of beauty, expressing the best, most noble parts of themselves. From the open source sharing of code to the helpful advice dispensed on tens of thousands of discussion boards to the online guides and learning sites to the fan tributes to the hobbiest and specialist pages to the photo tours and community home pages, most people want to add something attractive to that great human publication we call the internet.

In NewsTrolls I think that what I am up to is urging people to get away from the mainstream commercial media and to catch a glimpse into society's soul as we see it on the net. When I think about new media I am thinking less of the Wall Street Journal and more of Free Republic or Slashdot. When I talk about internet culture I am thinking less of major movie websites than I am of minor zines such as Evolt or *spark online. And when I ask people to just look, I am hoping - knowing - that they will see what I see. A hope, a genuine grain of goodness. Something beautiful.

One of the very first web pages I ever saw was a personal web page, one person's reflections on the internet and what it all meant. It was 1994 or 1995 and it ended with a line from Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End:

Something wonderful's going to happen.

I believed it then. I still believe it. And today, after three years in the trenches with NewsTrolls, I believe it more than ever.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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