Social Media and Me

Originally posted on Half an Hour, May 21, 2008.

I was asked:

* How did you get started with social media?
* What was your introduction, and how did the journey unfold?
* What difference has it made in your professional practice?

Here's my answer.

My first experience with anything that could be called Social Media was in my Masters level 'Philosophy of Mind' course, offered by John A. Baker. I had to go to the computer lab in the department of Philosophy at the University of Calgary to gain access, but I participated in a lengthy discussion on the topic with the rest of the class (I still have the complete archive, on paper and bound).

My introduction to networking comes in the late 1980s with Bulletin Board Services (BBSs). It took me a lot to figure out how to configure the modem and connect to a BBS, but when I did, a world opened up to me. I took part in online chats, I posted to discussion boards, and I downloaded software.

I thought this was a great way to connect and I made some friends on the BBS systems in and around Edmonton. One of my favorite sites was run by the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC), believe it or not. Another was run by some guy from south of the city in a small town; I remember visiting him once and thinking that he was like my father, an older guy with an office filled with electronics and other junk (it's a certain character type).

I was so enamoured of this online life that I eventually built my own BBS, using the Maximus BBS system. I had to create my own batch files to run the server, something that took literally weeks of labour (I still have the code listing at home somewhere). My BBS, Athabaska BBS, was less successful - people had trouble connecting, just as I had. And as my interest was province-wide, long distance was an issue. As was the fact that it tied up my telephone line.

My next encounter with social media was the Multiple User Dungeon (MUD). This was also my first introduction to Internet (ie., TCP/IP) social media. I recall it clearly. We - the philosophy department - had finished losing another slo-pitch game and were recovering in Tom Daly's Chop House (and pub).

Two friends, Jeff McLaughlin (Kane) and Istvan Berkeley (Nomad) had already joined the MUD, Muddog MUD (based at the University of Florida). (Istvan and I shared a house in Edmonton for a while and explored connectionism together). They described how to join, and I figured I would. We discussed my character name for a bit, and I settled on Labatt - it was short, easy to type, and was suggested by the beer posters on the wall (Labatt is a brand of beer in Canada).

The next several years spent on Muddog were transformative. I worked my way up the ranks and eventually became a wizard, responsible for contributing to the MUD programming. En route I made a number of friends (one of whom I eventually married) and went through many shared experiences. It's the sort of thing that has been written about elsewhere, about other people (Sherry Turkle is the danah boyd of the MUD set). Muddog closed down in 1994.

Jeff, Ishy and I worked on some other projects together, most notably the 'Painted Porch MAUD' (Multiple Academic User Domain, which I coded from a Nightmare MudLib). We caught the attention of some other people, most notably Wes Cooper and Terry Anderson. While I was living in a cabin in Northern Alberta Jeff sent me an email describing the job at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, a job that my MUD experience uniquely qualified me for.

I made the jump from telnet to the web when I moved to Brandon in 1995. In Brandon, my first experience with social media was a site called The Spot. I was one of the original 'Spotniks' back in the days when it wasn't certain whether or not The Spot was real (it wasn't - it was launched and run by Fattal and Collins, an advertising agency. The Spot sort of drifted away before being eventually closed in 1997.

I remember visiting my family in Ottawa over the Christmas break of 1996. I spent most of my visit exploring a site called Firefly. Basically, it was a prototype social network, with friends and recommendations and many of the features we see today. When I returned back to Brandon, Conrad Albertson and I had long discussions about the site - and the sorts of things we could do online. Firefly was eventually bought by Microsoft, which killed it.

Around this time I picked up ICQ - as I recall, at the instigation of my father - which is probably the first genuinely social software I tried (in the sense that you have a list of 'friends' or contacts). ICQ is the original instant messaging software. It was launched in 1996 by Mirabilis, an Israeli company. My ICQ number, 1287181, was given out in 1997. My list of friends included mostly friends and family - work acquaintances never did take to it. Significantly, ICQ allowed my father and I to reconnect after many years, and we had a good dialogue in the last years of his life (he died in 1998) and with Andrea, who I married in 1998. ICQ was eventually bought by AOL, which cannibalized it to promote AOL Instant Messenger.

After I left the Spot I landed at the HotWired website and in particular the Media Rant discussion area. Here I came to know quite a number of people. I also started saving my online postings (having seen too many communities close - you can see them collected here, way down at the bottom of the page). This was prescient - the Threads part of the site closed in 1998, not long after I posted my lament for the once-great magazine. A bunch of us left the site in the fall of 1998 to form NewsTrolls, which continues to this day, but which, over time, has lost all its members.

Also around this time (starting in 1995, with my job at Assiniboine) I had my first real experience with email discussion lists, specifically WWWDEV, run by Rik Hall at the University of New Brunswick, and DEOS-L, run by Mauri Collins (among others) at the University of Pennsylvania. This connected me with the more academic community, and especially the Canadian community through WWWDEV. I attended a number of WWWDEV conferences and had many too many late-night beers with people like Rik, Terry Anderson, Rory McGreal, and the various other people the conference attracted.

In 1999 I was attracted from Assiniboine to the University courtesy of a job offer from Terry Anderson, who hired me to build an online community for the municipal sector in Alberta. My work in online community as well as my experience building websites and courses for Assiniboine qualified me for this job. I learned a lot creating MuniMall, not only about content syndication and community building, but about politics and communication. And I must say, I am very gratified to see MuniMall still alive and still using my original design, eight years after I left the University of Alberta. It's gratifying, and it tells me I got some things right.

While at the University of Alberta I started my email newsletter. I had launched my website in 1995, and in 1998 built the engine that I used to post news on my website and also on NewsTrolls (and a city of Brandon website, The Brandon Pages, which was beautifully designed, but attracted no community). But in 2001, while on a three-month visit to Australia, I decided I needed to expand my web presence - my job was coming to an end and I thought a newsletter might help me get paying work.

In the summer of 2001, Rory McGreal contacted me, telling me I should apply for this NRC job in New Brunswick. It was, again, another position for which my community-building experience perfectly suited me. And since taking that position in November, 2001, I have expanded my personal social network in two ways: first, by an ever increasing list of subscribers to my newsletters and RSS feeds, and second, by an ever increasing list of feeds in my RSS aggregator, the people I read on a regular basis. I now read about 500 feeds regularly, and I distribute my newsletter to 3000 email subscribers and roughly a similar number of RSS subscribers.

From there has been a proliferation of social networking tools. I have used Skype a lot and have a long list of Skype friends. My list of Orkut connections, by contrast, is small and silent. I have a long list of connections on Facebook, but my only real use of the site is to play scrabble (though I was invited to speak at a couple of conferences via Facebook messages). People follow me on Twitter, because my Facebook status update outputs to my Twitter account, but I do not read Twitter.

My main social network today is my own website. Mostly because I know it's the one site that nobody is going to close on me.

You work with these sites long enough, and you come to realize, if it belongs to someone else, it's going to die, eventually. No matter what kind of site - whether a MUD, a bulletin board, a discussion list, an online community, a communications app, whatever. Either it will shut down outright because it was no longer profitable (or no longer fit the 'funding mission') or whatever. Or it becomes so commercialized that it becomes useless, a cesspool of advertising, spam, and other detritus.

That said - if you follow this history, you will see that pretty much everything I have done in the last fifteen years has been the result of social networks one way or another. All of my jobs have come from the network. Most of my ideas, my work, and my thoughts and opinions have been shaped though the network. Even my personal relationships have been established through the network.

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