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The Core Tenets of the Social Web, 25 years in the making

by Alex in |

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review.

We like to think of the social web as green fields in which we are just now sowing best practices and first principles. After all, if there are no hard-and-fast rules, then anything goes. We get to come up with our own laws and axioms and declarations of “here’s how it’s done.”

But if you look at the longer history of the social web, it’s clear that some principles have been around for a long time. And nothing brings those principles into focus like a look at the social web’s first big controversy, all the way back in 1987: The Great Renaming.

“The Great Renaming” refers to a major shift in the structure of Usenet, the massive distributed discussion board system; the Facebook of the ’80s. Remember alt.subject.sub-subject discussion boards? That was Usenet. For a long time it was The Way that people conducted open, online group conversations. By the mid-eighties, Usenet was big and chaotic: a system that was started with the expectation of two posts per day by 1987 supported 241 groups and almost a thousand posts a day. (Community and social media managers of 2011, please try to contain your amusement at the idea that 1000 posts per day represented an unmanageable volume.) And then came the Great Renaming.

I stumbled across the Great Renaming in the course of my research for a 40-day, 40-year history of the Internet’s social impact. Of all the historical moments I’ve dug into thus far, this one’s the toughest to document. Here’s what I can say for certain: Before the Great Renaming, Usenet groups were organized into three hierarchies, fa., mod., and net. Then some people decided that needed to change, so Usenet was reorganized into seven hierarchies: comp.,misc., news., rec., sci., soc., and talk. (two more, humanities. and alt., were added not long after).

The facts beyond this get murky, but it’s clear that this move created massive controversy in the Usenet community. The controversy centered on three questions:

  1. Was cost the primary driver? Some say the main driver was the cost of transporting all the data involved in a smallish number of highly antagonistic, not very constructive conversations. The European networks wouldn’t pay the data costs so they were borne by the one US-European hub. Reorganizing the network meant that big chunks of the newsgroup world could be kept in the US (by keeping the “junk” groups off the European news servers), saving on transmission costs.
  2. Were different kinds of content treated differently? Which topics got allocated to which top-level categories was very controversial, particularly since some categories were much more widely distributed than others. Some users were angered by the decision to create the “talk” hierarchy for high-volume, controversial topics (so that individual newsgroup administrators could choose to keep “talk” groups out of their system. Decisions about which group belonged in which hierarchy were often perceived as highly political, like the debate over whether to name a newsgroup for women “comp.women” so that it would be distributed as widely as possible.
  3. Who got to make the decisions and what did they have at stake? The decision-making process was often ascribed to a “backbone cabal” that was described as consisting of systems administrators associated with backbone Internet providers. The idea that major decisions were being made by a closed circle with limited accountability and possibly self-interested motives was one of the enduring aspects of the controversy.

Twenty-five years later, virtually any controversy over a social network or social media site focuses on one or more of these three flashpoints: a perception that decisions are being driven by cost, by discrimination based on the legitimacy of content and/or by a narrow and self-interested set of decision-makers. Just look at three of the controversies I’ve written about recently on this site: apossible delicious shutdown (closed decision-making), a change in rules for the Twitter API(different content/code treated differently) and the New York Times paywall (cost driving decisions).

From the consistency of these hot button issues we can infer three core principles for the social web:

  1. Free. We expect the Internet to operate as if information not only wants to be free, but actually is. From the free software movement to the hostility to metered data, Internet users and opinion leaders have continued their romance with the idea of a cost-free Internet. While some social media services have been able to introduce freemium or even pure pay-for-service models, it’s the idea of free that drives the technologies, businesses and communities of web 2.0. In part this reflects the reality that as soon as you introduce fees for service, you become vulnerable to a competitive challenge from a free alternative.
  2. Open. We expect the Internet to be equally open to virtually all forms of content. Individual users can make choices about what to look at, but online technologies and service providers should not discriminate. In practice that translates into an insistence on bloggers who turn out to accept (but not disclose) fees in return for coverage.
  3. Participatory. In 2011 it seems like we may expect more from our online communities and web services than we do from our governments and politicians. Web service providers who makeunilateral changes in their terms of service incur the wrath of their users, as do those thatspontaneously change their interface or functionality. Conversely, web sites and services that are perceived as participatory and user-driven earn major kudos.

It should come as no surprise that we expect the web to be free, open and participatory: after all, these are words that are widely bandied about in discussions of social media best practices andbusiness 2.0. But it’s crucial to recognize that these principles are no passing fad, invented by us as a result of some Facebook spat or Verizon business decision. Nor are they the high hopes of a new and idealistic medium. In fact, they’re the same principles that have always bubbled to the surface on the social Web, even a quarter-century ago with the Great Renaming.

“Free, open and participatory” is the social web’s equivalent to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And it’s been a driving force on the Internet since at least 1987, which in Internet years makes it about as lasting — and as trenchant — as that other phrase committed to parchment in 1776.

First posted on April 11,2011

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