So Went the Salon

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 May 1997

I used to think that conferencing was the Internet’s true purpose. Log on from anywhere in the world, pick a subject, and jack into a conversation. These weren’t the real-time chats and pick-up rooms of America Online, but what are known as “asynchronous” conversations that, like chess played through the mail, can carry on for weeks or months. A user would log into a USENET group or bulletin board conference, read the responses already there, and then add his or her own thoughts.

The topics all had titles, from Star Trek to Organic Cooking. If there wasn’t a topic about your area of interest, you could start your own. This is why there are so many hundreds of different USENET groups; the fans of The Simpsons needed a place to talk just as much as Macintosh developers or homeopathic doctors did.

My first and favorite place to hang out online was The WELL, short for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. Based in San Francisco, the Well was one of the first and most forward-thinking online communities. It was a loving but intellectual place, where people could find answers to burning questions, meet friends, establish professional relationships, and enjoy rich conversation. The Well inspired Howard Rheingold’s landmark book “Virtual Communities,” and dozens of local dial-in services around the world.

The beauty of the Well and most of the USENET groups was that they were delightfully self-organizing. There were generally no rules at all, which seemed to encourage a sense of fair play. It was as if we all knew how chaotic the Internet could get if we didn’t exercise basic civility and common sense, so, with few exceptions, we stuck to whatever the topic was supposed to be, held insults to a minimum, and worked as best we could to come to common understandings.

Conferencing was an experiment in electronic conversation as much as it was a way to get or share any specific information. I think we cared less about any particular fact or idea we may have procured than we did about the process through which we could do it. Large groups of perfect strangers could converse on any topic, develop a common language with which to talk about it, and then discover things through interaction that no one could have discovered on his own. That’s where all the optimistic visions of the Internet as an expression of global synergy came from.

A combination of forces, some inevitable but others altogether avoidable have conspired to de-civilize these online conferences and the Internet as a whole. In the eyes of some, this trend began with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of America Online users onto the Internet a few years ago. Before then, online conversations might have had to absorb only three or four new members a week. It was easy to show these newcomers the ropes, and most Internet communities earned a reputation of helpfulness and courtesy to “newbies.”

But once the newcomers seemed to outnumber the veterans, impatience and intolerance outweighed our civic instincts. The freshmen would post inappropriately, like asking questions about how to operate computers in conferences dedicated to Grateful Dead tour schedules. Hostility peaked as experienced users tried to isolate themselves from everyone else. Some Usenet groups even installed programs to automatically delete the posts of AOL users.

Then the conversations themselves began to develop an elitist tone. Users less knowledgeable about a topic were ridiculed and “flames” (long abusive diatribes) became commonplace. Entering a conversation became an act of courage.

Meanwhile, those seeking to make a fast buck off the Internet saw each conversation as a self-defined target market. Movie conversations were flooded with ads about new films, book conferences with announcements of upcoming releases, and every USENET group was “spammed” with pornography advertisements. Adding to the chaos, journalists, seeking the “honest responses” of, say, fans after the deaths of people like Jerry Garcia or Kurt Cobain, would flock to online conversations at exactly the moments when the participants needed one another the most. An online area for the families of victims of the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing doesn’t need the interference of sensationalist tabloid writers.

We could have managed these intrusions. With a little effort, extraneous commercial posts could be deleted, disoriented new users could be redirected, and journalists could be told to use email or start their own topics.

The real and most insidious force afflicting online conversation has been the transition of many of its participants from amateurs to professionals. A large proportion of the people who got online for conversation now make their living in the online world as technicians, programmers, developers, and writers. Although in the past a conversation about online journalism or modem technology might have been pure philosophy, today those same conversations will be populated by high-profile magazine editors or computer developers, who have a lot more at stake than good discussion. Sometimes I feel like I do, too.

Maybe Howard Rheingold’s brainchild, “Electric Minds” really was the answer: he hired experts in various fields to lead conversations between more pedestrian users. It was a closed community in some ways, but its professional moderation guaranteed the civility and openmindedness that its subscribers paid for.

Unfortunately for Electric Minds, not enough people were willing to pay for such a service, and it closed its modems last month.

I suppose every salon has its natural lifespan. Even the literary paradise of the Algonquin Roundtable only lasted a couple of decades. But before we write online culture’s epitaph, we should take a moment to ponder just what we want out of this brief, shared, and electronic moment in cultural history. It’s a lot more precious than we may realize.