Social networking through the ages

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday January 12th 2008 in The Guardian
“Social networking through the ages” – The Guardian headline

There is some deep human instinct that compels us to take a wild and open territory and divide it into citadels, independent city states, MySpaces and Facebooks

Much ink, electronic and atomic, has been expended on the subject of social networking and web 2.0. First, let’s decide on how this last is pronounced. “Web two” won’t do. “Web two point oh” is common, but I heard it as “web two dot oh” from the lips of Sir Tim Berners-Lee OM himself and since he is the only begetter of the web, I shall take my lead from him, the most influential Briton since… well, he has no rivals. Brian Blessed, perhaps.

Web 2.0 was christened, so far as I am aware, by Tim O’Reilly. Oh really? No, sir, O’Reilly. He was one of the early advocates of open source programming, and greatly championed Perl, the language my father speaks fluently but which involves too much brain power and concentration for the likes of me.

These days web 2.0 refers both to user-generated content and to social networking sites. Rather than passively searching, browsing and eyeballing the billions of pages of the web, millions now contribute their videos, their journals, their music, their photos, their lives.

The Big New Thing

Social networking (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, etc) has been identified as the Big New Thing. In other words, people who watch My Family have now heard of it and are at last aware of the difference between downloading and uploading. A sure sign, perhaps, that the phenomenon is on the way out. MySpace is already as seriously uncool (and as hideously girlie, pink and spangly) as My Little Pony; Facebook is taking its advantage (openness to having applications written for it) to such extremes that it’s in danger of losing the original virtues of elegance, intelligence and simplicity that established it as a classy, upmarket place in which to live a digital life in the first place.

I am old enough to remember Prestel and the original bulletin boards and “commercial online services” Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online. These were closed communities. You paid a subscription, dialled in and connected. You made new friends and you chatted in “rooms” designated for the purpose according to special interests, hobbies and propensities. CompuServe and AOL were shockingly late to add what was called an “internet ramp” in the 90s. This allowed those who dialled up to go beyond the confines of the provider’s area and explore the strange new world of the internet unsupervised. AOL offered its members a hopeless browser and various front ends that it hoped would keep people loyal to its squeaky-clean, closed world. This lasted through the 90s as it covered the planet in CDs in an attempt to recruit subscribers. A lost cause, naturally, and the company ended up as little more than an ordinary ISP. Made millions for Steve Case on the way as AOL merged with Time Warner, but that’s another story.

Opening and closing like a flower

My point is this: what an irony! For what is this much-trumpeted social networking but an escape back into that world of the closed online service of 15 or 20 years ago? Is it part of some deep human instinct that we take an organism as open and wild and free as the internet, and wish then to divide it into citadels, into closed-border republics and independent city states? The systole and diastole of history has us opening and closing like a flower: escaping our fortresses and enclosures into the open fields, and then building hedges, villages and cities in which to imprison ourselves again before repeating the process once more. The internet seems to be following this pattern.

How does this help us predict the Next Big Thing? That’s what everyone wants to know, if only because they want to make heaps of money from it. In 1999 Douglas Adams said: “Computer people are the last to guess what’s coming next. I mean, come on, they’re so astonished by the fact that the year 1999 is going to be followed by the year 2000 that it’s costing us billions to prepare for it.”

But let the rise of social networking alert you to the possibility that, even in the futuristic world of the net, the next big thing might just be a return to a made-over old thing.

© Stephen Fry 2008

This blog was posted in Guardian column

61 comments on “Social networking through the ages”

  1. Erik R. says:

    Great insights, as usual, Stephen!

    …now come be my friend on Facebook, puh-LEASSSSSE!!

  2. greywulf says:

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. And vice versa.

    I remember when social networking used to be called “talking”. Ah, happy days.Facebook does a good job of re-inventing myspace with good dress sense, but looks set to suffer from another problem; that of Application Abuse. There’s just too many Bad People (by which, I mean scammers, spammers, lowlife and Americans in general) who desperately feel the need to turn good stuff into some money-making endeavour at the first opportunity. Facebook looks set for a Battle Royale this year against such reprobates who just want to misuse such Open systems. I just hope that the price Facebook (and we) pay doesn’t turn an Open API into a Closed one.

    Open is, after all, a State of Heart, not a State of Mind.

    On an unrelated note, I vote that the UK turns the White Cliffs of Dover into our own version of Mount Rushmore. 50 foot high faces of Brian Blessed, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Peter Sallis and your good self staring out to France would do much to strengthen British pride, as well as reduce the number of immigrants approaching these shores…………

  3. Christa says:

    As so many other places, Facebook is turning into a virus ridden place. It’s a shame, but I think that these days you have to be prepared that the more open a community is, the more risks are involved too. Facebook will be in the Corner of Shame just like MySpace and many others, I think that is inevitable.
    It comes with the territory.

    What dawned to me about all these communities and the way we connect with people is that neither of us seems to be happy about the people we already know and are familiar with. Everyone seems to be hunting for something new and shiny, while the people we should care about the most turn into silent strangers.

    I love this media, I’ve used it professionally for many years and it is how I stay in touch with family and friends who are not in the same country. So on a person-to-person basis, I don’t mind it at all.

    And the next “big thing”….well, it seems all to be on random. Although I’m sure it is all very calculated and well prepared by some genius who knows more about our needs online than we do ourselves.

    You don’t know that you’ll need it until it is there :)

  4. teiladnam says:

    The Internet without exclusive communities would be boring. Culture doesn’t exist when everyone’s doing the same thing, I think.

  5. Hot Badger Deluxe says:

    The only social networking site that I use is LiveJournal. This is for two reasons:

    1) A number of online freinds from USENET moved there (uk.misc specifically – still a good froup, but requiring a seriously hefty killfile)
    B) It carries on the USENET structure, to some extent.

    USENET used to be a wonderful discussion forum, even after the eternal September (1), but has recently been largely wrecked by trolls.


  6. (I ended up blogging some of this earlier today when my password to comment was acting wonky.)

    I take the point that the temptation with social networking is to build oneself a small corner of the web, and then stay there. But I would posit another way of looking at the matter.

    The internet is huge. A wilderness, as you correctly state. Whether it’s “good” or not, the pioneering spirit that sends us forth in search of brave new worlds is tempered by an urge for civilization of some sort. Why did the pilgrims set forth? Not to commune with nature, but to find someplace new where they could set up the type of society they preferred. Why did the explorers set forth? Sure, to boldly go where no man had gone, etc., but if you think that most of them weren’t looking forward to spending some of the untold riches to be discovered when they got home, you’re even more nuts than I am. And the people funding the trip were more interested in what the explorers would bring back– they weren’t going anywhere, they already had power where they were.

    I’d offer the following incomplete theory for the success of social networking– we want to explore the web, but often feel lost as to where to start. Where better than with similarly-minded wayfarers? If someone in your social network has similar interests, you may well like, love, be excited by a part of the web they’ve discovered that you hadn’t before known existed. Web 2.0 is a form of armchair travel– we see where the people we like have gone, and then give it a try. Further, knowing that there are corners of the web we can call “home” emboldens us to go out and do some exploring of our own. If we don’t like what we’ve found, well, thank goodness for the familiar, to comfort us. But if we find something new, then how exciting to be able to share it with our InterFriends!

    There are lots of trolls who clog up sections of the web, true, but fortunately the InternetIsInfinite, and we can decamp to colonize elsewhere. It’s a balance, to be sure. I actually set a timer when I am working on my blog and reader feeds for my corner of things– when it goes off, it’s time to read the paper, or explore something random via Google, or (heaven forbid) interact with live human beings.

    Thank for the thought provocation.

    In any event, thanks for a thought provoking post.

  7. mac-guy says:

    Hey Stephen.

    Wonderful as always to read your new post.

    I too, am old enough to remember the early subscription services. Oh goodness do I remember running up bills, accidentally I might add, on a friends CompuServe account. And how many quiet nights I sat in front of a older x86 machine playing BBS ASCII games. Oh, the horror.

    But now, with all that fading, I now find myself trying to explain to people I have met who have upgraded to 10.5, why AOL is extremely buggy. The legacy is gone and there is no place for these early companies other than, as you said, to be a simple ISP(IM and email included of course).

    The Web 2.0 idea, I think, might just be a form of vaporware, if you can call it that. We’ve heard so much about the possibilities, about the grand glory that will be the “next version” of the web… But I just see the same old tired system from several years ago that is doing it’s best to keep up real life. And it’s not cutting it.

    But, I think the web is far too much an organic system to let itself be split into “Pre-Web 2.0” and “Web 2.0”. And social systems have always been around, digital or not, and will always be in place. Users will always need that interaction. And as for funneling the apps you use on your desktop or laptop, onto the web(such as RSS, etc.), that is nothing but evolution.

    Stephen, I can’t see Web 2.0 as anything more than a gimmick. Nothing more than a way for us as users, to feel we’ve crossed some imaginary line to the world of Tron… hehe.


  8. hillslug says:

    Web 2.0 may attract bling in the form of pink fluffy applications to add to your Facebook profile and lower the tone of your sophisticated presence in that social network, but it does have good points and great potential for more. However, as with so much in life, its journey and evolution depends on the driver, or rather, we users.

    The applications in Facebook, for instance, do you really need to be bothered by them?
    Annoying, yes they are, but my understanding was that they were voluntary clutter.

    Web 2.0 has some extremely useful benefits in disseminating information quickly in the medical world. Medical bloggers have decided amongst themselves, that as a community they will adhere to a code of conduct not dissimilar to the Hippocratic Oath, but more pertinent to the online community. One of the codes is called the “Hon Code” and ensures that the applicant fulfills a set of high standards of the provision of medical information.

    This is one aspect of Web 2.0 that can be a problem; so much information available through social networking sites (I can include your very own great Stephen Fry. com website and blog here) but just how do you know that what you read is true and not apocryphal or wrong?

    With over a 100 million blogs out there, a huge number of medical blogs, your Facebooks, MySpace, and communities in Second Life, channels of information can be swiftly spread with a few strokes of the keyboard. So you need to find the kinds of people who can see the good that is possible, along with the gaping holes and glitches, who will not just say, “Na, that’s it mate, knew it wouldn’t last”, and, instead be interested in making it work with self-satisfaction more a goal than fithy lucre.

    Areas of interest include: open access research articles, such as the – very useful for homeworking (additional benefit reducing carbon footprint); virtual communities growing up to expand the benefits of Web 2.0 in the health sciences (

    Web 2.0 can be as sophisticated as you want or choose it to be. Then again, if you choose fluffy pepto-bismol pink my little pony cling-on applications that tell you to “Hug Me” every time you log into Facebook, just remember you chose to add it or accept that app.

    Finally, just because I am fast approaching half a century and never in my wildest dreams thought I would be flying up and down in something called “Second Life” before I was cremated, there is a huge potential for reduction in travel time, money, inconvenience, fuel, oil consumption and more, by holding conferences in closed (members only) sections of Second Life. One of my colleagues has a virtual hospital clinic and ward all exactly like the real place, to quell anxious patients and answer questions. Why more people don’t do this……. well, I think I do know, but it does become so annoying.

  9. stephend says:

    I like the way that underneath the article there is an “add to social network” widget with a couple of dozen links. Kind of demonstrates one of the problems with these walled gardens!

    Incidentally I wrote a piece making more-or-less the same point on my site last year:

  10. p1ckw1ck says:

    “Web 2.0 was christened, so far as I am aware, by Tim O’Reilly. Oh really? No, sir, O’Reilly.”

    Tut tut – in an article about social networking, clearly the correct response to Oh really? can only be YA RLY.

    I’m reading this article via, which allows me to aggregate all my emails, social networks, RSS feeds and other applications and gadgets – I only found it a few weeks ago, but it’s saved me a lot of time (and password entering) already.

    As for “the next big thing might just be a return to a made-over old thing”; the one thing that enticed me (and many of my friends) to Facebook was the availability of the Scrabulous application. So, yeah…

  11. amyl_nitrate says:

    Everything comes in circles they say.

    I loved your paragraph about opening and closing like a flower. You have a way with words that incudes giddiness. ^_^

    I never cease to be amazed at how popular myspace is when it’s so ugly. It really is an awful awful looking design. Facebook reminds me a lot of Bolt from the late 90s/early 00s before it went to hell. Profiles, boards, clubs, tagbooks, journals, whiteboards, adding friends, badges, all that kind of thing. That was my first experience of a social networking site, I don’t doubt there were others before it. What I really like are sites like DeviantArt as they’re great places for people to display their work. LiveJournal and similar blogs are good as well for people to display their writing and other creative selves. There’s always been other places though for people to post things like stories and fanfiction and fanart, various sites big and small.

  12. charlieperry says:

    The “closed site” approach to social networking is on the way out in my view. seems to be getting a lot traction now.

  13. themorgantown says:

    And maybe it’s also a return of the editor:

  14. I have had a love-hate relationship with social networking sites. At one level they are designed to be completely addictive – fiddling with the profile layout (especially on MySpace), wondering who is ‘poking’ you (in Facebook speak), looking to see if there is anyone interesting about…but they bring with them all sorts of other complications: spam, abuse, lots of weirdos, fake profiles, defamatory comments/pictures, harassment, as well as concerns that your employers will, if you are not careful with your anonymity, find out what you are doing and possibly dismiss you if your place of work is identifiable from what you say (employers that have done this have lost generally when taken to court by their former employees but clearly it is better not to be in that position in the first place!).

    I do think though that they represent an escape of a kind that is not always terribly functional in that they can be used as a way of avoiding the complexities of more real relationships. It is easy way to hide in a virtual reality where you can manipulate ‘who you are’ in a way that isn’t possible in everday life, as well as, of course, giving endless succour to people who think that shameless self-promotion is everything!

    I accept that they have their uses — people who are well known might use them to reach out that is, in relative terms, non-threatening. They are also another way for pre-established communities (of whatever ilk) to keep in touch with each other. For my part however, unless the ‘friends’ are people that I know already in ‘real life’, I have not met anyone through that medium that is going to enrich my life in a significant way. I would even go so far to suggest that they may be just another way for people like Murdoch to manipulate the masses, but then I’m sure that is incredibly cynical!

    The privacy/data thing is also an ongoing hangup for me. Some sites make it very difficult for you to delete your account, and others will retain all the information on you even when you think you have parted company…

    I agree that describing them as the Big New Thing is a sign that they are sooo on their way out. Weren’t they always too limited to be anything other than a complete fad?

  15. AxmxZ says:

    Facebook hasn’t been cool since it became overrun with pirates, zombies, ninjas and persistent quiz-aps like “What is Your Sexual Personality?” These days it’s only good for Scrabble.

  16. Mo says:

    Social networks will—eventually—have to decentralise in order to survive. Just as “online services” eventually just became websites and instant messaging systems, effectively open to anybody who wanted them (a few mergers and acquisitions helped, of course), social networks will just become repositories for profiles. The “third-party applications” boom is just another way of decentralising the fun stuff that makes the networks worth visiting (although whether they are actually worth visiting as a result is a matter of opinion). The core bits that make the networks tick: profile data, friends lists, etc., they can all be expressed today in perfectly reasonable and open metadata formats.

    Initiatives like OpenSocial (which is probably just fuelled by sour grapes, but who really cares what the incentive is if it pays off?), and more importantly, mean that eventually we’ll all be able to run social networks of our own and they’ll all connect together, just like we can all run web, e-mail and instant messaging servers today and they’ll all connect together in the manner required for their survival on the public Internet.

    I don’t think it’s particularly ironic, in all honesty. The only reason that it seems to have gone full circle is that social networks are a bigger phenomenon than other things in the past. An awful lot of things out there started off as closed networks that opened up as they got popular—the difference with the likes of Facebook, Bebo, Orkut, and so forth, are that they’re really *really* popular already, but still haven’t quite got as far as opening up properly. There’s nothing hugely groundbreaking about them (the sell is really in the convenience to novices), so there’s little to suggest that they won’t follow in the footsteps of pretty much every other successful online service that’s preceded them.

  17. banjo says:

    Hi Mr. Fry,

    you said “I am old enough to remember Prestel and the original bulletin boards…” I’m younger than you, and I’m sure these were around when I was a teenager… but I grew up in a rural area and didn’t know a thing about the internet… only one computer in town had access to it, and it looked like DOS.

    Instead, my “social networking” was through the post office. I had 28 penpals who all had some interest in common with me…books or music or just feeling bored in a small town. We used “Friend Books” to get our names and interests out to others… by stapling together lots of small sheets of paper and writing info about ourselves on one page, then mailing it to someone, who then mailed it to someone else, and so on. When it was full, the booklet was returned to the person on the front page, who now had a list of about people to get in touch with from all over the world.

    Somedays I feel like making one again just to see what would happen…it really does feel more adventurous than the internet.

    p.s. thinking of the internet as a place with a size just fries my brain… could it ever be any “bigger” than what we already had before, a planet with towns and streets and mailboxes? I think it’s just faster… and somehow when things are faster everything feels small and constricted and with only certain routes available… like taking an airplane as opposed to walking wherever I want. Does that make me sound like an old person? :D

  18. banjo says:

    course, if you have your own plane then that’s a stupid analogy.

  19. kmsheldrake says:

    Ah yes. I remember CompuServe well. For nearly 10 years I was one of the staff who took care of the crafting forums. A VOLUNTEER staff, mind you. It was a sad day when we found out that Better Homes and Gardens had bought the crafting content and closed us down. We tried to set up shop on a different board, but was less than successful at it.

    Now I find my online social networks elsewhere. Gaia Online and Live Journal, for example. I also have a group of friends on World of Warcraft, although that’s slightly different since it’s a MMO and not necessarily a “hang out places”.

  20. anil says:

    Hi Stephen.

    Unfortunately you’re a bit off target on this post. I work for here in London, and we’re probably one of the larger European companies associated with ‘Web 2.0′. Most of the work currently happening in the developer community is going to bring social networking into a new phase which people aren’t aware of but that moves us into an age where data will be portable. In the case of Facebook even the founder Mark calls their ‘closed’ state an ugly by-product of their architecture and not a business goal. The changes to social networking boil down to this work:

    * OpenId – this is the decentralization of personal identity on the web. You will not maintain different identities with different providers unless you want to. One password, one username. You own your identity.
    * oAuth – This is an authentication standard that will allow service providers to authenticate themselves and their user against other service providers without asking users for passwords or indeed any information other than their established identity. It can be used on top of OpenId.
    * dataPortability – This is an initiative spear-headed by Google and Facebook that shows they are commited to interchange of data. It will use open standards like OpenId and oAuth to create seamless data portability between service providers in a secure manner (it is commited to doing this via an open standard anyone can implement). This means you could post your photos to flickr and facebook would know all about them (if you want it to), import your contacts from into facebook, and so on.

    Read Simon Willison‘s work if you want to know where this is all heading. Yahoo! already seem to be looking at implementing OpenId across all services.

    In terms of your ‘open fields’ analogy, well, the internet will be architected, since without architecture there would be no definition and contrast, and importantly, no communities. Architectures provide a framework for communal experience. In the new climate I”m speaking about, networks may be less preocuppied with building fortresses and more concerned with town planning, as they will all inhabit a vast eco-system of shared data, owned by no one but the users…

  21. zenbullets says:

    S’funny but I remember a time when computers were used for computing, not just talking to people and sharing amusing video clips.

    The real joy of social networking, and the reason for it’s success, is that it is a way of being friends with people without all the hassle of actually having to hang out with them and remember their birthdays. I think this says a lot about society.

  22. ysabella says:

    To me, all this 2.0 social networking is more about modeling your existing, real-life social network online (plus, I suppose, linking to favorite bands and actors and so on). That differs from the early days in that, from my first taste of a local dialup BBS to later going on the Internet, I was meeting different people online from the ones I met in daily life. People with similar interests, but from everywhere. I don’t meet new people on Facebook and the others. The reason I started using them was to keep in touch with real-life friends, family, and colleagues.
    The online forum, to me, is still that old-school model – meeting people with similar interests, no matter where they are. Lately I have lots of online friends on my social network, too, some of whom I now count as real-life friends and many I’ve yet to meet.

    AxmxZ, you only say that because you haven’t tried Bogglific yet. :^P

  23. jillydoc says:

    Dear Stephen,

    I don’t know what the next big thing is, but I do know a good thing when I see it. I wonder if you’ve heard of an organization called Freecycle? It was started about five years ago in Tucson Arizona and is based on gifting. Freecycle groups match people who have things they want to get rid of with people who can use them. Pretty cool. No money exchanges hands and to join one must offer something first. I have lots of stuff that is useable and it feels better to me to just give it directly to someone who can use it, rather than giving it to the goodwill where it might sit for months before someone finds it. And I feel good knowing it’s not going into a landfill.

    It is better to give than to receive. Who knew?



  24. zfiledh says:

    I’m getting hundreds of invites to different social networking sites (Facebook, Myspace, etc.), and it’s confusing the hell out of me. I simply see them as different versions of Friendster, of which I’m still a member. I only have three social networking accounts, and I only get to login and update on Friendster, and I’m lucky if I ever have the free time to update it!!! I don’t get how my friends and co-workers are able to keep up with their multitude of social networking accounts, but I guess multi-tasking isn’t part of my repertoire. XD

  25. AxmxZ says:

    ysabella: Oh, great. Now I’ll never get any work done. Thanks a lot!

    (Your move.)

  26. robertas says:

    Hm talking about social networking, did you know there is such a thing as Digg blackmail?

    I have been using Facebook, but as ysabella said above to stay in contact with my existing friends while MySpace is just to garish for me to use…

    Anyhow, the latest installment of Stephen Fry Appreciation Monday is up… the topic is baaaaaaa :)

  27. ElBiggus says:

    The thing with social networking sites that leads them to being “walled gardens” is a lack of any connection between them; approaches like OpenID and Fried of a Friend (FoaF) (all part of TBL’s “Semantic Web”) should cut down on that — you’re still left with individual bits of presence (a separate account on Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc.) but your identity on each is linked, which (to stretch the walled garden analogy a bit) gives little gates between one and the next — if I know you in one place, I then automagically know you on any other site that understands the FoaF/OpenID mechanism.

    Building a successful online community is Hard and involves a lot of luck, but each successive generation learns at least one lesson from the previous incumbent; it may take a few more iterations of the concept, but the overall goal is that the web itself has some limited smarts. Remember the “intelligent agents” concept from a few years back? It’s kind of like that — everything that’s about *me* on the web would actually be tagged as being “about me”, and with a bit of RDF magic on the back end, things that are about “people I know” will be linked in a way that (on the surface, at least) is as simple a mechanism and clicking on a hyperlink is today: I could find pictures of my friends on Flickr because Flickr knows who they are (thanks to OpenID) and it knows I know them (thanks to FoaF).

    We’re part of the way there, but at the moment it’s a bit of a hack — you can give Facebook permisison to look in your email address book so it can scout out people you know who already have a Facebook presence; that intermediary step can in theory be removed, but adoption of the techonologies required is slow (partly because as yet the technology is still in its very early infancy, and partly due to a chicken-and-egg “nobody uses it, so nothing supports it, so nobody uses it…” bootstrapping issue).

    Something similar is already starting to appear in desktop applications — if you’re a Leopard user, Mail is able to set events in iCal “magically” if it finds a date in there — and it’s only a matter of time before the web starts to work in a similar way: information from one service that’s relevant to another will propagate by itself, such that if a new entry appears in your GMail address book, your social networking site of choice will tentatively add them as a “friend” there without you having to go through the additional steps yourself; an invitation to a party via Bebo will add itself to your calendar, and after the party is over will link itself to all the pictures of the event on Flickr, even those from people not directly linked to you.

    Of course it’s easier said than done, and it also raises a whole host of privacy issues (just because I went to a party, it doesn’t mean I want it broadcast to the world), but sooner or later the fact that there are a variety of different services available from different providers should become transparent.

    (Also, just because TBL says “Web two dot oh” is no reason to follow suit; he’s a nice enough chap, and a brain the size of a planet, but he’s the only person I know who calls it that; in fact, most of us who work on 2.0-ish things don’t like calling it “Web 2.0″ no matter *how* it’s pronounced. :)

  28. nickgrim says:

    I personally prefer “web two point nought”, which has the added advantage of being able to use “web two point naughty” as the adjective.

  29. CornyAgain says:

    I was ready to give the same spiel that ElBiggus did, but was beaten to it.

    We computer people can sometimes see the future, and in this case, Open ID is the key to removing the walls from our gardens. I would have signed in here with my livejournal ID but it’s not supported…

    Actually there is indeed a usability hole in this area, but the framework is there, and someone inventive will sort it out; in the mean time the big players don’t have any big incentive, but our Joshua will come, and OpenID will be his trumpet.

  30. robertas says:

    Dam and blast this thing ate my comment… tssss

    Today’s installment of Stephen Fry Appreciation Monday is up and the topic is baaaa :)

    And I saw Kingdom yay I quite enjoyed with my chocolate soya milk… :)

  31. eggyclegg says:

    Hello you who seem to be a bunch of boring cloesd minded people as far as i can tell from reading your comments.
    Oh and hello Mr. Fry too
    As far as I can tell the majority of the users of thigns such as facebook and myspace are young people. These can be split into two catagories.
    1.) Young people who are trying to get out of Eastern ex communist countries by using sex as a trap for other young people to invite them round to there house.
    2.) The Young people who notice these profiles and start chatting to these people because they are young and are interested in anything to do with sex.
    Strangely enough these people always deny such acts of illegal conduct, yet are very well informed about the robots siting behind the chat on the other side where there is meant to be a young woman ready to do anything from licking your boots to passionatly loving you on your desk chair. Again similarly confusing is that they know exactly how these computers work, and they have experimented this by trying to change the topic of conversation, however the chatter on the other side just continues with the programmed plan of getting your living details and address and more importantly your credit card number.
    Facebook can also be seen as a form of procrastination for younger people, and is now officially a valid excuse for not doing your homework.
    There are actually only two practical things one can do on facebook and other such forums, and that is to either annoy the hell out of people you don’t like, or just random people who get the bewildering and very abusive comments because you were bored, or it is finding people. I actaully managed to find people from all over the world using facebook. I put a photograph of me playing rugby in Berlin, and a guy sent me a message not two days later saying that that was him and that he is now in America. I have also managed to find a friend who I went to school with for 3 months 7 years ago and he is now in Athens.
    So we see that social networking isn’t a complete waste of time, because life is a complete waste of time in itself. I mean you’re consuming the oxygen people are going to be fighting about in 100 years time, and driving to work and flying on holiday is resulting in CO2 emissions and thereby into global warming through the greenhouse effect. So as a matter of fact the entire human life is of a destruktive nature even if you are improving the world. So you might as well waste your time in the best way you see fit.

  32. Hello Stephen,

    Don’t know if you’re familiar with the work of the frighteningly clever Eben Moglen, but your piece fits rather well with what he has been saying recently ( His response to the sacrifices of privacy, security, and autonomy that one must make to participate in the Web 2.0 Compuserves, is to point out that they are unnecessary. We have enough technical skill and free technology to reproduce everything Facebook, MySpace, and even Google does without making those sacrifices.

    Imagine every home broadband modem/router coming with a pre-installed web server, content management system (for my money, Drupal, but WordPress if you prefer), mail server, and so on. We can take back control of our stuff, and only share with other parties what we want to share, via the big “S” Semantic Web and the small “s” semantic web (, etc.).

    I suspect it’s considered terribly gauche to quote Douglas Adams in a context where his name has already been invoked, but it’s so hard to resist: “I think the biggest misconception about the web is thinking that there is someone else in charge, and there isn’t. The Internet is just us.”

    And so it should be.

  33. danijel_kecman says:

    “Is it part of some deep human instinct that we take an organism as open and wild and free as the internet, and wish then to divide it into citadels, into closed-border republics and independent city states? The systole and diastole of history has us opening and closing like a flower: escaping our fortresses and enclosures into the open fields, and then building hedges, villages and cities in which to imprison ourselves again before repeating the process once more. The internet seems to be following this pattern.”
    most of us actually never left the cave. we’ve made some (great improvements) and named it a city. interesting question is can we think about internet surfing as traveling.

  34. LynxLuna says:

    I’m 20, which means I’m not able to talk properly about the old 90’s contact programs you mentioned, but I’ve lived the very rising of web 2.0. (I found quite interesting the analysis of the name, since us spaniards don’t have that problem: it is “web dos punto cero” and it shall be ’till the end of ages) during the most embarrassing years of my adolescence. So I’ve lived the rising (and I’ve integrated it into my life as a teenager would always do) of blogs and bloggers, the Livejournal and MySpace fever, and now I’m living the Facebook thing. It’s become quite an use to change from one to another. And it’s become quite an use to talk to people you don’t know but has your same interests through the web. So I’ve get used to that independent city states you said as if Internet was only about that.

    I’ve recently interviewed an english philology teacher from the Universitat de València (I’m a journalist student, you see) who knows a bit (and with ‘bit’ I mean ‘lots’) about hypertext. He said that blogs have nothing to do with the whole hypertext idea and astonished me considerably by doing so. He has the theory that hypertext is a way to share information and interests, a way of creating a non-personal source of information and knowledge. And as blogs (Myspaces, livejournals and so), he said, are the most personal and egocentric websites you can find, they simply don’t fit with the word hypertext. So his idea of actual hypertext is, for example, Wikipedia.

    I don’t know if he’s right or not (I’d like to think about that carefully before agreeing with it) but the thing is we humans need to be a bit egocentric before sharing our knowledge and experience. We like to demonstrate who we are, and we feel proud when we find people who matches with us and our thoughts. And we need to find an order, a logical path into the mess of Internet. That’s why we create forntiers and limited spaces. Hypertext, the bare idea of it, means just a mess created by thousands of minds. But from my point of view, we humans need the logic of egocentrism and the order it implies. One person, one world. That’s why we create separate compartments on the web, I think.

  35. IainMcC says:

    The best description of the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon I’ve ever read was some wag on a forum summing it up as “Your content. Their revenue.”

    Succinct, if nothing else…

  36. AxmxZ says:

    IainMcC: Whose revenue, if you don’t mind my asking?

  37. ElBiggus says:

    AxmxZ: take Facebook. 99.999% of the stuff that’s on there is user-contributed, but Zoidberg and his cohorts get all the ad revenue.

    (By the by, there was an interesting Money Programme on last week, focusing largely on Facebook. I was amazed to see that most members of the public were surprised or incredulous to find that someone created it with the intent to make money. Typical quote: “Now it’s got advertising on it, and they’re trying to make money. That’s not what Facebook is about!” The mind boggles…)

  38. AxmxZ says:

    Follow-up question: how much profit does Facebook generate?

  39. PC Bitseach says:

    Two point whatnow?

    Good luck to FB if it makes money – enough other sites have moronic pop-up ads that seem to fly below my pop-up blocker radar. At least FB is nice and easy to use for the anti-techie like me. That and I’ve regained lost contact with quite a few people from university, clubs etc and I’m now seeing a different side to half my nick (who usually I confess have the ruder applications on FB!)

    Good evening, good evening, good evening, good evening, good evening, good evening, etc.
    PC Bits’

  40. robertas says:

    Ax I might not be an expert (I am technically challenged) plus I am blond after all, but since they have offered Zoidberg billions of dollars for Facebook and he didnt want to sell, my guess is the profit is high :)

  41. IainMcC says:

    @AxmxZ: No-one really knows how much profit Facebook generates: it’s a private company, so they’re not obliged to publish their financial results to the Stock Exchange. But I’ve seen quotes of ridiculous valuations of the order of $15 billion for the company – and that’s with a user base of only around 61 million (according to Facebook themselves) – a tiny fraction of the number of people who use Google.

    They must make a fair amount of money, though. There can’t be many websites out there that can operate at a loss, not when they reach the kind of critical mass (in terms of number of users and media exposure) that places like Facebook and Bebo have.

    I have to say, I’m an IT professional and I have a bit of a problem with the whole concept of Web 2.0. I don’t use social networking sites at all, because I don’t really see the value in them at all. Really, what was wrong with the telephone? Or e-mail?

    I do use things like Blogger and Flickr, because they provide me with actual services I can see the point of, but social networking sites are simply a framework that allows people to lump everything they might be able to do better elsewhere in one place. And if I’m wearing my cynical hat (as I usually do) they allow people to “stay in touch” without the need for any of that wearisome, *actual* personal interaction. Which I think kind of defeats the entire object of social networking, if you ask me.

    I look at it like this: What do the social networking companies do? Very little other than provide the framework. What do you do? Provide all the content that makes the website worth using. What does the company get out of it? A whole load of personal information they can sell to marketing companies and masses of advertising revenue. What do you get out of it? Increased exposure to identify fraud and maybe a chat with someone you vaguely remember from High School who you never really liked that much anyway…

    Of course, it does vex me greatly that I didn’t have the idea first, dammit… so it’s probably all just professional jealousy. :-)

  42. AxmxZ says:

    Firstly, the man’s name is Zuckerberg, not Zoidberg. I’m actually unpleasantly surprised at this ‘Zoidberg’ – it sounds more anti-Semitic than playful in this context of envy and malice. You do realize Fry’s Jewish, right? Just checking.

    Secondly, don’t buy into the hype. That 15B figure is an extrapolation of the 240m MSFT poured into FB for a 1.6% buy-in. The reason why they did it is simple enough: hope undefeated by history. As far as one can tell, Facebook does not generate obscene amounts of profit for Zuckerberg. (In fact, there is some question as to whether it generates any sort of profit for him.) It does, however, generate moderate amounts of profit for its advertisers. Zuckerberg et al. aren’t advertisers – they are the platform. From what I know, they charge nothing or next to nothing for people to run their revenue-generating applications off FB.

    So all this tossing around of giga-figures for a company happily gobbles up freely offered money but has never disclosed its profits is more than a bit silly, especially when it starts coming from people who really ought to know better. But hell, Bank of America just promised to shell out 4B for that money black hole Countrywide, and I used to think Kenneth Lewis was sane, so what the hell do I know?

  43. Bena says:

    It’s a fair point that Douglas Adams made about computer people, but it’s not fair to say the same about programmers, who mostly found that entire period quite amusing.

    Similarly, programmers/hackers/tech people have always created these kind of ‘tools’ because of the ‘scratch an itch’ desire in most programmers. We have a network which is inherently for communication, so why not create a location that people with similar interests can communicate. When I was at University, nobody (apart from academic institutions) had Internet access, so we created a whole raft of BBS’s running on university servers and accessed via Telnet or we hung out on IRC or Usenet. The worst thing to happen to the Internet is – like with many things – marketing. Suddenly it’s the new big thing, but it’s been happening for the, albeit short, lifetime of the Internet.

  44. Mr Jasper says:

    I really really wasn’t going to post but ok. As someone who works for a large global organisation the next big thing really is collaboration and empowerment. Up until the last few years if you wanted to be known on the web than it required you to devote time to learning technologies and skills that really you didnt want to. Now you dont need the skills to produce websites with interactive content the services are there waiting to let you say or do what you want to do. Ease of use

    Social networking sites are a single example of what empowering the user can deliver. Personally I never use Social Networking sites of any sort. I do use flickr though and i do upload content I avoid the be my friend idea though. I do though recognise that when people can become part of the development and deployment of dynamic content then big things start to happen and its possible to enhance the online experience for all. Note that by online experience that refers to corporate websites portals, extranets etc. Allowing people to actually contribute rather than just consume has been a valuable development. Not always in the right way but it has allowed a huge raft of services for individuals and organisations to make a difference and become contributors to the greater whole.

    My Space, face book, friends reunited, bulletin boards etc are basically all just iterations of the same thing, a desire to communicate quickly and easily. For some its a means of making a voice heard by everyone even those who dont want to hear it.

  45. plaggypig says:

    Stephen has an interesting point regarding the cycle of freedom and openness being undermined by our human desire to draw borders and curtail our own such freedoms. This phenomenon will go on and on, and I think it is naturally a good thing because as part of the cycle new opportunities inevitably present themselves. The most important thing is that we ensure that no hindrances can to put an end this cycle, for then we enter the realm of totalitarianism – AT&T have recently proposed that they monitor and control our access to content and information.

    Incidentally, the “Next Big Thing” will probably be some killer application built on top of Google’s OpenSocial API, which attempts to abstract all of the various social networking sites beneath one common interface, and from this we will probably see various niche applications spring up, once again removing the garden wall.

    And in a similar vein to this, I believe OpenID authentication protocol will probably start to flourish this year – the social networking sites will probably be the ones who introduce this concept to the great unwashed masses.

    I’ve always felt as though social networking sites were greatly overvalued because of the fact that their communities are pretty fickle – they are part of a trend led by teenagers, and as Stephen points out Myspace is now seen as yesterdays cool, Facebook is “hip”, and by the summertime we will have something new. As I said, it will probably be a much more advanced concept abstract concept to the “traditional” social networking sites.

    I have learned two important things in life:

    1. People don’t know what they want until we (the geeks) give it to them.
    2. Everybody is different.

    Finally, I shall leave you with a quote:

    “People keep asking me to join the LinkedIn network, but I’m already part of a network, it’s called the Internet.” – Gary McGraw, via Jon Udell, via Gavin Bell, via Simon Willison, via Andy Chantrill.

    – Andy.

  46. johndoyle says:

    Calm down AxmxZ, Zoidberg is just the name of a character from Futurama. Zuckerberg/Zoidberg both sound Jewish, does it really matter if you substitute one for the other for comic effect?

  47. CornyAgain says:

    I’ll try to break Douglas Adams’ prediction, despite my massive addiction to his works, by saying that I’m a computer person and I know what’s coming next for social networks and their ilk – and it’s OpenID, as suggested by a couple of people above.

    This stuff is actually mind-bending when you get into it; it’s no less than the ability to have trust relationships across the web – and of course the most important aspect of a social network is not the ability to share, but the ability to share selectively. Imagine that I can selectively share not only my facebook page with friends, but also any number of other random things anywhere on the web. The term “social network” will have a whole new meaning.

    As with all of these things, once the momentum builds, the current commercial advantage to remaining a walled garden will flip completely and all the networks will have to open up. They will each want to act as “home base” for as many users as possible.

  48. Flookwit says:

    I am unsure whether I care about divisions of the Internet into Web 2.0 or sequelae, but I do know that I am addicted. To the Internet. To the instant gratification of questions I have. For relief of insomniac nights. For tedious afternoons or evenings when I need social interaction that my remote location cannot afford me.

    I had no knowledge of many of the social side of Web 2.0 (FaceBook, Second Life, those sort of things) because I had considered them for adolescents. But I am willing to investigate, and after doing so, If they were the only representative of the Web, I would toss it all away. I have to admit I prefer blogs to be more my style and comfort zone. But, as when I started a blog in 2006, I return to the question, “Who reads all this?”. Particularly, my pithy writings, even though my first blog was nominated for an award. Who would want to read the ramblings, thoughts or polemic of a middle aged hobbler? So what is the point? Where does Web 2.0 lead?

    Celebrities and academics, intellectuals and journalists, technologists and philosophers, (you get my drift) might produce very interesting blogs, with interesting analysis and information, much like your own, but then the comments. What do you do about the comments? You as a blogger cannot possibly read all the comments, and if you do, do you respond? Some comments include valuable points that ought to be mentioned, but amidst a sea of other, sometimes unclear thoughts, these worthy points are lost. A shame. I guess I am not helping by adding my own, quite probably worthless reply, but I think that from now on I will simply observe, read and digest, keeping my thoughts to myself.

    P.S. I do hope that your fractured arm does not give you too much pain. Are you still able able to type? One handed typing can be so dreadfully slow. And I am quite sure that breaking one arm will not keep an Internet addict down!

    Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

  49. banjo says:

    can i ditto flookwit?
    almost all you said… (see, it was a valuable comment.)

    and Mr Fry,
    if you need an arm, you’re welcome to use mine anytime.
    it’s even double jointed.

    and plays the banjo.

  50. CarolinePatricia says:

    “Web 2.0 was christened, so far as I am aware, by Tim O’Reilly. Oh really? No, sir, O’Reilly.”

    Haha, love the Bonzo reference there.

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