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. AxmxZ says:

    jophndoyle: That’s why I said “in this context of envy and malice.”

  2. Oh really?

    No, O’ Reilly!

    I missed this, for which I am very sad:

    Lovely Neil Innes.

    I quite miss you on Facebook. Very hard for me to find other fans of Flann O Brien and Donleavy!

  3. Actually that sounded slightly self important and familiar. Sorry there.

  4. Similarly, Dutch power users of the online service Twitter are treating it much the same way we used on IRC: to chat, rather than a status update app.

  5. krishva says:

    I have to be one of the people who doesn’t think Web 2.0 is really a big deal. The World Wide Web (1.0) was founded on the idea of people creating content. Even fairly early on, there were primitive multiple-user online art galleries and journal applications, powered by CGI scripts and HTML. Lots of artists and writers had websites early on and posted their stuff there, then joined webrings and submitted their URL to Yahoo and Altavista to make sure people could find it.

    Everyone had a site on Geocities or Angelfire or what have you–so many sites out there that were titled “Welcome to my corner of the web! :)” and plastered with animated gifs, but otherwise lacked any real content.

    MySpace and Facebook are basically searchable versions of 1997’s Geocities. It’s not content–it’s a presence, more or less. “I’m here, I don’t have anything interesting to say to the world, but talk to me!” Things haven’t really changed that much.

  6. “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?”

    People have a need to belong to certain groups and demographics, and a fully open network like myspace just doesn’t cut it for some, so a progression towards closed niches was bound to happen.

    Web 2.0 hardly has any meaning any more, since just about any site worth mentioning has adopted the principles of social collaboration, widgets and user-generated content.

    Social networking is becoming a must-have feature for any site, so we might as well drop the “2.0” and call it “Web”.

  7. SidFudd says:

    I can’t believe no one’s linked to this yet, so…from XKCD, a webcomic of math and sarcasm, a map of these webby dominions we’ve all staked out:

    Overjoyed to see you back on the net, Stephen (thank Cory at BoingBoing for hipping me to your blog). Been to Idaho yet? It has three capitals, you know…

  8. tdaonp says:

    Social networking has been going on ever since the first cave-to-cave sales man started selling brooms. We all need something from someone. If it’s not business related it might be that handy trailer the neighbours have.

    However I think social networking is changing the way and the scope of our communication. I blogged about that in detail here:

    The gist is that social networking provides us with contacts we call friends but are in fact assets that have something we might be able to use. Sounds more cynical than it maybe is.

  9. Stormtrooper In Drag says:

    “The medium is the message”, Mr Fry.

    Throughout our history as humans, and especially more recently, to borrow your idea in the Wallpaper podgram, we have been uglifying our surroundings, churning out more and more crap. Personally, I think Facebook and, in particular, the comments and ratings system on YouTube are symptoms of this eternal trend.

    The internet is vast, and the internet, on the whole, has life-changing material within it; it is a wealth of information so vast and so varied that one could quite happily waste multiple lifetimes absorbing it. The problem I find, in my limited teenage experience, is that we have to sift through so much garbage to find things of worth on any user-generated forum/site that it quickly becomes tedious and unpleasant. There is a plethora of wasted verbiage on YouTube, trillions upon trillions of spewings of people confirming their existence to a global community that doesn’t really care, and yet actually saying the square root of bugger all.

    Granted, one may argue that worth is subjective, and also one may argue that, since previous comments have already expressed this, this comment is just a crushed cup on a Staten Island of internet garbage, but I guess that’s not something we’re going to solve in any great hurry.

    It tends to breed cynicism in me, which I guess may be why I am a little too hasty to condemn things as pointless (I refuse to upgrade my mobile phone as it meets my requirements and any extra features will just help to add to my own personal rubbish dump, as well as wasting my life away)

    Sorry for such a long and stilted rant, teenagers to speak their mind even when it’s complete drivel, it gives us something to post on Facebook.



    P.S. Stephen, in case you actually read this ever, your facial expressions throughout Jeeves and Wooster are quite out of this world.

  10. jenny88 says:

    Enjoyed your reading your observations. Think its an interesting point- why are we so keen to close down the possibilities of such a great open space, surely defeating the point of the internet in the first place.

    I can’t decide whether its a good or bad thing to have closed networks. Maybe if we had more open or universal ones we could communicate on different sites without having to sign up and create new profiles all the time. It does seem to slow down the process and deter people from using more than a few different sites.

    Ever time I fill in a registration form I get more conscious how much personal information I’m putting out there and whether it can be manipulated for someone else’s’ benefit. Maybe this is a good thing though as it makes us more careful, as privacy is always going to be an issue.

    On the plus side of closed networks and possibly why the trend is moving towards niche network sites is because people want to feel they belong and having a closed group of people with similar interests creates a sense of community and a group identity that we want to associate ourselves with.

    Speculation over facebook’s drop in popularity I would have thought to be due to its decision to open up to the general public, eliminating its exclusivity to students which I think had damaged its cool factor and has increased the take up of applications due to the different type of people who participate on these networks.

    The whole of society works on the basis of the in and out groups. Those who are in have power and superiority over those they don’t let in but they have to let enough people in for it to be seen as a desirable and well known group. Therefore I think trends will always switch between open and closed areas to keep the balance right.

    At I discuss more issues about the new buzz word that is social networking and its use as a marketing tool

  11. says:

    Social networking theory is part of my academic specialty.

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