November 2005

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20
Nov

All online forums (by which I also mean Usenet newsgroups, chat rooms and IRC channels) follow these rules:

The First Law: Every forum is always in a state of constant decline.

All forums start off good, enjoy a "honeymoon period" in which they continue to be good, and then steadily decline... from the point of view of each individual observer.

You get involved in a forum because it appeals to you. If it didn't appeal to you you wouldn't have joined in the first place. Eventually, however, one of two things will happen: the nature of the forum will change so it's no longer the way it was when it first appealed to you, or it will stay the same and you'll just get bored of it.

It may be possible for a forum to change for the better after you've become involved in it, but I can't say I've ever seen it happen.

The First Corollary: The Four Ages of Forums

Every forum enjoys four ages:

  1. The Golden Age
  2. The Silver Age
  3. Limbo
  4. Utter Crap

When you join a forum, unless you're a charter member, you'll be regaled with tales from the regulars about how the place used to be so much better. As such, the Golden Age is defined as some time prior to your joining the forum. You, of course, enter the forum in the Silver Age. It's not as good as the legends tell you it used to be, but it's still as much fun as you'll ever experience it.

Eventually the forum changes or you get bored, as described in The First Law. You hang around, however, because you remember how good it used to be and there are still enough remnants of that to keep you coming back. This is Limbo.

You'll spend a lot of Limbo telling people how much better the place used to be, oblivious to the fact that now is, to them, the Silver Age.

In some cases Limbo can last years, extended by occasional cycles that cause the forum to become interesting again or shift closer to the way it was. But it will never be as good as it was in the Silver Age, and all these cycles do is prolong the time it takes for the forum to descend into the realms of Utter Crap.

The exceptions to this corollary are charter members, who can't look to any predecessors for a Golden Age. To them the first age is Golden and from there it's a fall straight into Limbo.

Corollary Two: Stating the Bleeding Obvious

Since the boundaries of each age are defined by the participants, you will never truly convince someone else that your timeline for a forum's decline is right and theirs is wrong. To them you'll either be a jaded old fogey who can't see what fun everyone else is having, or you'll be a clueless newbie who has ruined the place, damnit.

Dream Weaver

  • 9:48 AM

Last night's dream (Well, this morning's dream. I always have the best dreams when I wake up, then go back to bed for a few hours) opened with me not knowing who I was. All the people around me were concerned: I'd been through some kind of time-travel event, and I wasn't allowed to do time-travel.

As I slowly came to my senses, I discovered I wasn't a particularly nice person. This was the future, and I was some kind of fascist secret policeman, responsible for all sorts of torture, 'disappearances' and so on. As my memory started to return I felt rather guilty about this, but the more I fell into my old role, the more it became part of me.

The middle section of the dream is a bit hazy, but I wasn't treating my friends very well throughout. I was also finding that I knew things I shouldn't. And that I could do things I shouldn't. And that I had a lot more authority over this world than I ought to.

Eventually, my authority came crashing down. The sky was burning, there were earthquakes, the world was quite literally ending. At the same time, there was a coup and I was placed under house-arrest.

By a characteristically perverse piece of dream-logic, I was able to convince my captor not to follow me to the bathroom by telling him I couldn't escape because I wasn't wearing a belt. Luckily, I had a belt secretly stashed behind the toilet, so I could put it on and climb out of the window without having to worry about my trousers falling down.

I ran down to the beach, where I met my old friends, who had stuck by me for some reason. We talked -- the world was in the final stages of dying around us, but the beach was an island of peace in the middle. During the conversation, I had this sudden moment of epiphany. I began to tell each of my friends things I couldn't possibly know about them, and about the world.

Then, in the final moments of the world dying, the sea tumbled over me, the sand rushed up to cover me, sucking me into itself. The earth swallowed me up. I realised, as the planet reformed anew around me and I became one with it, that I was God.

The dream ended, I kid you not, with me walking down the beach in my new world, in some non-specific biblical time-period, talking to two of my prophets about how I'd really been God all along -- the whole "time-travel" thing at the start of the dream was just some way I had been torn out of my rightful place, and the world had gone insane as a result -- and where we could find a bite to eat.

Eventually we found a marketplace. I bought one of my prophets a funny blue foam head on a stick. It had a long tube-like nose that bounced when you shook it. He loved it. Then I woke up.

Once again via James, I found Naked Conversations, How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, -- a book by Shel Israel & Robert Scoble, and came across the post Walmart's War Room.

The New York Times has an article on Walmart's new war room that works just like the ones we see in movies with the joint chiefs gathered around with all the president's honchos. What are they preparing to battle? The fact that most everyone hates them.

Personally, if they had asked me, I would have advised them to just start a blog.

Passages like this make me want to run away from my computer and never blog again, just so I can avoid guilt by association.

My brother and his wife are both print journalists. This is a useful source of humility for me, because whenever I think my mildly well-read blog may mean something, I remember that either of them probably have more people read a single one of their articles than visit my website in a year.

Why would starting a blog help Walmart? Well, the conventional blogging wisdom is that they'd be entering into a conversation. A conversation with whom? Well, the relatively small number of people who pay attention to blogs. In some technical circles this is an important demographic, but it's not like the "thought leaders" of the web hold much sway over Walmart's core market.

And it's not like starting a blog suddenly makes a closed company open. Even companies that own popular blogging services can run blogs that are little more than deceptively chatty press-releases. Here's the secret. Open companies will nurture blogging, but you can't make it work the other way.

The inhabitants of Walmart's war room really have a simple choice: they can genuinely attempt to change the culture of their company, and through that change public opinion, or they can rely on PR and economics to get them through as it has so far. Frankly, blogging could be a part of either strategy. But it probably won't be. Ask them again when blogging has become socially acceptable.

Woolly Thinking

  • 10:14 PM

Via James, I found an anonymous blog (two posts so far) called Abandon the Web, a site with the stated purpose of "Thinking outside the box of the Web", to find the "next winning platform".

Now the web isn't going to be the Big New Thing forever. Someone's going to come up with something better. We do need people throwing out interesting ideas, because the web's successor is going to come from someone with a lot of dissatisfaction and a good idea. But with the kind of sloppy thinking displayed on Abandon the Web so far, it's only going to be found there by accident. After reading the first post, I was left hoping the site was a parody of the "lost in the stratosphere" world of web punditry.

I suspect it is. Even then, though, it's a great example of how to manufacture supposed insight from thin air.

ATW's first post sets out to describe the five major problems of the World Wide Web that its successor will have to overcome. These problems are labeled the "Five Paradoxes of the Web." They're not paradoxes, of course, most of them don't even manage to be contradictions, but a good name is important. The 'Compensation Paradox', for example, could be better stated as "It's not easy to get people to pay for web-based services", something that any number profitable web-based enterprises can prove isn't exactly the insurmountable problem that the paradox label implies.

Looking at the paradoxes, they seem to be mostly, well, peeves. Coming up with a viable business model in a completely new ecosystem is hard, but it's not a paradox. Browser compatibility might suck, but even Internet Explorer is slowly coming to the party. Code that bridges between Javascript and the server-side is getting easier.

One advantage of describing problems as paradoxes is that logic abhors a contradiction, so if you can tease one out of some circumstances, you don't need to say anything more to justify your position. Contradictions are bad, OK? This is classic woolly thinking. Take the 'Identity paradox', which complains that the web provides neither absolute identity nor anonymity, once again not exactly a paradox. ATW never has to explain why this is necessarily a bad thing, why either complete anonymity or identity would be an improvement, it just phrases the issue as a contradiction and leaves it there.

The other advantage is that by stating only the contradiction, you don't have to come down on one side or the other: all your solution needs to do is be less contradictory. In its second post, ATB rates World of Warcraft against the web, based on how it scores against each of the paradoxes. WoW scores 50% on the Responsibility Paradox against the Web's 0%, because the MMORPG has a central authority. A complete anarchy would also avoid the Responsibility Paradox. Would the anarchy score higher or lower? Would this make a complete anarchy preferable to WoW's central authority? Presumably, a 100% totalitarian system would be less contradictory than WoW's 50%. Would this also be preferable?

I know the questions are a little unfair, but it wasn't me who started throwing meaningless numbers around:

Final rating is: modern software platform—1.4, modern gaming platform—2.1. To build a successor to the Web, don't start with .Net: instead, take World of Warcraft and make it suitable for general purpose use.

Once again proving that if you reduce a problem down to a series of nonsense metrics, you end up with a meaningless result. I'd guess this person has never read the World of Warcraft forums.