Where do you think we stand, Chalkies?
The Old Internet Neighborhoods
New York Times Opinion Pages
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
July 10, 2011 5:30 pm
It took my husband and me eight months to conceive our first child. Much of that time was passed in bored agitation, like a long wait at a Verizon Wireless store. To pass the time, swap information, and quiet my mind, I turned to an online message board for women who are Trying to Conceive — TTC, one of the first message-board acronyms I learned. Then, rapidly, I learned the rest of the lingo known to the voluble and surprisingly large community of women who turn to the Internet to ask intensely personal questions: TWW (two-week wait), BFN (big fat negative) and OPK (ovulator prediction kit).
That was in 2004. The message board was corny, but also a revelation. The voices on it were provocative, frequently ingenious and charged with emotion (and emoticons). Practical tips (and scientific reports) were exchanged, and subject to critique. Friendships were struck — and some even materialized in three-dimensional places like bars. Women whose posts suggested distress were often treated to good vibes and virtual hugs. You knew youd been hugged on a message board when your screen name was rendered in double and triple parentheses, like this: (((you))).
Not to get too misty, but the board format itself might deserve a nostalgic embrace. The Internet forum, that great old standby of Web 1.0., has become an endangered species.
Many boards are stagnant or in decline, if they even still exist. Several once-thriving boards on the womens site iVillage have closed up shop. Big fan-fiction boards havent seen real action in years. Last month, a once-popular eight-old-year British board about mental health went dark with a note: The Internet has changed significantly.
These are serious signs of the digital times. Message boards were key components of Web 1.0 — the Web before broadband, online video, social networking, advanced traffic analysis and the drive to monetize transformed it.
If urban history can be applied to virtual space and the evolution of the Web, the unruly and twisted message boards are Jane Jacobs. They were built for people, and without much regard to profit. How else do you get crowds of not especially lucrative demographics like flashlight buffs (candlepowerforums.com), feminists (bust.com) and jazz aficionados (forums.allaboutjazz.com)? By contrast, the Web 2.0 juggernauts like Facebook and YouTube are driven by metrics and supported by ads and data mining. Theyre networks, and super-fast — but not communities, which are inefficient, emotive and comfortable. Facebook — with its clean lines and social expressways — is Robert Moses par excellence.
Like other intimate forums — for baseball fans (baseball-fever.com), say, or inmates loved ones (prisonttalk.com) — the fertility board I visited borrowed traditions of anonymity, sharing and familial squabbling from the recovery movement that had its heyday in the 1980s and 90s. The boards were always long on community, and short on dough. Between 1997 and 2007, they seemed to crop up everywhere. Though people who posted on these boards digressed almost as often as they stayed on topic, the forums flew under quite specific banners: not only video games, books, music and sex, but also Spanish cars, plastic surgery, grieving, paintball and bodybuilding. Only the very biggest, like fanfiction.net, sold ads; many ended up passing a hat for PayPal donations.
But the forums were spontaneous, rowdy and often inspired Internet neighborhoods. For millions of users, they quickly became synonymous with The Internet. They were well-populated. Today the ranking general-interest boards, like Off Topic and Something Awful, have more than 100 million posts. (The biggest board in the world, Gaia Online, a Japanese board devoted to role-playing and anime, has nearly 2 billion posts.)
Still, for all their importance to individual Web users, the boards were almost invisible to anyone intent on profiting off Web traffic — and so theyve been nearly written out of the history of the Internet. A riveting 1997 article by Katie Hafner in Wired told of the rise and decline of The Well, a venerable online community that began in 1985, as part of the bygone dial-up bulletin board system. Historians have since written shelves full of books on Web search and e-commerce, but very few about message boards. (A notable exception is William Casts 2005 book Going South, about Yahoos HealthSouth board, which became a forum for the companys angry employees and eventually gave investors tips about the companys direction.)
A message board is different from a chat room in that its entries are archived. The archive becomes a key component of discussions, with many posters internally linking to and footnoting archived entries. When, in 2004, someone started a thread on a site for digital-video buffs called MovieCodec with i am so lonely will anyone speak to me, the spontaneous replies by pseudonymous posters — some sympathetic, some teasing — came to form a master document thats both existential and hilarious. Collaborative documents like that one — made famous at the time in articles in Wired and The New Yorker — are what the Web loses when forum villagers flee for the Facebook megalopolis (population 750 million).
Lori Leibovich, the founder of Kvetch, the message board of which the fertility board was a part, told me she thought message boards were becoming almost quaint, which I find sort of sad. She likened boards like Kvetch to group therapy, adding that conversations stay in the room and youre invested in the individuals in the group. Social networks are about broadcasting. More about your persona than it is about you as a person.
Sure, funny and stirring things happen on Facebook and Twitter, but their protocols, which stress accountability and striving over anonymity and play, tend to make social exchanges routine. The likelihood of an i am so lonely tone poem is reduced. I feel sure I wouldnt post ((hugs)) to Twitter, either. ((Hugs)) belong in softer lighting; they dont quite belong in the undignified glare of the fluorescent social networks.
I recently returned to AltDotLife, a big message board for women. At the top of the page, one of them wrote: Is there reason to be concerned about the health of the board? The writer hit the problem on the head. We had about 20K-24K posts per month in 2008-09, she wrote, and that number has gotten gradually lower so that in the past several months, its been more like 13K-15K. And here we are 2/3 of the way through June and were at only 8365.
She had some notion of what was up, and asked others to chime in. A chorus responded, suggesting that Facebook had snapped up some former posters, while others had just moved on.
I used to come to ADL as a main source of chit chat with friends but now I tend to go to FB for that, one wrote. My guess is that as time went on and the archives got larger and larger, many people are researching old topics rather than starting new threads, another wrote. Every possible topic has already been discussed.
The lively analysis continued for several more posts, until the group had thoroughly sized up the state of affairs. Then the discussion petered out.