The Net is upon us. Cast outward by the culture of computer nerds to ensnare and transform the globe, it is the current hot metaphor for fast change, broader horizons, and info-deluge.
Alas, it comes with its own hot-eyed prophets, sure they are on the cutting edge. John Perry Barlow, much-interviewed savant of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that "we are in the middle of the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire."
Revolutionary rhetoric, aside from making you automatically hide your wallet, should alert us to our past. Has something like the Net appeared before?
Arguably, yes. Around 1930, a small new phenomenon arose in Depression-ridden America, spawned out of the letter columns in science fiction magazines: fandom. Though today the term means any gathering of enthusiasts, fandom evolved in the science fiction community. Strikingly, it anticipated much of Net culture. Its history can suggest how the Net will evolve.
Fandom grew first through individual correspondence. It was cheap and quick, continent-wide contact for a penny stamp. The Net, too, began as a quick exchange medium, under funding for the ARPANet from the Advanced Research Projects Administration of the Department of Defense. ARPANet was designed to be dispersed, hard to break even in a nuclear war. It linked several national laboratories, where I first used it in 1969, then swelled to include universities, and kept growing.
Just as with e-mail, sometimes fans sent continuous chains of letters, involving n letter writers, called WONWs for Wide Open N-Ways. Then came fanzines. Often odd and eccentric, sometimes devoted solely to news or club functions, these circulated nationally and flourished into the several hundreds of titles. Most of the Net's "emoticons"–read sideways to convey smiles 🙂 disapproval 🙁 or a sardonic wink ;)–had appeared in fanzines by the 1950s.
As the number of 'zines grew, an anarchic sociology flourished. Vile-mouthed, aggressive fans, much like the "flamers" of today, were termed fuggheads, an obvious pun. As cross-talk grew in the early 1940s, fans formed APAs–Amateur Press Associations of limited (and later, invitational) membership–to escape the chaos.
These were much like today's user groups, newsgroups, and listservs, which act as orderly mailing circles. By analogy, we can expect the Net to split into APA-like groups. The current user and interest groups have trouble maintaining their boundaries; once a flamer finds you, he can drop in anytime. Even security codes provide no firm privacy against determined hackers. Unlike the post office, the Net is a highly public babble. Egalitarian forums can have notoriously low signal-to-noise ratios. In the electronic agora, a mob often drowns out Socrates.
Like the Net's Multi-User Dungeons (where MUDdies find virtual playmates in fantasy worlds), fandom long ago spawned fantasy sub-fandoms devoted to specific authors, settings (mostly medieval), and worldviews. As "newbies" appear, after first lurking on chat sessions, their activity will echo the influx into fandom of "neos" who timidly tried out "fanac."
As the famous New Yorker cartoon remarked, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Nobody in fandom knew if you were a pimply adolescent, either, if you didn't want them to. This let a first-rank fanzine editor conceal her sex for years, simply by using her ambiguous name, Lee Hoffman. Others concocted entire fan-writing careers for nonexistent people. You could be anybody, or nobody.
Virtuality–connection without proximity–is a major attraction in both fandom and the Net. Nobody knows you're a dog through the U.S. mail, either. Fans could be utterly different in their fanzine persona, which may be why both fandom and the Net were invented by individualistic Americans.
On the Net, this has led to a torrent of rudeness. Already there is a gathering fear among the usual social censors that the digital universe will become a cesspool for some ugly fish indeed–child pornographers, con artists, and predators of every stripe. As Phil Patton remarked in Esquire, the Net was built by professors and is run by sophomores.
In the 1940s, general fandom devised the "genzine," or general fanzine, which combined features and columns of broad interest. Genzines narrowed the strategy of the mainstream's broadly based magazines, using an insider's voice and attitude.
The Net has not yet evolved this vital organ. Yet many frustrated users complain of wasted time finding what they want, then understanding its often contorted syntax, wiseacre impenetrability, stilted jargon, and outright poor writing.
As fandom grew more variegated, genzines reflected a broadening of interests, carrying personal columns of humor and reflection, science articles, amateur fiction, stylish gossip, and inevitably, thoughtful pieces on the future of fandom.
By the fandom analogy, then, the Net should soon develop its own form of the genzine. Users will flock to this new entity, avoiding flamers, asininity, and noise. After all, the Net is an open invitation to have 100 million pen pals. Even with gopher programs, you spend much time filtering the nonsensical and boring.
Few people truly want raw data. They seek information, taste, even wisdom. Filtering the Net stream is essential, and finder software continues to improve beyond the simple key-word seekers of today. But these still take our scarcest resource: time. Often, gobs of it.
The Net's siren call, people sharing your very own obsession, is addictive for many of us. About 7 percent of the United States uses the Net now. The World Wide Web has 10 million home pages, where one can display for the virtual passers-by. In less than six months, the number of web pages doubles; the surge is faster than exponential.
If the Net's growth profile parallels that of TVs, VCRs, and other electronic conduits, it will saturate with over three-quarters of the country online, some 200-plus million users. But the Net isn't merely national. By saturation time in a decade or two, there could be a billion users.
Language problems will be only a minor barrier by then. Programs for crude translation already flourish on the Net. This cornucopia of contact will need a new generation of filters, and something better than filters.
We want more, sure–and we'll get it–but we also come to want better. But even the best filter is inherently passive. None can fulfill the higher functions of helping to generate the quality material most readers want.
Think of trying to find a discourse on, say, the cultural impact of the Beatles. There may be hundreds of relevant World Wide Web sites, but you want a treatment for your 12-year-old. And you wouldn't mind reading some adult nostalgic reflection on the Fab Four yourself.
First you pick key words: Beatles, culture, impact, etc. Then you set separate vocabulary levels for both of you, which winnows down the fare to perhaps a few dozen sites. Now add a syntax evaluator, to eliminate erudite postmodern rigmarole your daughter (and probably you, too) couldn't stomach. She won't want to see analysis that compares the Beatles with the Kinks, say, but you might, so you tailor your list for that.
By this time you're facing two customized sets of choices, probably only a handful of potential sources. Only then need real browsing begin. But who made these documents coherent, deft, interesting?
The author–plus an editor. Someone must go out into the datascape and find the writers who can be urged to do the right job at the right time, and then worry at the extra drafts, polishing them properly. As Virginia Postrel has emphasized, the Net Age will become the Editors' Era. It must–by analogy with our present.
In talk radio and late-night television, star figures filter the info-stream for their simpatico audience. Their following finds them and sticks around, a fandom defined by interest, not geography or income.
Rush Limbaugh is essentially a highly personal editor. On the Net, most people don't want or need an idiosyncratic figure marshaling material for them. But they will come to enjoy a certain style and flavor, just as you tasted many magazines before settling on this one. Rather than favoring a journal of policy wonkspeak, you settled on a rather broader view, savoring the world with an attitude.
A Net genzine would probably begin as a "Best Of" feature, with pieces gleaned worldwide and labeled by interest-area. The better ones will go pro, requiring a fee to log onto the edited database. Authors will get paid. To raise quality, editors will start to demand revisions of raw Net material, using the carrot of payment. Genzines will become labyrinthian magazines.
Science fiction fandom evolved through this stage in the 1940s, then beyond, ever-restless. General consensus holds that the quality of s.f. fandom peaked in the 1950s and '60s. That's when I entered, a rank neo, into a community of fanzines honed by criticism and decades-old tradition. The humorous, personal essay reigned supreme. Some fans flowered into professionals.
By then, fandom had grown large and began to split into sub-fandoms, often groups which had little real need for the written word: fans of medieval reenactments, space advocates, costumers. Well before the 1970s, fandoms devoted to other areas had begun, including the Baker Street Irregulars for Sherlock Holmes, 'zines for the mystery and romance genres, even for model railroaders.
Probably the Net will end up as the fandoms have today–dispersed, intense, with highly evolved functions to screen out noise. Fandom invented a women-only APA, a fanzine designed to increase activity itself (appropriately titled Fanac), secret APAs. We should expect the Net to blossom with similarly ingenious social molds. Analogy to fandom can tell us where we should start.
Wired's Kevin Kelly thinks that the Net will become the dominant force in our culture. I rather doubt it; who in the 19th century would have described the post office that way? Yet it seemed equally wondrous at the time. But if Kelly is right or even half-right, an eye cast to our past is even more relevant now.
Gregory Benford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine and the author of Timescape.