Internet as Social Movement: A Brief History of Webism
August 5, 2010 12:16 PM   Subscribe

At this point the founding editor of Feed, Steven Johnson, announced that Feed and its sister webzine Suck were folding and being replaced by something called was a new kind of site: a news aggregator. User-contributors would post links to interesting articles, with a summary, and then everyone would discuss them. This would be called “user-generated content... In the years to come its formula would be copied with some vulgarization and more success.”

That was where I stopped generally accepting this as a vaguely inaccurate but more or less correct account of the history. was a ripoff of a number of sites, including this very one, that are still very much alive today.

This asshole has no idea what he's talking about. No one ever copied Plastic. Plastic failed because it was a poor copy of existing sites.
posted by rusty at 12:36 PM on August 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Plastic was basically a Slashdot clone with a less narrow remit. It was sort of interesting when it started but seemed to develop a rather nasty combative culture pretty quickly.
posted by Artw at 12:39 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite] was a new kind of site: a news aggregator.

I don't think he's suggesting it was the first, just that it was part of a new breed of web site. Mentioning Slashdot or MetaFilter wouldn't make much sense, since he is discussing Suck and Feed.
posted by chunking express at 12:45 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought it was a fairly good summary of the times, if (as rusty notes) from a different POV than mine.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:45 PM on August 5, 2010

The first time I ever experienced a webcam was around 1998, when I was 12 or 13. I was on a trip to Israel to see my relatives, and my wealthy, technophilic uncle just got one. We sat around his computer, which was connected to the Internet at a speedy 56K. He pulled up CU-SeeMe, and connected. We got some good video of some random dude, although it was choppy as hell. They talked for a bit and the connection dropped. He tried again, connecting to another random person...

...and treated himself, my mother and I to live video of some dude's erect member.

Anonymous cocks and webcam technology: together since Day One.
posted by griphus at 12:46 PM on August 5, 2010 [11 favorites]

Oh, bother, I seem to have misread the link title and confused my open tabs.
posted by griphus at 12:48 PM on August 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yeah, and there was already a much more successful existing Slashdot clone with a less narrow remit (ahem), as well as Metafilter and Boingboing (which I believe already existed too). Plastic was when someone who thought "burning a million dollars of investor money" to run a little web magazine was a good idea jumped into online community with all the ignorant hubris the old school media elite could muster. I vividly remember Johnson's triumphant press releases about Plastic, where it hailed itself as a "whole! new! form! of! media! never! invented! before!" This editorial's author seems to have read those and bought into them, never realizing that Plastic's audience already happily existed elsewhere, and took those bullshit press releases as a sign to stay far, far away. Which we did in droves.
posted by rusty at 12:49 PM on August 5, 2010

chunking express: It says explicitly that Plastic's "formula would be copied with some vulgarization and more success by sites like Reddit and Digg." Which is just total bullshit.

Granted I probably have a more personal stake in the accuracy of this than most, so take my vitriol with a grain of salt. But regardless of how personally irritating that is to read, it's also objectively not at all true. Plastic was always nothing but a copy, and had no influence on anything that came after it other than, perhaps, teaching someone how not to launch a website.
posted by rusty at 12:52 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

N+1 specializes in writing confidently but ignorantly on a number of topics. They have the apodictic form down right; it's a shame about the matter.
posted by kenko at 12:52 PM on August 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

So wait--how does the pending Google/Verizon deal map onto this Bolshevik metaphor?
posted by kipmanley at 12:54 PM on August 5, 2010

I remember when I was eleven I spent four hours looking for information on a topic being discussed at the time in a forum. I remember finding this really great article and copy pasting it in the thread in entirety, without attributing it to the author or providing a link. I did it to make myself look smart. The funny thing was, a lot of people really thought I had written it. They praised me and it felt really good for all of the six hours that it lasted, when I checked again and somebody had smacked me down with ridicule and exposed the little fraud.
All of the sudden people were really angry at me and called me names and just basically made me feel like a really horrible human.

I remember distinctly feeling really guilty for like a month after that and having my mom ask about it and basically being unable to describe what I did in case she would also find it disagreeable or something...

Anyways, those are some memories of the internets back then.
posted by fantodstic at 12:57 PM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

from the last paragraph:
The nobler goals of this revolution are to disseminate information to parts of the world that do not have it, to strengthen democracy, to give a voice to everybody, and to speak truth to power.
Yes democracy, but what about freedom?
posted by kuatto at 12:58 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Holy crap, still exists! Who'd have thought.)
posted by rusty at 1:00 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

chunking express: It says explicitly that Plastic's "formula would be copied with some vulgarization and more success by sites like Reddit and Digg." Which is just total bullshit.

Yeah, he sounds really bitter there. Like he's a devoted user pissed off everyones gone to Facebook or something.
posted by Artw at 1:02 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Holy crap! still exists! I wonder if my login still works.)

posted by cavalier at 1:10 PM on August 5, 2010

cavalier: Yes, yes. :-) K5 was way better and more successful than Plastic, back in the day, is my main point. They may have both faded into irrelevancy now, but citing plastic as the ground-breaker is just so wrong.

For all that though, the conclusion that "if you believe that the internet is a revolution, then you must take seriously the consequences of that revolution as it is." is interesting. I'm not sure there's any good case to be made that lots of people were reading books in 1990 who aren't now, though. I think cable TV had a lot more to do with killing the market for books than the internet.

"The mistake that many supporters of the Bolsheviks made was to think that once the old order had been abolished the new order would be fashioned in the image of the best of them, rather than the worst" actually speaks to a lot of the concerns that motivated the functional choices I made on how K5 was going to work. It was explicitly not hyper-personalized -- decisions about content were collective, as a conscious reaction to what I thought was an increasing atmosphere that just because you could wall yourself off online from anything you didn't like, that you should be given tools to do that at all times. And it sort of worked and ultimately sort of didn't. I actually think that Facebook, of all things, is now the main standard-bearer for the notion of serendipitous discovery in browsing. By organizing itself as a network of people rather than primarily one of ideas, it brings an element of chance into what shows up in front of you that few of the generally more topic-focused sites can.

So this is an editorial with an interesting premise that it sort of wastes on the mostly-irrelevant relationship between the internet and books.
posted by rusty at 1:20 PM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I remember that. Eventually they just sold it to Carl, but I forget who Carl was exactly.
posted by rusty at 1:30 PM on August 5, 2010

I have to agree with kenko... confident but ignorant.

In its purest form, webism comes from a specific place: California. The computer and the internet spent their childhoods there.

You could just as easily claim that webism came from hippie hacker culture at MIT.
posted by melatonic at 1:33 PM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Or the telegraph age.
posted by Artw at 1:39 PM on August 5, 2010

(Holy crap, still exists! Who'd have thought.)

How can this be a surprise when AskMe got "Cool Site of the Day" the other day? Now I think I'll search for something interesting on Lycos!
posted by aught at 1:40 PM on August 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Lycos sucks! Altavista 4evs!
posted by rusty at 1:42 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Babel Fish Translation!
posted by Artw at 1:43 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

First, the creation of easy-to-use web interfaces (the first recognizable browser, Mosaic, launched in 1993) and blogging platforms (Moveable Type, 1999), which enabled non-specialists to navigate and publish on the web.

Not a big deal, but this always irritates me for some reason. Non-specialists published on the web long before blogging software became popular.
posted by rjs at 1:48 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Finally, ahead of the curve for something around here! I made this comment in February! is still around? How long has that been going on? /quickly checks to see if is being updated...
posted by hap_hazard at 1:56 PM on August 5, 2010

Adequacy... I've been trying to remember the name of those guys for months.
posted by Leon at 2:04 PM on August 5, 2010

I give it an A ambition, D for conceptual metaphor, and an F for execution.

And F for the labored, pretentious, thesis-style.

And for all the anxiety-ridden angst over literature, they do get it right that literature ain't going anywhere and shouldn't embarrass itself chasing the proper technological medium to colonize now that print is in such danger (Print is going nowhere'll juts be another pipe, perhaps no longer dominant, but the choice will still be there, and I can even see it coming back into dominance, the same way Vinyl is still alive and thriving or that TV did not undo cinema) it's just looking for the right mediums to do what it does...


posted by Skygazer at 2:19 PM on August 5, 2010

“The Russian Revolution was like a schoolyard game compared to the change that’s been driven by the digital revolution.”

Interesting to see such a typically self-aggrandizing comparison come straight from the mouth of Wired editor Louis Rossetto. There is an apt comparison to be made, though not in the way Rossetto would seem to think.

The self-serving utterances of the clique of embittered premature revolutionaries, turned venture capitalists, gathered around Wired and the Well, et al, (which have long been the hidden ideological motor defining the framework of discourse on the Internet) resemble nothing more than the worst excesses of Soviet orthodox historical determinism. As if Lenin's famous claim that "Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country" is destined to be repeated in ever more fatuous forms.

Today's approved party slogan seems to be "the future is user-generated content plus twitter" . Conveniently enough for the self appointed cadres of professional revolutionaries making up the A class, now they seem to be abandoning the hard work of blogging, en masse, for the issuing of 140 character diktats from on high. How unfortunate then that Twitter is growing to resemble nothing more than a self-propelling cult of personality, the scarce resources of attention redistributing themselves upwards, while the Internet's proletariat wait breathless for the latest proclamation form the vanguardist party's central committee. (Perhaps their is a secret libertarian rewrite of 'What Is To be Done?' locked away somewhere on the servers of the Global Business Network).

Meanwhile the spectre of Marx's remarks on history repeating itself haunts the whole of the modern world as we watch the constant revolutionizing of production, and uninterrupted disturbance of social conditions and, you know, all that is solid melts into air.
posted by tallus at 2:29 PM on August 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Oh my god, I knew I could count on all of you. MeFites never disappoint.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:42 PM on August 5, 2010

Rusty: So this is an editorial with an interesting premise that it sort of wastes on the mostly-irrelevant relationship between the internet and books Bolshevism.


You see, Bolshevism Utopian ideology was the very thing that destroyed some of the best aspects of Russian culture and cutting it's nose to spite it's face it quickly (very quickly), became tyrannical and totaltarian in it's monolithic need to be the ultimate Revolution; The ultimate "New day." And even some Russian writers and thinkers made the ultimate sacrifice for what they thought was the greater good, the "new day" and justice and equality of it.

So they're comparing the web to an ideology, they call, Webism, in which they see a similar fear or ignorance in the literary world, mostly the publishers, in which they're afraid that the publishers will feel such a need to be part of the "revolution," and Webism, that they similarly stop doing what they do best (ie; finding great literature and art and bringing it to the masses) and instead attempt mirror or sacrifice themselves upon the almost magically instant user created content that has become the "currency" or "gold stantdard" of the Web 2.0 scene.

And these folks have a good point there, but the supporting history of the "Webism" is weak and the whole parallel to Bolshevism is corny, if not, simply just plain ole lousy.

There was already decades of economic thought and philosophy that went into the ideology of Communism, and led to the superficial weak tea that was Boleshivism...and its hamfisted need for an instantaneous "New Day." And so they attach a half century of media theory to try and show the ideological underpinnings for this thing called "Webism," but that makes no sense to me. All that media theory is talking about a passive consumer activity, and yet the Web, feeds off of and is dependent upon an active consumer mode (Lawrence Lessig has a great book about this).

So, they have a good point and what is my problem with it? Well, for one thing the Goddamn tone of it is so entitled and elitist sounding. What do these folks,"the editors," know about the mechanics of the the great sweatshop of the dot com years? These are Ivy League educated trust funders, who're basically trying to define a mass culture from a rather lofty place. So it's insulting for them to fetishize Bolshevism in an intellectual wankery fest that compares it to a present day movement, they also feel a need to fetishize into some abstract nonsense called Webism. About they only interesting thing about that comparison is that they understand the web, and its foundations and workings as well as the Bolsheviks understood Communism.
posted by Skygazer at 2:51 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

The web as an ideological apparatus is interesting to consider: Idea is social practice and the web, ideally, is not a tool.
posted by xod at 3:16 PM on August 5, 2010

This is what webism looks like.

So webism is basically asshole GOP/Tea Bagger conservatives who game shit for gain on the web?

I'd rather just call it assholism.
posted by Skygazer at 3:29 PM on August 5, 2010

Actually, the "this" in that was intended to be read as somewhat more inclusive. The undercover investigation performed by the AlterNet guy is also what webism looks like. The way the comments after the article disintegrate into tit-for-tatting between factions that obviously hadn't read the article, webism. And any attempt to game a social media system like this, left or right, yours or theirs, assholish or not? Webism. The revolution as it is. Etc. So forth. --Books?
posted by kipmanley at 3:38 PM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

As long as users get to add stuff, comment on stuff or vote on stuff on sites, users will be attempting to game said sites for whatever reason. It's a universal law.
posted by Artw at 3:42 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kip: ...any attempt to game a social media system like this, left or right, yours or theirs, assholish or not? Webism.

How about the irritatingly glib book report-like tone, of that N+1 editorial?

Webism, or the more universal, assholism ?
posted by Skygazer at 4:01 PM on August 5, 2010

Now see that tone, that's what I think you'd call platform-agnostic. So I'd quibble with an assessment of webism, there.
posted by kipmanley at 4:49 PM on August 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

skygazer: I would only add to what you said the observation that only a fool posits an ideology based on some documents purporting to lay out an ideology.

Ideology is the things we don't know we know. If he'd included them, they'd be Rumsfeld's "unknown knowns." so whatever the actual ideology of the Internet is (and rest assured there is one) it doesn't appear here.
posted by rusty at 8:37 PM on August 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't get it. So observations of ideological content are by definition always erroneous, because no such content can ever be perceived?

What's interesting about the piece is its framing of the web as an ideology. I mean, it's challenging to consider it structurally and monolithically, which I think most conceptions of ideology basically demand. On the other hand, what's not-so-interesting about the piece for me is more or less the same thing as what's interesting. That is, its somewhat facile conception of the potential of the web in the terms and assumptions of classical, liberal ideology. Nevertheless, it's a conception of the web I hadn't considered before.

I've bought N+1 before and no doubt will again, even if it were edited by dirt-poor Canadians; but the "Ivy League trust-funder" dismissal above piqued my interest, so I did a little checking:

According to Wikipedia, Keith Gessen, co-editor-in-chief of n+1, lives in Brooklyn with two roommates. He was born in the USSR in 75. Damningly enough, he went to Harvard.

Mark Grief, Harvard, Oxford, Yale, appears to teach full-time at NYU.

Benjamin Kunkel is guilty of attending both Harvard and Columbia. I can't tell if he is also guilty of wealthy parents or not, likewise for Marco Roth.

I do like this story about Chad Harbach: Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000. "He grew up in Racine, Wisconsin. His father is an accountant, his mother ran the Small World Montessori School, for children 6 and under."
posted by xod at 1:12 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

xod: So observations of ideological content are by definition always erroneous, because no such content can ever be perceived?

No, far from it. But papers like Barlow's "Declaration" are not observations of ideology, they're proclamations of ideology, and what's more, that particular paper is a proclamation of ideology on behalf of something that barely even existed when the proclamation was made.

Attempts to proclaim what the ideology of some movement should be have historically failed to match up with honest attempts to discern what the ideology of the movement actually is. Usually they fail rather badly. Often to the extent of describing more or less the exact opposite of the real, working ideology in question. See: Soviet Communism, among others.

So I'm saying ideology can be perceived, and it's in fact available to almost anyone to perceive for themselves, if they think about what they don't know they know. It almost has to be perceived, otherwise how could it work? But in daily life, it is both perceived and dismissed in the same movement. Zizek calls it the "I know very well, but..." When what you know very well and what you actually do conflict, that's ideology at work right there.

I agree with you that an examination of the ideology of the net would be a very interesting thing, and the framing of this that way is a good idea. they just didn't do anything interesting with it.

For one sort of easy example of internet ideology, what does it mean that we know very well the internet is not a physical place, but all of our metaphors, and most of our behavior effectively treat it as one? In fact, this is where bringing in Barlow's document is interesting, because it is completely underlaid by the assumption (the ideological foundation) that he is speaking from a place, with people who live there, and a social existence distinct from the "weary giants of flesh and steel." The ideological content of Barlow's Declaration is not the sort of utopian libertarianism it explicitly espouses, but the assumption it never really even sees fit to mention, that here we are in a new location online.

This n+1 editorial goes on to explore the physical geography of Barlow's fairly run of the mill techno-libertarianism, which, to me, seems as beside the point as anything could be. The whole thing is rife with this sort of missed opportunity for interesting thought, is what it comes down to.

But an exploration of the ideology of the internet? Yeah, someone should do that.
posted by rusty at 1:43 PM on August 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

The whole thing is rife with this sort of missed opportunity for interesting thought, is what it comes down to.

I'll say. It's rambling and badly written, intellectually lazy with no reward in sight for such obvious weaknesses because it's neither musical to the ear, nor bracing tonic for the intellect. At least give me one of those, wtf.

I think the sticky wicket here is the use of the word "ideology." There's the theory and then there's the execution and they can be so disparate so as to render the theory laughable no matter how much one tries to make a connection. I think a better way to think of this is as a cultural event, regardless of ideology (for now anyway). I'm going to just put out there I think their intentions with this editorial no matter how weak botched and crap it is were very smart, and very worthy and honorable. And I can sense the underlying anxiety, because I have felt it too. And it is this: How will literature and ruminative, sustained pieces of conscious thought remain alive in the withering glare of the Web. When content is mistaken for thought and culture, when really all it is, is disposable crap?? Who will man the battlements and protect the institutions of literature and art with a connection to the classical past, as opposed to the 24 hour news cycle?

And it's to the publishing world they're speaking to and encouraging to stand firm, man the battlements etc...this ism is just another -ism, it too will pass and be seen for the nonsense that it is/was. I like that. THere's too many folks (especially in publishing) who have such a piss poor understanding of the web and kinda know they can use it to their advantage, but are ignorant to it and so they attribute all manner of unworthy value to it and buy into the terrible content that comes out of it, offering various vacuous individuals massive publishing contracts simply on the hype their blog has generated involving who they've fucked and what it's like to live in NYC as a young person, blah...blah.....blah....and then their book comes out and not only do you want to throw it against the wall, you want to rip out all the pages and stick them up the arse of the lit agent, editor, publishing people who put the fucking thing out. And yeah, I'm referring to a particular book that recently came out....

Anyhow, that's all well and good, but the demographic of n+1 is troubling, are dudes with multiple Ivy League degrees, and multiple dizzyingly fabulous opportunities, especially since most of the people in publishing were their classmates the only ones who're going to make this worthy, although atrociously articulated, argument for literature to be kept sacred and lofty?? Because, that's just weird. It makes their intentions seem fearful, reactionary and...well elitist, there's no other way to put it. These are some awfully sweet privileged argments to beat one's breast about when one is not having to worry about paying the rent, and they're being given the privilege due to their wealthy backgrounds (and if not wealthy than at least well-connected backgrounds with parents usually intellectuals and accomplished artists in their own right).

Also, I think the intent of the magazine itself, n+1 is cynical and disingenuous. It's obvious it's greatest purpose is to get these guys big publishing contracts not be something great unto itself, as seen by that trainwreck of an "editorial."
posted by Skygazer at 5:32 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's further disingenuous to not acknowledge that while they want to lampoon and ridicule and make nameable and render powerless this thing, cultural movement or "ideology" they call Webism, they're willing to ride the same pony.
posted by Skygazer at 5:42 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

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