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Preserving and Promoting the "Internet Culture" by Peter Deutsch

By Peter Deutsch (8) <peterd@bunyip.com>
(Reprinted from "Internet World" (March 1994), with kind permission of the author.)

There's something special about the Internet. Anyone with even a passing exposure to this eighth wonder of the world will vouch for the accuracy of this claim, but explaining exactly what the fuss is all about to someone who has not yet experienced its delights first hand can be a real challenge.

Now, we can be sure it's not the nifty technology. The fact is, although there is a certain sense of magic in logging onto a machine in another country for the first time there are other technologies that offer a similar sense of wonder or power. Besides, the majority of Internet users don't really care what all those acronyms stand for. At this point, even the majority of us involved in creating the stuff would probably admit that in our hearts we know that this is just the glue that holds everything together. The real excitement lies elsewhere.

Nor is the magic to be found in the mountains of information that the Internet makes available to its users. Let's face it, despite the fact that there is quite a lot of useful stuff out there, in reality the "Information Age" promise of the Internet is still more potential than reality. At this point, content is best measured in quantity, not quality.

No, if there is one thing that seems to captivate people more than anything else from the moment they first make contact with the Internet, it is that inexplicable sense of civic pride and community spirit that bonds each of us to every other user on the net. When you find another Internaut at a traditional social function and end up swapping email addresses, you're affirming your membership in a group with its own rituals, rites and secret handshakes. You're affirming your membership in a semi-secret society that appears to be well on the way to changing the world.

It seems to me that "knowing the secret Internet handshake" is the real thrill here. It leads to a form of communal bonding that makes swapping email addresses the cyberspace equivalent of inviting someone into your house for dinner. This sharing of your secret name is an act of faith, a demonstration that your new-found friend can be trusted to fit in with your current set of friends and neighbors, that a newcomer has in fact shown that they know the secret handshake and are worthy of your acceptance and support.

Part of this sense of community is probably fueled by our simple but compelling need for help if we are to survive those lonely nights in the Internet wilderness, for the Internet is still a land where user interfaces are "red in tooth and claw" and loners don't last long. Without a guiding hand in those early stages few of us would have avoided fairly prompt Darwinian selection and thus there's lots of incentive to learn to "play nicely with the other kids" if you really want to get any work done.

But there's more to it than that. This sense of community is surely sustained by the ease with which such help is sought and given. Most users readily admit that they need the extra eyes and ears of their "extended family" to bring them news of new offerings and found treasures. Newcomers seem to rapidly and naturally find the appropriate mailing lists, newsgroups, archives or gopher servers that cater to their own particular needs and in the process they cluster together with others who share similar interests in various "virtual villages". That's where the real excitment of the Internet is to be found, in joining and building the cyberspace frontier.

I've been incredibly fortunate over the past couple of years to be able to travel and meet Internet users from around the world. In the process, I've been amazed at how similar we are all under the skin.

Here's just a sampling of some of the interesting people I share my net with:

Naswa, an Arab woman responsible for the first Internet link into her country, who once told me tales of pulling cable under false floors in the middle of the night and eating sandwiches over the terminal while struggling to get the routing tables in place before the first users showed up for work in the morning. It turns out we'd shared exactly the same experiences in bringing the Internet into our respective institutions. Daniel, a Frenchman who gave up a lucrative job at IBM to help bring networking into the Caribbean. He told me tales of his efforts to develop email software that could function across the region's atrocious phone links while also providing its user help facility in four languages. The package is made available by aid workers and given away at development conferences. Anders, a psychologist turned gopher expert in Scandinavia who works to bring together the librarians and computer operations people while never forgetting that we're really supposed to be doing all of this for the users. With a background far removed from the arcane world of computing, Anders is able to constantly remind me that technology is not the point, only a point of departure.

What appears to tie together this disparate group of connectivity providers, developers, operators and users is the shared conviction that we're all working on something important. Although as far as I know none of these people have actually met, I'm sure that if brought together they'd all recognize each other instantly. I certainly felt a kinship when I met each one of them in my travels. It was clear that we are all from the same small village and it was nice to come home.

I can't help but see this spontaneous creation of online communities as a natural response to those cold winter nights, when the new version of Mosaic refuses to install and the howling of distant UNIX hackers can be heard far off across the tundra.

But there is also the shared joy of a communal feast, held perhaps after the virtual community's hunters have subdued a fat new gopher server for the group to enjoy. After a brief struggle to isolate its port number and bring it to its knees with multiple queries, the information monster is conquered once again and there is joyous feasting around the campfires as we all gorge ourselves on this latest net offering and bask in the warm glow of communal friendship.

If you (and my editor) will forgive me this brief flight of literary fantasy, I think there is actually a point in here somewhere. If you are ever called upon to explain the magic of the Internet to those who have yet to learn the secret handshake (whether it be a recalcitrant boss or a puzzled life partner) then I'd definitely forgo the tutorial on TCP/IP's ability to survive a nuclear war or the rapturous recitation of the list of anonymous FTP servers currently carrying XMosaic. What really matters here is that people help each other out, they do it with warmth and friendship, there's a great feeling of communal spirit and everything seems to work, more or less.

Although as a newcomer to the Internet you might sometimes feel like you've wandered onto a construction site, what with all the half-finished software and the half-baked and incomplete services you're confronted with on a daily basis, the happy campers living here have somehow managed to make the place livable and welcome you into their little world with open arms, asking only that you learn the rules, do your share of the housework and don't trample on the flowerbeds. It's not a bad life, really.

And the Internet does tend to take care of its own. Whenever someone announces a new service people look it over and run it through their collective "cultural filter". Woe betide those who would bring forth a new service that doesn't appear to respect the cultural norms or provide for the required nod towards altruism or shared sacrifice. If your nifty new plan to make a million off the Internet doesn't seem to have at least some small component of sharing as part of its mandate, then you risk a flood of email, angry Usenet postings and maybe even, if the crowd is angry enough, actual phone calls of complaint.

Of course, this is not to say that we're facing the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (if I may be permitted to date myself just a bit). In fact, numerous large commercial entities have come to play in the Internet sandbox, with many more coming online every day. This raises real questions about whether we're going to be able to preserve the potlatch culture in this new age of Mammon. I've even seen postings which refer to the current Internet culture as a "hothouse flower", as if it is something precious yet fragile that must be preserved against the interlopers who would do it harm.

For what it's worth, I firmly believe that the current Internet culture is actually far tougher than it appears at first glance. In some measure I think this is due to fact that our need for help when getting started leads us naturally to cooperation as a form of enlightened self-interest. But I also think this is true because cooperation has so obviously worked to date that its benefits quickly makes a convert out of each new-comer who shows up.

I hope I'm right about this, since if the new commercialism does fulfill its promise and actually provide us with better quality interfaces and sources of information it would appear to lessen that driving need for help which I think helps bind us all together. If new-comers can avoid the painful rites of passage will they still be as cooperative with their neighbors? Will it be the same Internet when we don't all share the same scars under our clothes and tell the same horrors stories to our children? I hope so.

Of course, for those worrying about a flood of nouveau riche Internet entrepreneurs carrying off the tribe's birthright there's still some time yet before we all have to pack up and head off into the sunset. I don't yet see lots of millionaires pulling up to the IETF in big cars (although the flood of well-dressed sales people at Interop is starting to become a bit intimidating to those of us whose primary sartorial decision-making revolve around the choice between dark or light T-shirts each morning).

In fact, as one of the principals in a small startup, I report with somewhat mixed feelings that a slightly bemused venture capitalist once said to me not too long ago "I see lots of money changing hands around the Internet, I just don't see anybody making lots of money". Of course, he was only looking at connectivity, since there's not many other places yet where the money is moving in quantity.

In any event, I suspect that this lack of real "get rich quick" success stories is helping to keep some of the more onerous fast buck artists out of town. This is just as well, since probably the last thing we need right now is for some Internet prospector to come down out of the hills waving around a couple of fist-sized nuggets, shouting "Gold!". We still need a bit of time to get the sidewalks in before that particular rush begins.

Of course, if you're not quite as complacent as I am you want to help out on picket duty while the rest of us are sleeping. Here are a few things you might want to keep an eye out for in the next little while.

When we start to see people really shutting down the volunteer services because of exploding demand, it might be time to start worrying (but the mere sighting of a posting which predicts their demise doesn't count. I've been seeing those for years). When we start to see newly arrived commercial services flaunt local customs and get away with it, it might be time to start worrying (For example, if a commercial site were to send out a pile of unsolicited email for their wares, and nobody bothers to flame them, then I'd be nervous). Most importantly, if you suddenly found yourself signing off the Internet early one day just so you can go find something just a bit more interesting to do, then I think it would be time to really start wondering where we all went wrong!

So, can the Internet culture survive? I don't know. I do know that it has proved a remarkably hardy creature so far. I trust that with just a little bit of care and feeding it can carry on for a good while yet. If each Internet traveller who meets it on the road will do their bit to keep it going for a while longer we can perhaps enjoy its presence for a good while to come.

Peter Deutsch
Bunyip Information Systems Inc. 

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