Forever September

So, I’ve been reading the various commentary around my announcement about being hired by AOL, and it seems generally positive, so that’s nice. But I’ve noticed that people have some some reservations about the AOL Journal concept in a larger sense; they’re worried about another “September That Never Ends.” So let’s talk about that for a minute.

For those of you who aren’t up on your Internet lore, “The September That Never Ends” refers to an event in 1993 when America Online, previously a self-contained online service, allowed it members to connect with the larger Internet, which in 1993 primarily consisted of the USENET newsgroups. At the time the USENET was used primarily by academic types who knew that every September a new crop of college students would invade the various newgroups and act cluelessly for a few weeks until the old-timers could slap them into shape. But this time there were too many AOLers who were too set in their ways for the academics to handle and train; they fought a continual battle to reimpose some sort of order to the newsgroups.

Thus “The September That Never Ends.” it’s also the event that branded AOL users as clueless newbies by the academics and those who more or less roll their own access, a reputation that they’ve been hard-pressed to shake, considering it’s now ten years later and some of folks are still going on about it. I think that this reputation is merely residual at this point and that AOL members as a class have the same sort of clueful-to-clueless ratio as the users of any commerical ISP, but let’s not get into that now.

What I do think is important to get into is the fact that 2003 is not 1993, and the situation in hand with AOL starting up AOL Journals is not directly analogous with AOL hooking up with the ‘Net for the first time. Some of the differences:

1. AOL as an institution is aware of the “September” effect and is making the effort to be a good neighbor to the communities that currently exist. Part of that is the idea of a proactive attempt to help AOLers understand blogs and journals as they already exist to aid in the integration of AOL Journal writers in the larger “blogosphere”; i.e., why they hired me.

2. Unlike in 1993, AOL members are already connected to the Internet and are familiar with how it works and how to behave in it. Also, many AOL members already read blogs and interact in their message board and comment threads; they’re not the same set of “clueless newbies” that AOL members were accused of being a deacde ago.

3. The nature of the USENET was/is largely collaborative; the nature of blogs and journals is largely individual (there are group blogs, like the Volokh Conspiracy or Metafilter, but they’re the exception rather than the rule). Because the individual sets the tone and format of his or her own blog or journal, the potential for “newbie” disruption is significantly lower. There is a group aspect of sorts in the ability for readers to post comments on individual blogs, but since the blog/journal usually retains the ability to edit/delete messages or ban particularly annoying people, there’s substantially more individual control than newsgroup habitues had a decade ago.

4. Likewise, the dynamic of the blogosphere is substantially different than the dynamic of the USENET. USENET newsgroups were (and are, since they still exist) like clubs, in which a relatively small group focused on a relatively small subject; the Blogosphere is a network, in which associations are far more general and made with an ever-shifting collection of links. Networks are more scalable than clubs and more able to both absorb large numbers of new users and (critically) ignore elements of the network that don’t contribute positively (they don’t get linked).

This isn’t to say a “September” effect isn’t possible. I just think it’s unlikely; the blogosphere by its nature self-corrects to optimize the signal-to-noise ratio. I suspect we’ll find that AOL Journals integrates into the online writing world pretty well. Part of that will be because AOL is itself making the effort to make it happen. But most of it will be because the online writing world itself is designed to make it happen.

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