1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Five: Social Media

Was there actually even social media in 1998? Oh, my, yes. There was. And it acted in pretty much the same way as it does now, in all the good and bad ways.

The players were different, of course. In 1998, in place of Twitter and Facebook you had USENET and America Online (as two examples). Blogs were just starting off, and the word “blog” itself hadn’t really gained currency, so they were mostly known as “online diaries” or “online journals,” but .plan files and other such similar analogues were around, doing the same sort of thing. There was IRC rather than Slack. And so on. Everything that’s prominent today had its analogue and inspiration in something else.

And even in 1998, these weren’t new ideas — AOL was the upstart muscling in on CompuServe’s and GEnie’s territory, don’t you know, and the “Web” was still in the process of being bolted onto (and over) the existing Internet, with its gopher holes and veronica searches and what have you. And don’t forget BBS’s, which you had to dial into directly! With your 300 baud modem! Uphill and in the snow! 1998 was already iterative, my friends.

What’s certainly different now is scale. AOL at its height had something like 34 million subscribers; Facebook has more than a billion users, and people are worried about Twitter because it only has 300 million users. And with scale comes scale-related problems. There were always trolls, as an example, but there is a difference between having to deal with a single persistent troll on alt.society.generation-x, and dealing with literally hundreds of trolls on Twitter bound and determined to wreck you. Social media, or more accurately the people who run and administer it, have done a very poor job accounting for the scaling up of its influence and reach, which is one reason we have the beef-witted president we do and why the current iteration of social media feel like they’ve reached a bend in the curve, where the toxicity and bullshit have eroded their position.

For a lot of people it’s not a lot of fun being on social media right now, and that’s a problem for the social media companies, who rely on ads. Here in 2018, it really does feel like we’re ready and waiting on the next iteration of social media, the one that makes it enjoyable again for most of us to hang out with our friends online.

Was it fun in 1998? I think it was, but in regard to blogs in particular, it was more that it was exciting. There was a sense of being on a frontier of sorts — a place not yet colonized and so a place of invention, or reinvention, if you wanted that instead. We were doing things that were never done before! (In fact they had been done before, many times, in many other media, but they were never done on the Web, in html, so.) There was status conferred just for being out there in the wild, with your online journal the only signpost around for figurative miles. The blogosphere was still (barely) small enough in 1998 that you could read everyone and keep up with their doings. The full blossoming and influence of the blogosphere was still most of a decade away at least, but it seemed like something could happen there.

And it kind of did. I don’t need to recount the glory days of blogs right now, but I will say that it took until about 2008 or 2009 for me to be better known as a science fiction writer than as a blogger, and of course my first two Hugo awards were for writing originally posted here, so even as my primary notability began to drift over, the blog writing and online presence was (and still is) a significant component of it. Even now there are people who read my blog or follow me on Twitter who are vaguely surprised when I mention I have books out. Oh you do that, too? That’s a nice side gig. Yes. Yes it is.

In terms of casual foot traffic, Whatever peaked in 2012; front page traffic here has dropped by about half since then. I can drive 2012 levels of interest in a post by pointing to it on Twitter, and the blog has roughly 50,000 followers via WordPress, email and RSS (yes, still) who have what I write here show up for them somewhere else. But no matter how it’s sliced, the “blogosphere” has become something of a ghost town. Many blog writers have simply moved over to Facebook or Twitter as their main online presence because that’s where their friends and/or fans are, which is entirely fair. Some people like to blame Google for the decline, because it killed its popular RSS reader, which was one way people kept up with their favorite blogs. I think that’s a factor, but honestly not much that much of a factor. I think it’s more simply because maintaining blogs is a lot of work and other types of social media are easier, both in maintaining a presence and in getting/growing an audience.

Which of course is a bit ironic, here in 2018, where the famous and non-famous alike are noping out of social media because it’s such a drag now, and random chucklefucks can show up en masse to be a pain in your ass. If only you kept your blog up! People would know where to find you! Well, no, not exactly — there’s no guarantee that anyone will find your blog again if they’re stuck in the Facebook/Twitter/Instagram social media gravity well. We’re all waiting for the next things, not necessarily the old things to come back.

I should note that here in 2018 it’s not all doom and gloom on social media front, at least not for me. I am having fun. The reason for that, not entirely surprisingly, is because I filter the shit out of things. Here on Whatever, of course, you’re all familiar with how that works. On my private Facebook account, I limit “friends” to people I know in real life, make sure my posts only go out to them (and not to “friends of friends,” as “friends of friends” are inevitably the drunken racist uncles of the online Thanksgiving known as Facebook), and I don’t talk politics at all — it’s cats and kids and career, and I don’t comment on political posts that other people post, either. As a result my Facebook presence is almost placid. It’s nice to have some place like that online.

On Twitter, I filter out accounts with default icons, and accounts that don’t have verified emails and otherwise employ the Scamperbeasts rule to people who come bother me. The Scamperbeasts currently have 14k followers, so that cuts substantially the number of annoying people I feel obliged to engage with. And truth to tell I don’t feel obliged to engage with people I think who are trolls regardless of their follower count; I employ a “one strike” rule pretty much for everyone these days. Twitter also lets it users mute specific conversations now, which I find to be super-helpful when a particular tweet of mine gets picked up by piles of jerks. There’s also a thing which I consider to be something of a “nuclear” option that I haven’t used yet, but might if things become especially contentious and/or I get incredibly busy, which is the option to see tweets only from the people I actually follow. If I had massively more followers, or was a woman of some note in the world, I would have probably already engaged this option.

Fortunately me, it’s not come to that, and the strategies I use are more than enough to handle the occasional jerk eruptions that come my way. And again, these strategies aren’t that different than the ones that have always been a part of being online. On the USENET in 1998 and earlier, we had “killfiles” — lists of people whose posts would simply not show up in our newsreaders. When we consigned someone to a killfile, they went *plonk*.

Well, the plonk never, ever went away, nor should it have. Online, it’s only ever been the way to deal with others — the option not to hear them. Yes, I know there is a whole cadre of people who like to maintain that muting, blocking and otherwise filtering is somehow censoring them. Those kind of people are the same kind of people they were in 1998: Generally, self-absorbed, toxic assholes.

Social media can be a lovely place, but it’s work for it to be that. If you don’t have the tools (or alternately, the tools are not obvious or easy to use), it can be pretty awful, and that awfulness scales upward the more people there are online, and the more people who know who you are online. I knew people in 1998 who threw up their hands and walked away for the social media of the time because it was all too much, so here in 2018 I certainly can’t blame anyone who does the same. I was willing to deal with it back then, and here and now I don’t think I’m going away either. But it would be nice if the next iteration of social media finally had baked into its interface the idea that not everyone is nice to everyone else, and not everyone means well to everyone else. Just like in real life.

39 thoughts on “1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Five: Social Media

  1. “RSS (yes, still)”? Is there another form of aggregator-across-page subscriptions that I missed? I mourned Reader, sure, but Feedly does the same job: I find it essential. No way am I going to a slew of individual sites each day just in case.

  2. Ah yes, the heady days of the “World Wide Web”. I used to speculate what we would call “www” for short, because “double-u-double-u-double-u” was so obnoxious… 3 times the syllables of the “unabbreviated” version! There was no way we would still be saying that out loud when naming a website in 20 years. “Double-yous”? “Dubs”?

    Turns out…we just ignore it entirely. RIP, every-other-prefix like “ftp.” and “gopher.” You are not really missed.

  3. Hi Anne,

    I saw an article a few days ago where John’s friend Will Wheaton, of “Stand By Me,” had either given up on Twitter and been kicked off Mastodon, or maybe it was the other way around; anyway, I hope social media works out better for you than it did for Mr. Wheaton. Don’t use it myself.

  4. I’m so old I remember having to put every hop in an email address. The company I worked for at the time got a feed once/day from a local technology college, and I sent an email to my brother who worked for another college across the country. Typing that email address was horrendous! Needless to say I didn’t email him often then.

  5. Is there anything but RSS you can use to subscribe to things? I stand with Ewan, RSS still rules.

    I had my moment of doubt when Firefox Quantum knocked out Bambooo Feed Reader, but I’ve since replaced it with Feedbro and it works really well. I think that’s the main difference between a social network feed and an RSS feed – it’s seamless, doesn’t try to get in the way. Social media would want to choose if I actually want to read it, while an RSS reader leaves the decision to me.
    I think Google is still intent on replacing RSS with AMP and that’s why they killed Feed Reader, but it’s not a federated protocol and thus I’m not inclined in the slightest to use it.

    Federated protocol: a protocol without a central authority. Best known examples: email, analogue post, phone calls and texts, XMPP, IPFS, Scuttlebutt(ok, the last 3 are nerdier rather than known). You can contact people under a different authority(ie. mail server) without issues.
    This is in contrast to centralised protocols like Signal, Telegram or most communication applications and website chats, where you can only contact users who have an account with the same service.

  6. So I’ve only been following this blog for about 7 years. Before that, I was an avowed blog-hater. Then a good friend gave me a copy of OMW and told me the blog was pretty cool too. And I’ve enjoyed it! Love the Big Idea posts as they are basically make up my to-be-read list. And I also really enjoy your longer-form prose. So thanks for all of the above. I only just started getting into Twitter (also follow you there) because I was getting bored of Facebook. Silly me, thinking it would actually be “better”. Anywho… also have been on this Internet thing for a long time, following newsgroups a lot in college in the mid-90’s. Still remember when another friend said “Hey, you gotta try this thing called Mosaic where you can read the Internet.” (Not a direct quote.) Even now, I work in IT and the Internet in general is a required tool. Social Media, I’m still not so hot on. Twitter is moderately entertaining. I follow a lot of authors there, so how could it not be? But I could drop it anytime and not feel like I’m missing out. And back to this blog: I’m one of those RSS followers. It’s much easier to have the subscription delivered to my fat desktop mail client than to pull up the page every day. So I’m a teeny bit of a luddite… Thanks for all the fish!

  7. Somewhere back around 2000, during a concom meeting for our nascent local con, somebody brought up the issue of social media. One of the other concom members, a gentleman some 10 years older than I am, wondered aloud if that was something we should even be concerned with. “I mean, I doubt that anybody here has a ‘blog’…” — and he said it in the voice of someone describing a three-headed monkey, and you could hear the scare quotes. He was absolutely astounded when well over half of us responded with variations on “I do!”

    Now, to be fair, a lot of us were talking about LiveJournal, which I have always held a bit separate in my mind from things like WordPress (and one of the reasons I’ve never moved to WordPress or BlogSpot or any of the others is that they don’t have some of the LJ/DW features that are important to me). But still, it was an online personal forum, and that counts.

    And, to give credit where it’s due, he did then go on to establish his own LJ account and become more conversant with social media as a whole, which speaks well of him. But I will never forget that moment of absolute bogglement.

  8. I was going to comment on RSS (still), but Ewan said it clearly and concisely (I also use Feedly–and still follow a couple hundred blogs). But then, I still think of Netflix as discs in red envelopes (one of The Three Million Hopeless Diehards)…

  9. To me, Twitter has a lot to answer for. I hold them personally responsible for lowering the discourse (and IQ) of this country by at least 25 points. Could Trump the President even have existed without Twitter?

  10. “Yes, I know there is a whole cadre of people who like to maintain that muting, blocking and otherwise filtering is somehow censoring them. Those kind of people are the same kind of people they were in 1998: Generally, self-absorbed, toxic assholes.”

    That needs to be one of the commandments of the internet. Or more succinctly… “I am not obliged to hear your bullshit”.

    I still don’t get Twitter. Only use it to enter contests. Proud to be an egg.

  11. The company I worked for until the early 90’s had their own internal discussion forums for employees. (Over 100,000 of us. ) A lot of work-related technical discussions, but also ‘social’ forums for various topics, including politics, philosophy, women’s issues, guns etc. etc. When I left in 1993 there was something ‘missing’. Finally bought my own computer in ’05 and reentered the online world. Things have not improved. Back in the day we had moderators, now it’s a free-for-all. With spam up the wazoo, and boorishness beyond belief.

    I limit my Facebook friends to actual friends, family and a few old school chums. I generally don’t do much ranting there, most of my friends have heard emnough of my bs…

  12. It was late 98/early 99 that I got my first online stalker. Well, the first creepy one at least. A guy who would track me all through usenet and aol, forcing me to drop identities and get new usernames every couple of months. And for a very disturbing couple of months he started describing what I was wearing each day, with a high degree of accuracy. Even doing what would now be called doxing by posting my car registration plate and pictures of my front door. He tailed off after a year, and but every so often he’d still pop up even into the mid 1990s. I haven’t seen him in the last decade, and hope I’ve seen the last of him.

    I sincerely hope he’s grown out of the behaviour and not simply picked a different target. Although I admit that back in the day, I’d have been grateful of the latter just to get a break. I have a horrible suspicion it is the latter though. Guys like that don’t grow out of that sort of creepy behaviour. In case anyone is wondering, I did go the cops at the time; their response was that I should get a different hobby and just stay away from computers. Somehow I have a horrible feeling that is probably the cops first sort of advice even today too.

    That all makes my early internet experience sound totally dreadful, but it really wasn’t. I had fun and made friends, some of whom are friends of mine even to this day. And I discovered Ranma fanfic communities, and Quantum Leap communities, which were very welcoming. I would say that, creeps like that stalker aside, the early internet was far more female friendly than it is today. I remember the Star Trek forums in particular as being almost completely female dominated. For a girl from rural Scotland, this was all a revelation. I’ll be honest, if someone said that I could have Web 1.0 back again, even if it meant losing broadband and streaming services, I’d hit that reset button.

  13. I did the 300 baud, local bbs thing for years (late-80’s timeframe), and even remember my excitement at upgrading to a 1200 baud modem. Then came the “information services,” of which I first joined GEnie, then CompuServe, then AOL. When I started following “Whatever” early this year, the first thing it made me think of was Jerry Pournelle’s presence on GEnie — i.e., an eminent SF writer making himself kinda sorta directly accessible to masses of fans via an online presence….sharing chunks of his recent fiction projects, daily musings/opinions, and computer-tech stuff along the lines of his “Chaos Manor” column in “Byte” magazine. Of course, Pournelle and his groupies were on “that other side” of the political spectrum…

  14. Ah yes, the buzz of the modem. Playing “tradewars” (and hosting it!). Using archie to search for ftp sites. the 3 1/2″ disk install of slackware, to a cyrix processor box no less. I remember thinking that the world wasn’t ready for the internet when I saw mosaic. I suspected they would spoil it, and I am not surprised, but merely saddened that they did.

  15. OK, gonna talk some ancient history first. My first computer interactions were with 6-bit and 8-bit mylar and paper tape, and PDP11 mini-computers. Then in college working on my BSCS, in my first programming class there were 400 students and 4 online terminals, but in the back of the lab were these big things — called punch-card machines. So one of the guys in the class, who became a great friend, showed me how to key in and edit cards — he was a former IBM field engineer who repaired and rebuilt hardware like that. So I learned PL/I programming on punch cards, thank Dog they were really tiny programs at first.

    My first home computer was a Kaypro 64, that was the memory space for the CPU, 64K. It cost over $3K IIRC, but I needed one to keep my IT skills warm, and write resumes and cover letters, which worked, I got a JOB~!~

    BBS Compuserv, etc. So as the Web was invented, I was watching. IBM VM, VSAM, DB2, Oracle DB, PowerBuilder, MS (uck), then Linux, Slashdot, Whatever. Pournelle, OMG, interesting but a strange bird from my liberal union member perspective.

    Love the Whatever blog, recommend also BalloonJuice.com.

    Like your stuff, like Big Idea, also like the piles of books, some of which (sob) aren’t available yet to plain ol’ readers, as opposed to big time authors. So keep up the good work, John. Enjoy rural Ohio, it is beautiful. We live in rural SW WV, more hilly and really rural compared to your part of Ohio. But beautiful.

    Thanks for what you do!!

  16. Re: “Social media can be a lovely place, but it’s work for it to be that” – I do not need more work to do. I also do not need stalkers, harassers, trolls and the like to suck up my brain space. And I am militant when it comes to guarding my privacy, a concept that seems to have become unfathomable to the rest of the world. So I avoid all forms of social media like the plague, which is what I consider them to be.

    Reading a blog, however, and particularly a well-written blog that is updated with some regularity, is an activity that I can engage in and enjoy without stalkers, trolls and privacy concerns. So it delights me to see Whatever continue to be as lively and well-maintained as it is, and I especially appreciate months like this one when the updates are both more frequent and full of thought-provoking commentary.

    Thanks for that. I know you don’t do that for my sake personally, of course, but please know that there are folks out here who appreciate this platform very much indeed.

  17. Sometimes I miss the crayola-colored Prodigy of 1990; when we upgraded from a 300 baud modem to 2400, it was *amazing.* It only took 45 seconds for a page to load instead of 60! It was an unlimited, all-you-can see buffet of text for $9.95/month. When real-time chat was offered, and then the WWW, gosh…we were IMPORTANT people.

    Still, as a member of a military family that moved every couple of years, social media–everything from live-chat on AOL and Prodigy, IRC, then blogging and forums–has been a sanity saver that’s kept me connected to friends. It has its drawbacks, but I sure as hell don’t want to go back.

  18. I miss USENET in the pre-Eternal September days.

    I miss when some rather niche email lists could attract enough members to host lively discussions of really obscure interests of mine.

    I miss the heydays of the Blog.

    I refuse to use FB. In fact, I block their IP space[1] at my router – they don’t exist in my internet. I rarely look at Twitter.

    I doubt I’ll have any interest in any new social network thing so long as adtech pays the bills. Mastadon or some other federated service seems more my speed, but I doubt many normal humans will care about any of that until they can host it on their phone, which means never, which means my mom won’t use it to look at pics of the family, which means it won’t work.

    We aren’t going to get back the ‘good old days’. And in fact a lot of what made them “good” for me made the internet terrible for others – crappy usability, expense and inaccessibility kept it rather weirdly elitist. The ‘elite’ were the nerds – mostly white, mostly men, mostly either employed in a technical capacity in the tech industry or academia. Which was lovely if you were a nerdy white guy with a good job that let you gossip on the news groups, not so much for your average person with no interest in figuring what a regex is, let alone how to write one to match the name of some jerk you don’t want to read anymore.

    It was nice to have ‘been there’. I’m kind of dismayed by what a shithole the net has become, but that’s what happens when you let humans at something. And I’m hoping the pendulum swings back towards individual empowerment and away from building a better panopticon in the never-ending quest for a slightly better quarterly result.

    [1] I block all adtech shops I know of, along with some other outfits I know surveil people, but I can’t tell what they are. Yes, I worry too much about these things – it is what I do for a living. The careful security curation is just a side-effect.

  19. No matter how hard we try, we didn’t change that we are *people*, and people generally don’t change. I remember the old USENET forums for the TV show Babylon5, and how rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated was so much better than rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5 , for example.

  20. My main point of interaction with authors anymore is Goodreads. It gives most of the benefits of Twitter – ability to ask the author questions with a decent chance they will actually reply, ability to follow authors and people you find interesting, & ability to comment and post your own thoughts with only about 5% of the drama.

  21. Oh, usenet, yes. Got my first death threat there on a kite forum. (Actually off the forum, but my “accidental” reposting garnered 5000 people telling the jerk to get lost pronto) – he was in Australia and I’m in the UK, so no lost sleep. Thanks for the word “chucklefuck” I can certainly use that one for the IRL jokers. And, yes, blogs, useful for all sorts of reasons. I use mine (I have several) for posting Useful Information about my interests, and for annoying people for whom the word “roadkill” is a trigger
    http://doesnotequal.blogspot.com/search/label/roadkill

  22. There’s killfiles for blogs – I use “blog comment killfile” for FF, and they’re available for other browsers.
    I still read Usenet, but I’m from the days of 300bps acoustic couplers and “bang paths” and UUCP maps, not merely pre-“Eternal September” but also pre-“The Great Reorganisation” :-)
    And Twitter… well, in my dialect of English the name defines the users: twits twitter.

  23. I’ve been looking for a replacement for Livejournal for years, which probably tells you all you need to know about me. Still haven’t found one, though :( I just can’t get on with Facebook, but so far WP seems nice.

  24. I’m glad you still have your blog! I accidentally stumbled on the info recently that you’re working on A sequel to “The Collapsing Empire” and thought the best way to get more info is to look at your website. Before that, I didn’t even know you’re blogging!
    I greatly prefer blogs + RSS for following people. I could take a week off and not miss anything. Anything on my Twitter and Facebook feeds is too short-lived and most of the stuff I’d actually want to read get drowned in other noise there, but if someone writes an announcement/good piece of text I’m sure to see it in my RSS

  25. My first exposure to “social media” was MilNet in the mid-80’s when I was an Army Private with access to a terminal in the TOC and wondering what this e-mail stuff was and asking questions in email based forums so long gone I can’t remember what they were. Proto-UseNet, I guess. Thank God none of those posts were preserved.

    I was on Slahdot early. Then Kuro5hin which was awesome, sort of a group blog platform, until Rusty let the trolls win. There are people I’ve known for 20 years without ever meeting them In Real Life.

  26. My recollection of the mid-90s was that IRC chat rooms were dangerous places for teenage girls. Which is, of course, why my high school roommates spent so much time on them.

  27. I’ve read some (technical) Usenet newsgroups since 1987 or so, and it;’s interesting that with a fast threaded newsrreader and the ability to ignore people I could avoid plonking and filtering altogether, – until last year. At that point comp.lang.python became between one third and two thirds spam, and I had to suppress it to keep the news intelligible. (All the spam was from two or three slowly-mutating sources, so keeping the filters updated wasn’t a problem.)

    I’ve never used Twitter or Facebook, since by the time I realsed that they existed they were already in decay, but email was the only thing that made a couple of my open-source projects possible. This was before the age of git, and the support I got from my (very remote) co-workers was a life-saver.

    I like reading blogs, but woulidn’t want to write one myself; I hope Whatever continues in some form or other, whatever the new, new Internet becomes.

    Good luck – Will

  28. Just the other day I described blocking someone on Twitter as “throwing them in the plonkinator.”

    Sometimes I peruse the replies of tweets I know will bring out the trolls, just so I can pre-emptively block them. It’s very satisfying.

  29. Obviously, social media needs better tools to make it tolerable against bad actors. I only wish the social media companies themselves better understood that. Facebook lumbers towards being the next MySpace or GeoCities and Twitter is actively driving content creators and decent people from its shores in droves.

    Two recent events that drove it home to me: Wil Wheaton quit twitter and then Mastodon, because he got tired of the toxicity. Some of the toxicity even came from his use of and suggesting to use an outside tool to block lists of people (that ended up having people on it that the list owner hated because they were trans, if I follow this correctly). Likewise there’s been a minor kerfluffle from a comics company I’d never heard of that had a letterer quit (and some comics creators depart in solidarity with him) because the company was requiring him to NOT use a blocking list on Twitter (because Comicgate people were on those lists and they apparently dare not offend them).

    It’s sobering how unpleasant some of the services have become and how easily they enable casual cruelty. It’s also disappointing to realize how many potential bad actors there really are out there.

  30. I like Twitter for its instant access to the pulse of what is happening irt because I follow a boatload of journalists. However I definitely curate the SHIT out of my feed. I have no problem muting/blocking MAGAts and other assorted trollholes.

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