Crossing the bridge of weak ties

Once upon a time (1998-1999) I wrote a book about software that could revolutionize how we communicate. That software, I thought, was the fully-deployed but poorly-appreciated NNTP newsreader and its companion server. Netscape had radically modernized these ancient tools, and Microsoft did a great job of cloning them. I figured that the rich-text message composer and reader, common to both the familiar mailreader and the obscure newsreader, would popularize NNTP and usher in the era of what I called Internet groupware.

Things didn't turn out that way, of course. You don't hear much about NNTP nowadays. I was intrigued, though, to see some of my arguments recapitulated recently by Greg Reinacker, who has shown that Outlook can morph into an RSS newsreader, and Ingo Rammer, who is repurposing Exchange Server as a weblog platform. I was especially struck by Ingo's requirements spec:

+1 for that analysis, Ingo! In 1998, the NNTP client/server combo came closest to meeting those requirements in a multiply-implemented Internet-standard product suite. Now Greg and Ingo are showing, with Outlook and Exchange Server, that the mail client/server combo can deliver the goods. Of course, the relevant standards have morphed. It's not about NNTP or IMAP plaintext messages anymore. The two-way Web is being printed on HTML pages, distributed over the RSS network, and woven together with links. The WYSIWYG writing capability that I saw in the Netscape and Microsoft mail/news clients five years ago, and that Ingo and Greg are drawing attention to again, still isn't woven into the fabric of the two-way Web the way it needs to be. But we'll get there, eventually. That's not what worries me.

My concern, rather, is that we'll get hung up once again on applications and protocols, and miss the big picture. Ultimately, it's not about RSS any more than it was about NNTP. It's about the evolution of our species toward shared consciousness. When I started tinkering with the then-new Radio UserLand 8, about a year ago, I got fired up again with the vision that had inspired my book. I saw, in the emerging blogosphere, a next opportunity to reach critical mass -- by which I mean a world in which transparency and information-sharing are the rule rather than the exception.

It's interesting to compare the experience of writing my book in 1998-99, and writing this blog in 2002-03. The output is roughly equal -- about 130,000 words in each case. But the experiences were completely different. Writing the book was hard and lonely. Writing this blog has been a joy. Feedback is immediate; serendipity is abundant; everything flows. In a delicious irony, my LibraryLookup project has reconnected me, more powerfully than ever, to the world of books, and made what had seemed stale come alive again.

So why worry? We inhabitants of the blogosphere are living in a kind of a ghetto. My social networking experiment last May demonstrated how clubby this world is, and I concluded the writeup with a plea for diversity:

There is a certain sameness to a lot of the blogrolls I see. Many of those first attracted to blogging share interests in software and networking. To a first approximation, blogspace today is a community of like-minded people. But we're starting to see hives emerge. Among Radio bloggers, for example, clusters of lawyers and academics have appeared.

It's useful to identify yourself with a cluster of like-minded people. It may be even more useful to locate clusters of differently-minded people whose activities complement your own. Jenny Levine, for example, is a gateway to a world of librarians who see information technology very differently than hardcore techies do.

Today, for the first time, one of those gates swung wide open for me. Dave Winer wrote:

Jon Udell is getting record flow on his weblog. The librarians are figuring out what he's doing. Nice. [ Scripting News]

I've redirected Dave's pointer to a snapshot of my referral file because, while this event will likely fade by morning, I want to be able to illustrate the effect. It's like nothing I've seen before. A bunch of entries look like this:

397. 1
398. 1
399. 1

These are email referrals from (mainly, I presume) librarians who read about my LibraryLookup project in the Search Engine Watch newsletter, or were referred to it by friends who saw that newsletter. These folks are probably not normally readers of weblogs, and certainly not writers of them. This was a crossover event. I know that's true because although this was a record day for my weblog, you'd never know it by monitoring the usual blog barometers. There was no new linkbait to send Daypop or Blogdex into a feeding frenzy; Technorati didn't notice anything unusual happening either.

Books by Duncan Watts, Malcolm Gladwell, Albert-László Barabási, and Mark Buchanan have all popped up on All Consuming. But although we are talking a blue streak about small worlds, scale-free networks, connectors, social internetworking, and the strength of weak ties, I have a feeling we're still mostly preaching to the choir -- namely, each other.

It was great to get a taste, today, of what things will be like when all this stuff really breaks out into the mainstream. Then came the icing on the cake: Dave's announcement of his Harvard fellowship. Excellent! I can't wait to see how the blogosphere will transform -- and be transformed by -- the worlds of law, government, journalism, medicine, science, and the arts. As Dave says: Onward!

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