Reflections on Five Years of ZNetting
Five years ago this month, I installed a tiny telecommunications program in my 386 laptop computer, plugged in a 2400bps modem (yes, I said 24 hundred ), and logged onto ZNet, and that conglomeration of silicon and wires we call the Internet, for the first time. Actually, what I connected to was called Z Bulletin Board System (ZBBS), and it wasn't really the Internet, but rather a server to which one linked more directly, by dialing a local number which then directed you over long distance lines to zbbs.org.
Whatever you may think of the web interfaces I've designed for ZNet in recent months, you'd be blown away by the difference between the current look and the DOS/text-based console that appeared on my screen that day in 1994. Back then the only attractions to ZNet were the forums system (nearly as robust as any time since, in many ways), the promise of an impending online "university," and email capabilities. As I recall, email was sent/received to/from the broader Internet once a day, around 6am. (Of course, I realize I sound silly lamenting or even reminiscing about previous telecom "inefficiencies," given that at my age my grandparents' only access to the outside world was through a postal system whose couriers delivered envelopes, reputedly by foot, uphill both ways, taking days for anything to reach anyone, anywhere.)
In the years since I installed that proprietary ZBBS software, which was a parting gift to the Z Media Institute classes of '94, ZNet has undergone countless changes. The transition from a private bulletin board setup to being just another node on the much-touted but slow to develop WorldWide Web, was an awkward one. We seemed to always be taking advantage of "cutting edge" technologies just before they became obsolete -- much of the older archives lost as for years telecom standards changed seemingly every month.
What has never changed, thankfully, is the thoughtful participation of countless leftists in responsible debate and dialog on a broad range of issues in the forums. The amount of learning and personal development which has undoubtedly taken place there is staggering, and it makes the hard work of keeping the system going all this time -- no matter what turns and twists the corporatization of the Net has thrown at us -- genuinely worthwhile.
From informative postings of current events news, to amateur reviews of movies and music; from sporadic rantings of armchair radicals, to the (often frustratingly) reasonable insights of the ever- present Sysop, the ZNet forums have always been a place to find much more than two-dimensional interactivity. At risk of sounding like an armchair radical myself, or a politically conscious nerd, or just plain techno-romantic, I'll suggest that for many of us the forums have been an experience all their own.
In reading Leslie Cagan's insightful contribution regarding the effects of telecommunications on organizing and broader social issues (ZNet Commentaries, July 21), I couldn't help but agree with every word. She accurately captured the limitations and antisocial aspects of computer-based relationships. Her concerns and criticisms have certainly been borne out in my own experience as an organizer at all levels, from local collectives to regional and continental networks. I now consider it a truism that certain things can not be well done over the Internet, including participatory organizational decision-making. The limitations of the medium are too real.
However, I can no longer count how many times I've received email, or read forum postings, from activists in small towns expressing feelings of isolation. I don't know if reliance on the Internet for comradeship seriously discourages anyone from going out and meeting other like-minded individuals face-to-face. At the same time, I don't want to be the one to tell these folks to turn off the computer and hit the proverbial streets, which really do seem quite barren most of the time.
The connections we find in the "virtual" realm of "Cyberspace" -- perhaps especially here on ZNet -- are very often as real and fulfilling as those we can develop in a world alienated not just by communications media, but by nearly every outside element of our daily lives. Otherwise solemn pen pals from around the world have found others via ZNet, and I think there's something to be said for that alone.
I have been actively participating in ZNet for five full years now for primarily one reason: it has always had potential. All this time, the thing ZNet has had most of -- other than social obstacles, financial instability and technical problems -- is potential. That potential can be found in everyone who makes ZNet happen, and it is perhaps the only consistent aspect of ZNet, transcending all the changes from ZBBS through Left BBS and Left On Line, to the present formulation.
Those of us currently developing opportunities and projects for ZNet rely on one thing: participation. We've got an enormous website, by nearly any standards, with years worth of stimulating content, only because so many people have made the project happen, keeping that potential for growth and expansion alive, not only through funding but through participatory contributions.
Indeed, I think decidedly few of the ideas ever implemented as Z online projects have originated in the minds of official ZNet developers. Almost everything is inspired by the perceived yearning of ordinary users who push us to push technological, economic and social limits.
Here's to continued growth, tied intimately to continued yearning and potential.