Rick Smolan, Dave Winer, Jorn Barger and the Genealogy of Blogging as Network 2000

By Rudolf Ammann · Delivered 19 June 2014 at Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space, University of Amsterdam

In this paper I will first trace a line of descent that runs through the early web. I will then tangle this line with the concept of ‘network 2000’ as proposed by Alan Liu (2004b). The line of descent runs from 1996 to 1998, more specifically from Rick Smolan’s 24 Hours of Cyberspace via Dave Winer’s subsequent re-invention of his Frontier scripting environment as a content management system, to Jorn Barger’s reinterpretation of Frontier’s news page feature as a piece of infrastructure supporting a new genre of electronic text which he called weblog. Liu’s Network 2000 is a discourse network that establishes a tight fit between postindustrial knowledge work and encoded or structured discourse. This paper is an exploratory effort to see whether the genealogy of blogging can be construed within Liu’s conceptual framework. I think it can.

Rick Smolan

Rick Smolan’s 24 Hours in Cyberspace project was an ambitious web publishing project. The one-day event held on 8 January 1996 was several months in the making and was backed by a sponsoring consortium that covered expenditures in excess of $5 million (Plotnikoff, 1996). As part of the event, Smolan asked some 1,000 photographers, including dozens of professional photo journalists, to ‘capture the human face of the online revolution’ (Smolan, 1996b). On the day of the event, Smolan’s contributors submitted their work electronically from across the globe to ‘Mission Control’ (Smolan, 1996b), a centralised ad-hoc facility in San Francisco, where Smolan oversaw a ‘team of 80 editors, designers and programmers’ (Smolan, 1996b) who collaborated on this publishing project.

The technological infrastructure of Smolan’s project was provided by a startup company named NetObjects (NetObjects, 1996a, 1996b). The system supplied by NetObjects allowed Smolan’s international network of contributors to submit text and images through web forms; it ran on Unix, relied on a database for content storage (Illustra, 1996) and used templating for easy and near-instantaneous page generation that obviated the need for the site’s editorial staff to have any coding skills (Somogyi, 1996). In today’s language, NetObjects supplied a content management system.

The project website had a rapid turnover, and was updated with new contributions every thirty minutes. To describe this publishing regimen, the term ‘real-time’ was used by Smolan in interviews on the event (1996a), in press releases concerning the event (Illustra, 1996; NetObjects, 1996a; Smolan, 1996b), and it was duly repeated in the press coverage of the event (Plotnikoff, 1996; Smolan & Erwitt, 1996; Somogyi, 1996). 24 Hours in Cyberspace declared itself to be ‘online, real-time photojournalism on a global scale’ (Smolan, 1996b). Here, essentially, was a major demonstration of the web as a visual medium, also capable of reproducing as ‘realtime’ the effect of liveness from broadcast media.

Dave Winer

24 Hours of Democracy

Smolan’s event of 8 February 1996 took place the day on which President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Reform Bill, and which saw widespread protests on the internet against parts of the new legislation. The bill included the Communications Decency Act that made it an offence to distribute ‘indecent’ materials on the public Internet. As a consequence, President Clinton’s signing of the bill sparked massive and well-coordinated online protests denouncing the Communications Decency Act as an unconstitutional curtailment of free speech (M. Williams, 1996).1

Smolan chose not to cover the protests as part of his 24 Hours in Cyberspace project, an omission that earned him harsh criticism from free speech activists such as the programmer and columnist Dave Winer, who denounced Smolan for his failure to take a political stand.

Winer vowed to ‘organize free speech on the Internet’ (1996h) in a protest event that emulated Smolan’s project in both conception and name. In his 24 Hours of Democracy, Winer asked people to post essays on liberty and democracy to the web (Winer, 1996d, 1996e).

Winer’s protest event was an impromptu shoestring operation that was conceived, planned and completed in less than two weeks and stood in stark contrast to Smolan’s high-end production values and tightly controlled project management. Especially, it failed to match its high degree of centralisation. Winer’s project relied on third parties to provide ‘page storage for writers who don’t have their own websites’ (Winer, 1996g) and it enlisted the pro bono services of anyone who could help ‘users to get a single page up’ (Winer, 1996d). Unlike the project it emulated, 24 Hours in Democracy was highly distributed as a consequence.

Winer pointed to the project’s decentralised design as an exemplary use of the technology, calling it ‘a very distributed Internet sort of thing’ (1996d). This design was a matter of necessity rather than choice, however. At the time of the protest, Winer was preparing a web building tool named Clay Basket for release (Winer, 1995b). He had been using this tool to run his own site for half a year (Winer, 1995a) and was deploying it for 24 Hours in Democracy as well (Winer, 1996f). He was aware that his infrastructure was not exactly a ‘world-class server system’ (Winer, 1996a), and he never managed to make good on his tentative assurance that he ‘may have an easy way for people who don’t have sites to get their essays posted to the web’ (Winer, 1996d). Due to the limitations of his existing software, Winer ‘couldn’t handle’ (Winer, 1997a) submissions from a large numbers of contributors in a centralised fashion and therefore couldn’t match the efficiency of the content management Smolan had brought to bear on his project. In the 24 Hours of Democracy project, Winer was forced to embrace decentralisation as his only viable option.

Redefining Frontier

Winer appreciated the technological merits of Smolan’s ‘nicely done site’ (Winer, 1996c), which he praised as a ‘first step to gather a massive amount of new content’ (1996b). Smolan’s feat also occasioned Winer to rethink his development direction.

Soon after the 24 Hours of Democracy project’s failure to match the power of content management that Smolan’s team had demonstrated in the 24 Hours in Cyberspace project, Winer took a ‘major turn’ (Winer, 1997v) in his software development. He realised that Frontier, the scripting environment he had been developing for some seven years, already had the necessary components for a content management system: a database and a scripting language, amongst ofther features. As a consequence, Winer ‘changed directions and headed into a new area, publishing systems for the web’ (Winer, 1997j).

With the release on 15 May 1996 of Frontier 4.0 in its new incarnation as a content management system (Winer, 1996j), Winer also announced a new mission statement for his company. As he was entering the emerging market in content management systems, his software product was now intended for ‘large sites that are dynamic with lots of authors’ (Winer, 1996k), a slogan he kept reiterating for the next four years.

Apple’s News Room as ‘realtime’

In its new incarnation as a content management system, Frontier underwent a ‘real-world field test’ (Winer, 1997q) in March 1997, when Winer was commissioned to run Apple’s News Room (Winer, 1997k) at the InternetWorld trade show in Los Angeles. This project was a frequently updated website that would ‘cover the news and culture’ (Winer, 1997q) at the show. Produced at Apple’s booth, the site was staffed by Winer and a handful of technicians and editors, who sought to compel users to ‘come back again and again’ (Winer, 1997m) by providing a ‘valuable source of news, information and perspectives’ (Winer, 1997p). During the four days of the trade show, they linked from their ‘news page’ to nearly eighty stories (Winer, 1997k), just over half of them published on their site itself. This news page was a reverse-choronologically ordered and time-stamped stream of updates offering links with brief comments.

Winer believed that his development direction of ‘large dynamic sites with lots of authors’ (Winer, 1997l) was vindicated by the Apple News Room, as the site had demonstrated Frontier’s ability to handle ‘a large dynamic site with lots of information about the show’ (Winer, 1997o). As the project had offered an opportunity to ‘learn about dynamic sites with lots of authors’ (Winer, 1997q), its successful completion had ‘the feel of a college graduation’ (Winer, 1997s).

In addition to demonstrating Frontier’s content management capabiltities, Winers ‘dynamic site that changes every hour’ (Winer, 1997p) also matched, at a smaller scale, Smolan’s project that had changed every half hour in the previous year. Winer’s site had an ‘immediacy and directness’ (Suh, 1997) that warranted borrowing the ‘real-time’ trope from Smolan’s earlier project. Winer had managed to ‘create, in real-time, a dynamic site’ (Winer, 1997m), an undertaking that was ‘done in real-time at the Apple booth’ (Winer, 1997n) where he would ‘update the home page in real time’ (Gulker, 1997a), and profit from rich opportunities to study ‘real-time web writing’ (Winer, 1997r).

Scripting News as platform

Winer’s News Room of March 1997 was a re-instantiation of Smolan’s transient event as a transient event, but Winer also implemented the news page concept on the front page of his Scripting.com website, where it became a permanent feature. This redesign followed hard on the heels of the release of Frontier 4.2 (Winer, 1997b), which included the ‘NewsPage suite’ (Winer, 1997d), a module that automated the creation of date-stamped, reverse-chronologically ordered posts designed to offer hyperlinks and short commentary. On 1 February 1997 (1997e), Winer launched Scripting News using the NewsPage module: The home page ‘became the News page for the site’ (Winer, 1997f).2

As Frontier was ‘reaching maturity’ (Winer, 1997c) with the 4.2 release of January 1997, and supported ‘effortless and broadly accessible authoring’ (1997i), Winer believed that he had reached a ‘milestone’ (Winer, 1997l) and that he was seizing an opportunity that had not presented itself ‘in several generations’ (1997h). He believed he would be leading a ‘publishing revolution’ (1997u), as there were ‘new editorial organizations and software companies’ (Winer, 1997g) that would find it ‘easy to compete’ (1997h) with local and and national press titles. Noting that ‘inexpensive sites have free people and short lead-times’ (1997i) and that ‘free channels are beating out pay channels in lots of areas’ (1997i), he maintained that user-generated content would be a competitive and commercially viable entrant to the industry: what ‘amazon.com is doing to the book retail industry can be repeated in news’ (1997h).

Winer declared that his site was to ‘facilitate free unedited (or lightly edited) speech’ (1997g), thereby staking a claim that positioned himself between being a publisher and a platform provider. Taking his cue from Amazon’s ‘get big fast’ strategy (Krantz, 1999; Reid, 1999, p. xxxvii), Winer decreed that ‘growth is the goal’ (1997t). Scripting.com became the ‘model site’ (Winer, 1997j) that would embody the idea of large dynamic sites with lots of authors. For this reason, he cautioned against attributing too much importance to the news page on its own: ‘News pages are fun, but I want to grow my news page to include more than one contributor and then more than one editor’ (1997t). Winer, in other words, saw the news page feature as an integral part of his content management approach, which he pursued until the end of the dotcom boom in 2000 (Ammann, forthcoming).

Jorn Barger

The news page feature presented in Frontier 4.2 was adopted or re-implemented by a few website owners, who, however, neither attributed any great importance to it, nor sought to network their news pages. It was Jorn Barger who created the concept of a weblog – and a ‛network of weblogs’ (Barger, 1998f) – by brushing Winer’s news page concept against the grain of its intended use (Ammann, 2009).3

In December 1997, Barger, a former AI programmer without formal employment, praised Scripting News as the ‘ideal prototype for Internet info exchange’ (Barger, 1997b) and, using Winer’s software, launched Robot Wisdom Weblog (1997a)⁠ for ‘logging the best stuff I find as I surf, on a daily basis” (Barger 1997c)⁠. Barger went to great lengths to promote his new site, as well as its model in general. He declared this site model to be a ‘vastly better solution than 99.9% of all the webzines’ (1998c), went on to ‘recommend that all enthusiastic surfers take a shot at maintaining such a ‘weblog”’ (1997d)⁠. He predicted that within a year there would be ‘hundreds of people maintaining pages like this’ (Barger, 1997d) and that his model would become ‘the dominant one for web publishing’ (1998c), believing that it ‘instantaneously, irreversibly transfers the seat of power from well-financed publishers to essentially unfinanced editors’ (1998g).

In January1998, Barger discovered and explored Chris Gulker’ “News Page network” (1997c, 1998), a list that had been collecting Frontier news pages since October 1997. Barger explored this ‘new network of web-surfers who maintain newspages’ (Barger, 1998e) and started borrowing links from them, adopting a painstaking habit of crediting all ‘cribbed links’ (Barger, 1998a) to the sites he was cribbing them from. In April 1998 the first Frontier news page user adopted link attributions from Barger (Bogart, 1998), and weblogs that were patterned after Barger’s model began to appear in May 1998, resulting in a ‘network of weblogs’ (Barger, 1998f) whose participants were actively engaged in watching each other’s stream of posts and reposting – with attribution – the links that seemed worthy of note. In a social network analysis of these sites I demonstrated that it was Barger’s innovation of link atttributions – the early web’s equivalent of a retweet – that brought the ‘network of weblogs’ into existence as a self-aware network (Ammann, 2011).4

Network 2000

In his book The Laws of Cool, (2004a), Alan Liu offers a rich and historically deep study of postindustrial knowledge work and its descent from industrial-era ‘scientific management’ as expressed in early twentieth-century Taylorism/Fordism. In a journal article titled ‘Transcendental Data’ (2004b) he follows up with a broader analysis in which he presents knowledge work as the ‘sociologic’ (Liu, 2004b, p. 63) of a discourse network he calls ‘Network 2000’. As part of this discourse netwok, knowledge work has a counterpart in a ‘technologic’ (Liu, 2004b, p. 58) of encoded or structured discourse, which, simply put, is ‘databases and XML’.5

The genealogy of blogging: Smolan, Winer, and Barger

Postindustrial knowledge work is ‘a class concept’ (Liu, 2004a, p. 393) and describes the digital labour undertaken by academic intellectuals, the technical intelligentsia and the trailing edge of clerical workers (Liu, 2004a, p. 392) who are working ‘across the major occupational sectors and on both sides of the “work/leisure” divide’ (Liu, 2004a, p. 392).

In this limited space I can’t do justice to the historical depth and phenomenological breadth of the concept. Instead, I will apply Liu’s framework to the line of descent from Smolan via Winer to Barger as traced above, focusing only on two prominent traits: the ‘culture of the team’ (Liu, 2004a, p. 47) that is inherent to postindustrial knowledge work and the pursuit of efficiency and flexibility (Liu, 2004a, passim) that is the operative principle of such work.

For his project, Smolan recruited dozens of editors ‘from the world’s top newspapers and magazines’ (Smolan, 1996b). The efficacy of the teamwork they engaged in with the ‘content providers’ on the one hand and the technology staff on the other may be best described in the words of one observer who found that their effort resembled a ‘full-scale military operation’ (Plotnikoff, 1996).

Winer for his part failed to achieve an immediate success similar to Smolan’s when trying to build out Scripting.com into a multi-author platform. However, his is attempt to turn ‘free people and short lead-times’ (Winer, 1997i) to economic advantage do make him a pioneer of ‘user-generated content’, even if his pioneering project failed to demonstrate the viability of the concept.

As a programmer and entrepreneur Winer devoted a high degree of ‘technological rationality’ (Liu, 2004a, p. 133) to streamlining the software and websites he was working on. Thus, when adopting content management in the first place, he was looking for a ‘rational way to do a high-flow website’ (Winer, 1996i).

Frontier’s NewsPage feature is a notable instance of Winer seeking to make his software more efficient. His decision to give this feature high prominence in the Frontier 4.2 release of January 1997 was a result of keeping a very close eye on his server access figures in order ‘spot trends’ (Winer, 1997e). Noticing that the older ‘Frontier News’ page on his site and his previous static home page were both getting consistently high traffic, he promoted the news page to the home page to make things ‘flow better’ (Winer, 1997f).

Barger, then, defined the weblog concept by isolating the news page feature from Winer’s content management system and re-dedicating its reverse-chronologcially ordered and date-stamped stream of updates to the pursuit of social resource discovery. He proposed a network of web scavengers who ‘ought to be completely unconcerned about hosting content’ and who should ‘re-filter’ each others’ links (Barger, 1998d) instead. This can be viewed as an act of efficiency optimisation entirely in line with postindustrial knowledge work.

Barger claimed that any website would ‘promote its worst pieces indistinguishably from its best’ (1998h). For that reason, he advocated ‘linking to the best articles from every possible source, accompanied by honest summaries’ (1998g) as an editorial strategy that would create new efficiencies if engaged in by a distributed network of practicioners who would act as a ‘community of non-corporate truth-tellers’ (Barger, 1999b). High-quality links, as a consequence, would ‘spread much more quickly’ (1997d) and ‘spread much more efficiently” (Barger, 1998b)⁠.

Technologic

Liu pairs the ‘sociologic’ of postindustrial knowledge work with a ‘postindustrial technologic of encoded or structured discourse’ (2004b, p. 64). This technologic lends a morphology to the discourse network which consists of ‘three functionally independent strata: content management, transmission management and consumption management’ (Liu, 2004b, pp. 56–7). Consumption management is the discursive layer which ‘absorbs, reformats, filters, edits, or otherwise actively consumes it for local purposes’ (Liu, 2004b, p. 57); Evidently, consumption management is the discursive layer at which Barger’s ‘weblog community’ (Barger, 1999a) operated. Barger’s innovation of weblogging as a distributed consumption management network reinstated the decentralisation that Winer’s content management system originally sought to overcome; it did so by redefining the use of the news page element and shifting its intended use to a different discursive layer.

Liu identifies the separation of content from material instantiation or formal presentation as the ‘deep logic behind the discursive morphology’ (2004b, p. 58) of Network 2000. Inherently generative of dynamism, it is only this separation, effected at the layer of content management, through which database storage of content, disembodied from presentation or material instantiation, allows for any semblance of ‘real time’ to emerge in the first place. The fibre of the genealogy I trace above from Smolan via Winer to Barger is spun from this deepest thread of the discourse network’s technologic.

If social media descends from blogging as its paradigmatic instance, and if the weblog as a web genre is rooted the separation of content from material or formal presentation as demonstrated in early content management systems, then we have a line of decent that ties the realtime of 2014 right back to the realtime of 1996. The continuity within this line of descent might well be the sociologic of postindustrial knowledge work as matched with the technologic of encoded or structured discourse in Network 2000.

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1 The Communications Decency Act was in fact ruled unconstitutional and overturned by the the Supreme Court the following year (Greenhouse, 1997).

2 To mark the occasion of the Scripting News launch in February 1997, Winer ostentatiously mended fences with Smolan and announced that they were ‘friends again’ (1997g). Smolan for his part contributed a photo essay to Scripting.com that contained a celebration of the ‘very freedoms the net has come to represent’ (Smolan, 1997) and a belated recognition of the online protests against the Communications Decency Act.

3 These early adopters included Michael Sippey (1997) Andy Affleck (né Williams), (A. J. Williams, 1997) Chris Gulker (1997b) Cameron Barrett (1997) Peter Prodoehl (Prodoehl, 1997) and Harold Check (né Stusnick) (Stusnick, 1997).

4 Barger claimed to be ‘a leader’ (1998f), of this network and posted an extended rule set for the sites that would belong to it (Barger, 1998h). In November 1998 a directory of weblogs was launched on the Open Directory Project (Carter, 1998) and weblogs were first identified as a ‘movement’ (Humphries, 1998). Barger coined the term weblog community shortly after and stated that the running of a weblog conferred membership (Barger, 1999a). An ‘explosion of growth in the weblog community’ (Barrett, 1999) occurred in the first quarter of 1999.

5 In Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Kittler defines the term discourse network as, ‘the network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data’ (1990, p. 369). Liu’s distinction between the ‘technologic’ and the ‘sociologic’ of Network 2000 appear to be descended from Kittler’s distinction between technologies and institutions.