The Internet Movie Database is shutting down its message boards. Acquired by Amazon in 1998, ongoing expense of community management and backend maintenance no longer justified itself to the bean counters. Sending it off, Colin Strickland recalls the harrowing days leading up to launch of a rewrite of the software behind the boards in 2001. While the technical details are of nostalgic, nerdy interest (mod_perl!) this passage on the message board community stands apart:
"I watched people fight and friend. Saw a few romances and a marriage or two emerge from the regulars. I read, and occasionally got involved, against my better judgement, in fascinating and productive conversations. I still bump into people IN REAL LIFE who reminisce about the boards and are to this day impressed with me when I tell them I had a big hand in their genesis. I once spent an evening in a darkened restaurant patio overwhelmed to tears as a kind man explained to me his young daughter, hospital-bound and dying of cancer, had used the Harry Potter IMDb boards as her main social life in her last year, and how much that had meant to him and her. Stories like that are just a profound privilege to have had even the most tangential involvement in."
For all the social and technical challenges of online communities at scale, the amazing impacts of these cultural corners, niches, and cupboards still make the web great.
Did L. Frank Baum anticipate the Internet in 1920?
I’ve been reading some of the Oz books to my little girl. These are great magical fairy tales and are available in the public domain and easy to find online. Glinda of Oz is the last of 14 that L. Frank Baum wrote himself, and was published posthumously. (His publisher later put out another 26 Oz books by other authors.)
Early on in Glinda we encounter this passage which made me do a double-take:
“[Dorothy] ran over to a big table on which was lying open Glinda’s Great Book of Records.
This Book is one of the greatest treasures in Oz, and the Sorceress prizes it more highly than any of her magical possessions. That is the reason it is firmly attached to the big marble table by means of golden chains, and whenever Glinda leaves home she locks the Great Book together with five jeweled padlocks, and carries the keys safely hidden in her bosom.
I do not suppose there is any magical thing in any fairyland to compare with the Record Book, on the pages of which are constantly being printed a record of every event that happens in any part of the world, at exactly the moment it happens. And the records are always truthful, although sometimes they do not give as many details as one could wish. But then, lots of things happen, and so the records have to be brief or even Glinda’s Great Book could not hold them all.
Glinda looked at the records several times each day, and Dorothy, whenever she visited the Sorceress, loved to look in the Book and see what was happening everywhere. Not much was recorded about the Land of Oz, which is usually peaceful and uneventful, but today Dorothy found something which interested her. Indeed, the printed letters were appearing on the page even while she looked.
‘This is funny!’ she exclaimed. ‘Did you know, Ozma, that there were people in your Land of Oz called Skeezers?’”
An endless stream of entertaining and abbreviated text updates, compulsively checked many times a day, in anticipation of a serendipitous discovery? Does that not remind you of the web? The letters appearing on the page in real time even call to mind the old 2400 baud modem of my youth.
Recovering myself, it seems the Great Book of Records really is, as it sounds, more of an auto-magical newspaper or census. More telex than Web 2.0.
But soon after we learn that Glinda is also an apparatus of the State, a benevolent enforcer through her limited monopoly on magic. The Book of Records, it turns out, is a tool of total surveillance as much as discovery. Which, in a way, anticipates another side of the Internet as well.