The earliest incarnation of ZNet, I think late 80s or early 90s, was called Left Bulletin Board System (LBBS), providing email service as well as information and analysis. After various attempts at providing comprehensive IT services to Left groups across the nation, with potential, ultimately unrealized, to become an early rival of AOL, Z’s web operations became "Left Online." Eventually the site settled into the one we are now transitioning from – a complex web of interactive, but not very integrated, facilities, articles, mailing lists, ZMag online, forums, blogs, pen pals, and a few other ambitions, but short lived, offerings. Most of these facilities were developed by volunteers — notably by the innovative and industrious Brian Dominick, a still very close Z friend and contributor. However, the old system became hard to maintain with many facilities and multiple databases withering away due to their technological demands and understaffing of ZNet. The site received a brief injection of tidiness and innovation when Daniel Morduchowicz came aboard – joining ZNet staff of one Michael Albert. Daniel left, and over a year later, I joined in September 2006.
ZNet’s Great Leap Forward
Eight years into the 21st Century, with so much happening, you either thought Z’s web operations should catch up, or, maybe you didn’t even notice arrested technological development setting in. Regardless, the politics have always kept us coming back. And now, you’re no doubt surprised by Z’s new face. The old ZNet served a time honored roll holding a special place in the alternative media landscape. Not only due to its radical politics and advocacy of emancipatory societal transformation, but also because it was one of the first Left web operations in what became known as the "World Wide Web."
When I first joined Z, to work primarily on ZNet, I did not have a background in computer programming (and still don’t). I was first and foremost an activist and organizer, doing social services as my paid work. So when Michael asked me, only one week into the new job, if I thought we should overhaul our web operations, I literally had no idea what we were getting into. However, it didn’t take any foresight to see that our current web operations were in need of serious surgery, if not complete overhaul, otherwise our web based infrastructure would be doomed. We immediately started consulting friends, activist programmers, and small, medium, and large scale programming firms. We decided to move from the Cold Fusion programming language to PHP, and to completely rebuild the thing from the bottom up. In October of 2006 we signed a contract with a small firm, and the whole project was supposed to take 6-8 weeks…
Fast forward from December 2006 to December 2007. After lots of uncertainty about project completion, and a huge final push to get the thing operational, we are now beta testing the site with clear expectations to publicly release in early January 2008. The site is now comprised of user driven facilities, with emphasis on interactivity enabling users and writers to better relate to one another and each other’s work and politics. As I poke around the new site checking out user profiles, blogs, sustainer and writer audio, video, and article uploads, I am already amazed at the insights, backgrounds, and diversity of the people who are contributing to this online community. There are still lots of bugs to fix, and still more features to come, but the potential is clear. Our main worry now is whether or not people will use the site, as sustainers, to help support all ZCommunications projects and the kind of user driven facilities we are now offering, and which we hope can grow.
The beta testing period has been hard, especially over the holidays, as everyone else takes off, and, at least here in N. America, slows down. But we remain hopeful about the New Year as we get ready to slide into Z’s 20th year anniversary. Wish us luck!