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Reflections on Five Years of ZNetting


Brian Dominick

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.

 

 

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