Opinion: In praise of ‘gingerbread-free’ Web 0.2

The privileged communicators of tomorrow will not be those who talk sense and convey their meaning in clear language, but those who can whip up the flashiest presentation

Usenet’s problems continue, with TelstraClear’s two ISPs, Paradise and ClearNet, once again having difficulty delivering the news and discussion service.

The difficulties are similar to those that afflicted the service back in April. And again there are rumours — steadfastly denied by TelstraClear — that the telco just doesn’t care about the service and would love to discontinue it.

Usenet has been around since before the internet became ubiquitous, when exchanging views online was the preserve of a small population of geeks. It’s true it’s showing its age, with large tracts having been ruined by spam, dubious content and even outright malware. Xtra abandoned it last year.

So, why worry about a pre-internet, mostly plain-text service, devoted to announcements and conversation, when there is more and better out there in the wild Web 2.0 world of blogs, wikis, Flickr, MySpace and YouTube? After all, things do move on and we wouldn’t want to be branded as Luddites, would we?

I admit to having a long history in this business. I’ve been writing about technology since 1974. I proudly recall, for example, in the early 1980s, seeing some of the machines created by the Xerox PARC research team and penning the headline: “The mouse crawls up the icon: is this the future of computing?” It was, and, like most computer users, I was glad of the GUI.

But now, looking at Vista, and the MySpace and Bebo pages of the new generation, I see an emphasis on flashy graphics that’s gone a little too far. Certainly, some of the MySpacers need to learn how to convey a message clearly. I don’t care if you’re Generation X, Y or Z, the human eye — particularly a pair with less than 20/20 vision — has difficulty reading white text on a moving, multi-coloured background, especially when red and yellow predominate. Some of the non-designs are so way-out that the phrase “space cadets” is appropriate to describe their creators.

I have the depressing feeling that nowadays style is valued a lot more than substance. The privileged communicators of tomorrow will not be those who talk sense and convey their meaning in clear language, but those who can whip up the flashiest presentation. Is this the future we want?

Way back in 2000, commentator George Colony predicted the death of the web, in favour of what he called the “X-internet”.

“When you go to a site in the future,” Colony said, in his regular column on the Forrester website, “the server will send you a program that will load onto your PC (or Palm or cellphone). Now, you’ve got brains at both ends of the wire, resulting in a high-IQ, interactive, valuable conversation. Work is performed in both places, greatly increasing the richness of the experience, the relevancy of content, and the amount that can get done.”

A lot of what he talked about was reality even then — in the form of Java applets and servelets — and more has come about since, with the “smartening” of cellphones and SaaS (Software as a Service). But much of it has taken the web as its base. Replying to him, I mentioned Usenet, saying it was one of the few surviving non-web ways of using the internet. Newsreader programs, like Forte Agent, have a nice clean layout, with most of the space given over to the printed word. The only graphics are for framing and the necessary buttons to reply to a comment and explore a logically organised thread of other replies. Even Google, with its web-oriented newsreader (www.groups.google.com) has resisted the overuse of graphics.

So, now I find myself, with Forte Agent and my Eudora email-client, fighting the battle for the old “X-internet” — the non-web internet that has been around since before the web emerged from CERN (the Geneva-based European physics laboratory).

The web didn’t die, George. We got Web 2.0, and we’ve been told that Web 3.0 is coming up fast.

I am not a Luddite — I keep telling myself that — but, perhaps I have something in common with the American sage, Henry David Thoreau. He liked the buildings he lived and worked in to be simple and functional — with no “gingerbread”. By gingerbread he meant fancy painted and gilded woodcarving.

Usenet and independent mail clients like Eudora are the last remnants of gingerbread-free life online. Leave them with us a little while longer. Web 0.2 still has its merits.

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