Rise of the Ad-Hocracy, Part I

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«Adhocracy is a type of organization being antonymous to bureaucracy. The term was first popularized in 1970 by Alvin Toffler, and has since become often used in the theory of management of organizations (particularly online organizations), further developed by academics such as Henry Mintzberg.»

Wikipedia

Electronic social media is not new, but the scale of it, perhaps is.

A recent OnPoint radio program talked about William Sims Bainbridge’s, a social scientist, excersions into the World of Warcraft. Aside from a lot of old-manisms from the host, the show gave perhaps the most positive spin on the effect of this wildly popular MMORPG I’ve yet heard. After literally thousands of hours of play, Bainbridge reports what millions of people have already figured out: that humans in virtual worlds behave pretty much the same way they do in real life, but more so.

In meatspace, groups form around common goals or interests out of people in the local population. That is, the physical locality of people is a filter that will determine the size and composition of an interest group. Virtual worlds, of course, do not eliminate physicality entirely, but they do expand the definition of a locality. Even though you can have one million users from all across the planet together in one virtual space at once, the abstraction is a little leaky. Humans still need to sleep and the sun still needs twenty four hours to travel around the globe. Timezones and sleep schedules are the new locality filter for “real-time” group communication.

For grumpy old men like myself, electronic social media has been around for decades. Twitter and Facebook may be grabbing headlines today for creating a space in which millions interact daily, but that activity has been going on almost since the Internet went online. Below is a thumbnail sketch of the evolution of electronic communication that acted as social media.

Table: A Chronological List of Social Media

  1. chat/wall
  2. uucp/usernet/email
  3. BBS
  4. IRC
  5. IM
  6. Weblogs
  7. Friendster/Myspace
  8. Facebook/Twitter

In the pleistocene era of computing (the 1970s), users typically shared one computer system that often hadden upwards of 8MB of RAM. This multiuser systems (UNIX, VMS, MVS) had ways of sending messages to other logged in users on the system. These programs, like the UNIX utilities chat and wall, went a long way towards users seeing computers as places of social activity. Of course, the total worldwide population of computer users in the 70s was probably in low thousands. Social activity was limited to users on the same system.

Not long after (let’s call it the 1980s), the ability to send messages to users on different systems came with the advent of unix-to-unix-copy (uucp) and email. These utilities helped make 1-1 connections among users of different computer installations. The system the collected emails into a taxonomic forum made its participants feel like there was one global electronic world. That system was Internet News or Usenet. The way people interacted on Usenet continues to be an excellent model for how people behave on all subsequent electronic media.

The growth of the Internet in the 80s and early 90s was happening in universities, government agencies and large corporations. However, the general public was dimly aware of this growth at all there was no easy (or interesting) way to bring this connectivity to the consumer. However, the sales of personal computers was booming and many unwashed savages were snapping up these devices to create spreadsheets and terrible dot-matrix printed flyers. If (generally speaking) the Internet was unavailable to these early computer users, modems were not. Small operators were setting Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) on their PCs and letting anyone dial into them. That is, you the PC owner had to find the phone number of a BBS, get some modem/terminal software, dial up the BBS and pay standard phone rates for the call as you were connected to the system. It all sounds barbaric now, but it was, at the time, cutting edging and exciting as a cyberpunk movie. I know this because that’s when I began to get interested into becoming a programmer.

BBS created a very strong sense of community and ownership in its users. Remember that users committed real money to their BBS experience, so bad behavior was not long tolerated by the SysOp. As fun as BBS were, they had some fundamental limitations. The size of the online population was limited to the number of modems and phone lines the sysop had. Users might be allowed to upload static content, but not dynamic. These issues would be addressed by a different system that emerged in the mid-nineties.

As much as I’d like to present a neat timeline of descrete evolutionary steps for social media, that’s not really how the real world works. While PC users were exchanging “documents” about UFOs and Roswell on BBS, university Internet users were chatting away in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channels. Channels were ad-hoc virtual areas where nominally specific topics were discussed. The beauty of IRC is that it was a distributed system that allowed users from any Internet node to connect and chat. For me, IRC is the first modern social media that has all of the characterics that are often ascribed to the web based tools of 2008-2010. IRC was realtime, distributed chatting. If you wanted to know what was going on in another part of the world, IRC was often a good place to hang out. Don’t believe me? IRC was used to report on the 1991 Soviet coup when all other media was blacked out. I’m waiting for Twitter to top that.

Unfortunately, IRC is mostly a command line application and its popularity was often limited to somewhat tech-savvy people. It is my hope that history will remember it more kindly that it currently does.

In the conclusion of this article, I’ll discuss how electronic social media swelled its ranks from thousands of users to millions.