What is the “smallweb”?

I have been thinking a lot about what I have come to call the “smallweb”. It’s inspired by many things, and perhaps the best way to get started is by listing those things.

The smallweb is like the old BBSes of yore, when you dialled up and knew all the other dudes (mostly dudes) online. Long-distance charges were an issue, so you wanted to call locally. My brother maintained one called “Dragon’s Lair” or something. Small, local, intimate.

Robert Sharp maintains a Yahoo Group for his family, and another one for the people who live in his tenement. They are closed groups, obviously. The one about his tenement is so they can basically complain about whose turn it is to clean the stairs (correct me if I’m wrong, Rob.) I love this idea. I would love to join, just to eavesdrop – but that would ruin the point. The point is, I don’t live at 123 Wherever Road, so I have no business knowing who has forgotten to sweep the stairs for the fourth time in a row.

Before I arrived in Edinburgh, I thought that backnet was the local community wireless group. Turns out I was pretty wrong. Instead, what we have here are a group of people interested in creating a virtual private network and connecting to each other, experimenting with network infrastructure, and in general, having fun designing, building and managing local and wide-area networks. They are not outward-facing. At first I will admit I was a bit surprised. Eventually I realised that what they are doing is less glamourous but just as interesting as more public-facing community connectivity projects. It’s like a barn-raising. Everyone pitches in to build and maintain the network. There are no passive “users”. It is a very small web.

Another random problem is the “who’s listening” problem. I just posted something very Montreal-specific, the announcement about Nicolas Fleming’s show. According to my current web statistics, only 5% of my web traffic comes from Canada. Who knows what percentage of that is from Montreal. So realistically, much less than 5% of my visitors will even care about this exhibition that I so lovingly described, and encouraged you all to attend. While I wish I could just follow Robert’s lead and make a Yahoo Group for all my art tips for my Montreal friends, it would just be simpler if I filtered IP addresses and geo-specific posts only showed up if it was relevant to where you are – which I think (again, someone correct me if I’m wrong) is how the BBC managed to filter out people who were not in the UK from watching their downloadable episodes of their new show, “The IT Crowd”.

Think small.

This concludes part one. I am going to synthesize these thoughts and come back for part two.

16 replies on “What is the “smallweb”?”

The problem with filtering IP addresses is the "where you are" in your head may not be "where you are" geographically. Sometimes this can have serious consequences- if you are a Chinese dissident, you may want to "appear" to be in Montreal.

The one about his tenement is so they can basically complain about whose turn it is to clean the stairs

Broadly true, although in practice its more about who’s trun it is to pester the council to remove the goddammed scaffolding from our facade.

once that is achieved, my plan is to use it to campaign for improvements to our communal garden, knocking down the fence with next door to create a private park… A modest dream, from the small web!

As a member of Robs family forum called enmeshment I write to extoll its virtues. It allows family members scattered over the globe, and of different generations to keep in touch with news, views, activities and lots of banter and political discussion. As everyone is included no one can complain that they weren’t told something. Its so easy to share information which wouldn’t warrant a letter or a telephone call but makes one feel involved and in touch. Its brilliant.

As a *founding* member of the yahoo forum Enmeshment (and I also set one up for the flats where I live), I would like to say, if you’re interested to eavesdrop, in the interests of curiosity, I think we members could take a poll as to whether we minded. I can’t help feeling I’d be interested as to what a friendly stranger might make of it all. And I’d like to second the remarks of Granny Rose. What she said.

I’m also curious as to how you came to hear of it. We had one poor person once from America who stumbled into the group thinking it was a self-help thing…

The who’s listening problem:

I think it depends on the content actually. There’s a difference between things which are not my business, and things which other people might assume I have no interest in.

I wouldn’t like to be prohibited from learning about ideas and exhibitions going on in places to far for me to get to, just because someone else decided it wasn’t relevant to me.

hi, first I would like to respond to Clarice and Rob C. re. the "Who’s listening" thing. You both raise really excellent points – I am assuming that a reader might not be interested, and also I am assuming that someone may wish to appear that they are from somewhere else (or really wish that they were from somewhere else).

The problem is on my side, in that I still have an interest in what is going on in Montreal, while I am now engaged in what is happening in Scotland. I suppose I don’t want to bore a potential UK audience with talk of art shows in distant lands, and vice versa.

I imagine the way some people would solve it would be to fragment their output – for example, I could have my main blog and then have an offshoot blog called "Montreal expat MK" or something. But that seems silly. Plus I already have an erratic posting record on my main blog alone. So IP filtering occurred to me, which is clearly flawed in so many ways and probably why I didn’t look into it so seriously.

It’s probably precisely this lack of a strong focus (whether geographic or otherwise) that make me a Z-list blogger, but I was never blogging to be on the A-list…. it was always more for me and those who became interested in what I was thinking/doing. So I better not use the IP filtering net, since I may be keeping some fish out of my net that really wanted to be there in the first place.

to Robert and Granny Rose – I am very interested (and a wee bit jealous!) of the Sharp family forum and now stroke my chin, contemplating setting up the Kasprzak family forum…

Good luck with the campaign for improvements through the tenement group, Rob.

Just out of interest, I notice on yahoo groups there are a gazillion family forums just like ours, and not all of which are closed – http://dir.groups.yahoo.com/dir/Family___Home/Families/Individual_Families/

Also, I don’t think you’d need another blog for the Montreal stuff, the categorisation feature of blogs means that people who don’t care about Montreal are free not to click on the Montreal category link. And people who don’t have a personal interest, but still want to know what interests you, or what’s going on in far-flung places, then they’re free to browse it if they want to.

I think the issue is about your fear of boring people, which personally, I think is their lookout.

I’d like to know what those who are in the respective ‘interest group’ by way of flat location or family ties but have no easy internet access feel about discussions going on within these online forums. What methods are used to keep these people (if they exist) in the loop?

Hi Dougie
In our "Enmeshment" group, there are no family members who don’t have easy internet access, although some travelling in africa don’t get online very often. And there is one baby. I don’t know how the travellers feel about it, but I suspect they have/are having way too much fun doing other things to worry about it.

I live in a development of 70 flats, of whom only about 10 are so far partakers of the yahoo group I set up, though all were invited. Of those who haven’t joined the group, I don’t think they know what they are missing, frankly, and I guess it’s their loss. Living in central London with an internet cafe round every corner, one couldn’t argue that they didn’t have easy access if they wanted it. In terms of keeping them in the loop, on "important" matters, there is a management company and freehold company for the official stuff, and when we have our summer garden party, those not online will be creating extra work for me, who will no doubt have to make and deliver paper invitations. As far as discussions about broken security gates, burglaries, tree-pruning, car-parking and the like, the non-members will presumably get their info by word-of-mouth like they always have.

hi all
Yes, I do worry about boring people…. you know, the typical stereotype of the blogger who is completely self-absorbed and annoying, yammers on about useless stuff… But IP filtering based on presumed boredom is a pretty extreme response.

As for the access issue that Dougie brings up, I think that while it’s a valid point it also is less of an issue than we might think it is at first blush… if people want connectivity they will find it, somehow. I was surprised to discover (this is back in Canada) that many homeless teens have email addresses, but then I was told "well of course, there is free internet access at the library" and it all made sense. It would be, in fact, easier for a homeless person to have an email address than a mobile phone.

Homeless people can be bloggers too, as we can see with the UK’s very own Wandering Scribe.

This is not to downplay the access issue but rather to point out that if you wanna be online, you will find a way to get online.

Regarding access, in the case of the ‘Enmeshment’ Yahoo Group, most people find that *too much* access is the problem. You can choose to receive a daily digest, or read them all as they come in. Interestingly, it is the older gneration who are most prolific on the reading and writing on posts!

For my tenement group (which is btw the only one which I, personally, maintain), disseminating major decisions and essential information via a printed letter is easy – I know where everyone lives!

This is not so easy when alternative methods of communication are not available. But surely there comes a point where you need *some* kind of technology or tool in order to participate. We teach people to read for that reason, and everyone has a postcode for that reason too. I don’t have a problem with putting in some basic, minimum requirements for participation. Literacy, and an e-mail address seem pretty good low-watermarks for the kind of communication we do (as you say, that includes homeless people, and the disabled). If you fail to use these methods, you simply are not communicating, and will be penalised as a result… just as you’ll begin to lose friends when you fail to return their calls.

To repeat the point above, with reference to my relations on a Gap Year in Africa – The problem may not be lack of access, but too much! Sometimes, its nice to get away from it all. In the past, you could simply NOT pick up your phone and people would assume you weren’t in the house. Failure to respond to a text message or mobie phone voice-mail within a certain time is seen as disrespectful. We may need to go into communications black-spots, in African plains or Scottish Islands, just to get away from it all.

One more thing: I don’t particularly have a problem with content on this blog or any other that isn’t directly relevant to me. There is no need to implement clever IP scanning when my own eyes will scan a post!

A good, relevant title will let me know what the content is, and I’ll manually click on to something else if I know it is not going to affect me. If I have time I may read it anyway. Either way, the choice lies with me, leaving the blog owner to concentrate on providing the content that they wish.

Part of the essence of blogs is that they are personal things. There’s no suggestion that the reader should dicate editorial content in a manner that may be relevant to the MSM.

Good point Rob. The only thing that’s occurred to me as a shameful omission is our grandparents, who do not have internet access – the posts are too many and too bantering for them all to be printed out and taken round to them. As the current population ages, I feel sure it will be great for housebound eighty-year-olds to still be able to participate in communities via the internet, but for today’s 80-year-olds, learning a new technology, which isn’t just about literacy and an email address, but also about computer literacy, might be beyond them. It’s sad that they should be penalised or miss out just because they were born too soon.

The BBC had no problems blocking foreign IPs from streaming broadcasts of The IT Crowd, because Channel Four did them, not the BBC 🙂

Sorry to be pedantic, and don’t listen to anything Dougie says – he’s a troublemaker 🙂

It’s not neccessarily a question of whether you are boring me or not.

Readers always have to decide what they are trying to get out of a text themselves. I actually read this post and my thoughts were more in the "Oh look mks making some friends in the UK I am so glad.." direction.

So if you had decided (with the help of technology) that perhaps I wasn’t interested in the small web I might not have seen this even though my real interest was seeing the new names showing up in your comment thread.

In the same vien;

You should stop worrying about being boring Mk. Interesting people are interesting even when they are "being boring" as the Pet Shop Boys have so aptly demonstrated.

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