.com's and the death of ideas?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Robot Wisdom : One Thread

After reading the IMdB/Amazon discussions, and watching Dejanews progressive devolution into deja.com, I've been getting very edgy about a public webservice that I want to start; paradoxically, I'm afraid that it'll succeed.

It seems that, more and more, useful services are seen as a quick way to make a buck, and as they become so, they become more useful as a _brand name_ than whatever the original service was. Deja's modification into an ePinions-alike is a good example. I'm wondering if its because the web doesn't have a formal tradition of public service, and is instead getting drowned in a kind of cyberlibertarian profit-is-the-only-standard mindset. Does anyone else feel this way? Better yet, what can we do to avoid it? Obviously, if I ever get to the point where my service is useful, I can just avoid privatizing, but has anyone ever built a web-based nonprofit?

-- Mike Collins (mc7f@andrew.cmu.edu), November 14, 1999


Well, there's iComm (http://www.icomm.ca/) which has been around for four or five years now. We give out free Internet service (but not dial-up) to non-profits and community groups.

-- William Denton (buff@pobox.com), November 14, 1999.

The Digital Public Works Project, http://www.dpwp.org/, does something similar; we do Internet/Web design, development and hosting for non-profits, typically progressive ones whose positions, goals or aims we want to help further.

I think, when you're asking whether the Net has a not-for-profit tradition, you have to look very carefully at the free software movement. If that isn't a not-for-profit movement of bettering the common good, I'm not sure what would be.

-- Kendall Clark (kclark@ntlug.org), November 14, 1999.


Yes, open software is an excellent counterpoint to my original concern. Perhaps it would be better to say, as you point out on the dpwp site, that corporate interests are trying to run the whole show now? As you point out, public works are the infrastructure of the world, and without them, we end up losing a lot.

What I find interesting (and this is something that you've made a criterion of the dpwp, and icomm seems to have grown out of this), is that it seems you're enabling non-technological organizations to get a foothold on the web. Conversely, I've been edgy about how web-native services (slashdot, the imdb, dejanews, lycos) all seem to eventually move towards privatization; in the case of deja, privatization has led to an eventual castration. It's almost as if, instead of building libraries, we were always trying to build video stores.

Gutenberg's stayed out of this kind of mess, but it definitely seems as if internet culture views people who can't IPO their stuff as second-rate. But has anyone started an explicitly web-based nonprofit? I think the Internet Archive is about it...

-- Mike Collins (mc7f@andrew.cmu.edu), November 14, 1999.

Yes. Is Python Software Activity a non-profit? There are many organizations like that. "Health & Beyond" is a site about eating "raw food" that, as near as I can tell, is run for reasons other than material profit. Again, I find lots of similar examples.

-- Cameron Laird (claird@NeoSoft.com), November 15, 1999.

It seems to me like the distinctions between non-profit and for-profit, public and private, have, like so many other distinctions, been muddied and made somehow less relevant by the development of the web. Very many of the pages I visit daily, perhaps most of them, are private pages, but they are not built by their creators to achieve a profit objective, but out of a desire to participate in a public event - this world-wide web that we are building together with as many motives as there are builders.

The BBS that we are using to hold this discourse is an example of the sort of enterprise I'm talking about, as is RobotWisdom itself. I don't know precisely what motivates Jorn, but it's clearly not the sort of focused greed that motivates Jeff Bezos. And if Jorn ever does go public and RobotWisdom surrenders its direction to a Bezos-style mind, I trust that other public-minded enterprises will emerge to take its place on my daily visit list.

The first challenge in designing "a web-based nonprofit" is to determine what the purpose of the enterprise shall be, assuming that the purpose goes beyond the somewhat limited and derivative purpose of a weblog, and that the objectives of the enterprise extend beyond the web itself. What sort of thing do you hav

-- Richard Blumberg (richard@wmblake.com), November 15, 1999.

My last post got chopped. The last sentence should have read, "What sort of thing do you have in mind, Mike?"

Probably not the software's error but mine. Sorry.

-- Richard Blumberg (richard@wmblake.com), November 15, 1999.


Right here in Pittsburgh, we have http://www.envirolink.org/ which is a nonprofit devoted to providing internet services to environmental nonprofits. It's been on the net since 1991, and web services have been available since (I'm pretty sure) 1994 if not earlier.

-- Maurice Rickard (maurice@greenmarketplace.com), November 15, 1999.

Envirolink? Agh! Knauer! :) You're right, I shoulda thought of that considering I knew a couple of the people who started it in SEAC, but that's another story.

Richard - I've been working on a tool to capture arguments and keep some level of semantic meaning. It's all done by hand ala yahoo, but I'm finding that there's a basic principle in unmoderated media - the person who has the most extreme views is the one who puts up the most posts, or creates the most webpages. Between that and alternative rock bands, it's very difficult for somebody to actually find useful information on a hot-button topic with an engine like Altavista. The problem is that 90% of the good ideas on the web are basically better hotlists, and they end up being privatized eventually. Which is, I think cultural - the services which are being mentioned so far have consisted of people who had a public goal at the start - most of them are effectively hosting services for existing nonprofits.

This does tie into your point about Bezos and company, though. Bezos is interested in making a buck, Altavista always was an advertisement for a search engine technology. I'm not sure about Dejanews' history. However, Amazon was always intended as a business, and I can't condemn the slashdot folks for wanting to make a buck on a job they enjoy. Conversely, Jorn (and Greenspun, who I think has gone through more headaches in providing this service than I'd care to go through), don't seem to see money as being as large a goal, and I assume they get a deep satisfaction out of other sources.

It may be that I have to accept the shocking idea that not everyone is motivated by my goals. And it may also be true that the .com's are just getting more noise than everybody else.

And I should have considered Open Source before even opening my mouth, the only excuse I have is a deep-seated distrust of Eric Raymond :)

-- Mike Collins (mc7f@andrew.cmu.edu), November 15, 1999.

Here's the somewhat depressing thing. Let's say you're a computer professional and you're willing to work in non-corporate settings in order to help non-profits use the Web well and intelligently.

What does this mean? Well, it means that instead of working for BigBusiness.com and making $50 or more per hour to do Web development, you're willing to work for Non-Profit.org for $18 to $20 hour, which is just above the media income.

OK, given this willingness, how does one go about arranging one's life this way? That's, in my view, the $64,000 question. I've done very extensive research into public and federal grants and philanthropic foundations trying to find someone who'd fund a collective of IT/Web professionals willing to forego corporate riches for moral satisfactions. I totally struck out! :>

That is, there are lots of foundations who will give $$ to non-profits to get themselves on the Web; but most non-profits don't have an IT staff; i.e., they don't have the expertise necessary to put development funds to good use.

There has got to be some way to start and maintain a non-profit consulting firm whose purpose it is to help other non-profits to use the Web.

Anyone have any ideas along these lines?

-- Kendall Clark (kclark@ntlug.org), November 15, 1999.

Here is (IMHO) a fine example of a public service website, the plants for a future database.


Truly useful for plant geeks like myself. I've been using this site for 2+? years. So far no .COM degeneration.

-- Ben Eckley (rootplanet@yifan.net), March 09, 2000.

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