Tag Archives: Social Media


I’m distracted this week by the campaign to #saveH2G2.

What is H2G2, and why should you care?

H2G2 is one of the community sites shivering under the BBC’s axe. It was bought by the BBC on the 25th January 2001 and a decade later less one day the BBC announced it will be “disposed of”. “Disposed of”, note, not “closed” because there is something here of great vitality.

H2G2 is an open access writing site, where you’ll get thoughtful and constructive feedback on what you write through a system of writing workshops and peer review and where you can make friends (and enemies) that you’ll value for life.

H2g2'S new front page - the new skin is a bit buggy - oh the irony

H2g2’S new front page – the new skin is a bit buggy – oh the irony

But whenever I try to say more I just end up saying what it isn’t:

  • It’s not Wikipedia even though it predated it as an experiment in user-generated content and on-line communities being founded in 1999 by the late, tall, Douglas Adams as “the earth edition of the HitchHiker’sGuide to the Galaxy”.
  • But it’s not a fan site.  It really isn’t.  “Hootizens” respect DNA, but  don’t revere him.
  • It’s not a blog-and-comment site though users have their own “journals” and create “entries” with “conversations” hanging off them.
  • It’s not a creative writing site though there is a lot of creative writing on it.
  • It’s not even primarily a social network though it predates just about all of the ones still standing,  and it’s not  “a small town in cyberspace” though that is how I’ve described it for years. Well, a decade, I guess.

And after –  or because of – it’s indescribable past it now faces an uncertain future.  Nick Reynolds (Social Media Executive, BBC Online) and Jim Lynn (who developed the original platform) both express cryptic goodwill and commitment to the community.  But it’s hard to see who’d want to buy the site.

The future then and now

One of the great wistfulnesses about h2g2 is the difference between what it could have been and what it was.  Douglas Adams was an astonishing visionary about all things online…

49 minutes of uncanny prescience.
Where we are now predicted way back then
by Douglas Adams in 1990.

… but  the BBC never really took first mover’s advantage in any of the then-cool things that h2g2 was first to have.  And now the BBC are disposing of what has become a site that even those of us who love it have to admit is quaint.

Community action

And how have the h2g2 community responded?

By and large, pretty well.  As Nick Reynolds said:

H2G2 is the best behaved and most civilised community I’ve ever encountered. The way that you have reacted to the news is a great credit to you.

Members of the community have gathered in a Google Group called the h2g2 Continuity Consortium (h2g2c2 – geddit) and are trying to put the show on right here in the barn… er… server farm.

Some of the comment is skeptical,  but slightly to my surprise, I think we’ll succeed, partly because we are not trying to buy the site off the BBC. We want to ensure that the best possible group runs the site, but are rather reluctantly aware that group might end up being us.

We will succeed in the short term because the BBC is not pulling the plug immediately, because we’ve been overwhelmed by offers of server space, by advice from people who’ve done the same thing in other online communities, and by practical support from within the community.

And I think we will succeed in the long term because we are so old.  We know each other.   We’ve fought, flirted, argued and made up across timezones and forums for a long time.  We’ve danced at each others’ weddings, stood godparents to each others children, and grown from being school-children to adults, collecting relevant (and gloriously irrelevant) skills, experiences and qualifications in the process.

We know how the internet works, how online communities and social media and web servers and all the things that Douglas Adams predicted but the rest of us took ten years to find out.

And best of all, it turns out that we are not just a bunch of quirky names and flirty posts, but also a bunch of coders and project managers, change programme leaders, doctors and people claiming disability benefit or who are just plain on the dole.  We have skilz and we have time.  (A lot of the former and a bit of the latter).

In management speak, we’ve Stormed (ye gods how we’ve stormed) Formed and Normed (and abNormed, but that’s a different story).

Now we are ready to Perform.

So farewell then, Geocities

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be online was very heaven.

Three emails arrived today reminding me that the plug will be pulled on Geocities on the 26th October.

Longbridge, Bristol Road, Birmingham. As was.

Longbridge, Bristol Road, Birmingham. As was.

This is shocking if you have any sense of history, like razing the New England colonial towns. Geocities was one of the seminal online communities – not as hip as The Well, not as well branded as CompuServe or AOL, but important nonetheless.

It was founded in 1995. It’s hard to remember what the web was like in 1995. Internet Explorer was launched in August and Amazon, MSN, Yahoo and Craigs List were clunking clumsy startups. Geocities was one of the first consumer hosting services. It was a combination of ISP, chat forums and bulletin boards. It was folksy and homely and friendly: users were exhorted to ‘have fun and be nice to each other’. The Wayback Machine has captured some of the early sites. Take a look: they are vigorous and naive like children’s drawings pinned to refrigerators by loving Moms.

Geocities - October 1996

Geocities - October 1996

According to Wikipedia by June 1997, GeoCities was the fifth most popular site on the Web. Yahoo bought in January 1999 and idealistic Homesteaders (‘Homesteaders’!) resented Yahoo’s clumsy attempts to moneterise the service. It is Yahoo, now, who have emailed me saying:

We have enjoyed hosting web sites created by Yahoo! users all over the world, and we’re proud of the community you’ve built. However, we have decided to focus on helping our customers explore and build relationships online in other ways.

Put like that, it sounds almost like a good thing.

Web communities are real and vibrant things, and the older ones like Geocities can have more duration and closer ties than many real neighbourhoods. How many places have you lived in since 1996? Members of these early on-line communities were aware that they were right at the start of something cool and planet-changing, and we’ve already outstripped all but their wildest dreams. Those early communities felt special at the time and are special now, not just for reasons of online-archaeology and social anthropology, but because many of them now host decade-long ties and friendships

So although it isn’t my own online neighbourhood I am unsettled that the plug will finally be pulled on the servers on October 26th.

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