Belmont Club

Without borders

The Belmont Club has a fatal flaw. It is trapped in the dimension of ideas. Within its pages a dozen possibilities struggle to escape. Few will succeed. One of the weaknesses of the blog as a platform is the difficulty of going from ideas to persons, to making the jump from the abstract to the concrete. The post-and-comment format is a good way of starting a discussion; it is even useful for achieving a consensus. But post-and-comment lacks support for creating organizations. It can’t even arrange for a meeting between a few people. For example, L3 is trying to organize a small get together in the Houston area and sends this message:

I am [L3 is] organizing a little informal get together in Houston for any BCers who are interested in some social cheer. If you would like to participate, please sign up to follow this Twitter account:

Time and location are TBD, but by signing up to follow this account, you will be notified of the details when they emerge.

But there’s no direct way in WordPress to sign up, see who else is going or query the organizer without going through the cumbersome rigamarole of post and comment.  It doesn’t help if your blog gets bigger. Ironically, the more heavily trafficked a site is, the more restrictive the blog format becomes for arranging any kind of concerted activity. Comment threads on this site are often fifty items or more in length and tracking a conversation interspersed among the many asides and discussions involves a lot of scrolling up and down.

To overcome this problem, developers have created “social networking” platforms, of which Facebook or Ning are some of the best known. Wikipedia describes social networking software as a service that “focuses on building online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others. Most social network services are web based and provide a variety of ways for users to interact, such as e-mail and instant messaging services.”  The role that different Internet-based vehicles plays in modern life was illustrated by events in Burma, Iran and China. Arguably, the “Tea Party” movement depends critically on the Internet for its existence. But the Tea Party events themselves probably required a lot of telephone calls, email exchanges, SMS messages and Facebook Wall scribbles to arrange.

Email, IM, blogs and social networking software. These hybrid methods may be a complicated way to do things, but for the moment there’s no alternative. And while they have obvious defects, it is probable that the Internet will continue to play a growing role in the making things happen not only online but in the physical world.  It has arrived as a fundamental way in which concepts and people arrange themselves.  The most interesting thing about Internet based idea and social networking is the key role played, at appropriate points, by a catalyzing center. In the case of Iran, the BBC Persian Service played that role. So effective was its work that the authorities in Teheran at one time considered the BBC Persian service the greatest threat to its internal control and repeatedly blocked its citizens from accessing it. The Persian Service became the single most effective integrator and action clearing house of the turbulent period. It was the place where many of the streams — the blog posts, news stories, uploaded videos, tweets and social networking groups — came together. The Persian Service could build links between groups with similar, and often urgent interests. And its effect on the street was immediate.

It is this ability of ideas to cross over into the real world that is so fundamentally hard for common-sense people to accept. It don’t seem natural. But it happens. Having witnessed and actually participated in a number of online endeavors, I never cease to be amazed at the fact that people who only know each other over the Internet can form companies and begin enterprises before actually meeting each other in person.  Yet Pajamas Media is only one organization that was born from such a history. I know there are others. A moment’s reflection should show that ideas tend to seek their fulfillment in action. What happens on the Internet is that they leave the starting blocks to begin their race in the real world as they arrive. That odd feeling is really the absence of the starting gun. It may seem strange to future generations that the Internet content pioneers could have even conceived of content provision that would not eventually find its expression in the physical world. And yet maybe there is nothing inevitable about it.

Back in the 1960s, when space travel seemed all but foreordained, Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “for all but a brief moment near the dawn of history, the word ‘ship’ will mean simply – ‘spaceship.'” And now, 40 years after the landings on the Moon, an older and more cautious mankind can only recall the dream. Will ideas continue to launch themselves into action? One possibility is that we are living in a golden age of communication, a world where ideas are momentarily without passports, a time before they find a way to shut it all down.

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