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The Swarm Next Time FEED's Steven Johnson on Plastic.com, the future of the Loop, and the self-organizing Web.

OVER THE PAST few weeks, if you happened to stumble across www.plastic.com, you would have found a sparse page and a brief, enigmatic statement: "Three of the Web's leading content sites merged in 2000, and asked themselves the question: 'If we were launching our sites today, which ideas or technologies would we use that didn't exist then?'" The answer to that question arrives today in the form of  Plastic.com, the first new property created by Automatic Media, FEED's parent company. 

This is the first new site launch we've been involved with in more than half a decade, and so it seemed appropriate to use the occasion to look back at our roots, and to speculate a little on the larger movement that Plastic belongs to. Like many fellow travelers from those early days before the Netscape IPO, when Stefanie Syman and I created FEED in May of 1995, we proposed the site as an experiment in whether you could publish interesting content among the hyperlinked pages of the World Wide Web -- and whether you could attract an audience doing it. Over time, those questions were joined by two others: Could you build a genuine community out of that audience, and could you make the whole thing profitable?

Six years later, we're still evolving, screwing up, learning from our mistakes, and generally making things up as we go along. The experiment continues, but it has generated some persuasive results over the past six years. It's clear from our weekly traffic logs -- and from the success of Suck, Slate, Salon, Wired News, Modern Humorist, Nerve, and countless others -- that, economics aside, the Web has turned out to be a wonderful platform for content. For millions of people worldwide, the Web has become their primary information conduit: not just a research tool or a source of cheap airline tickets, but something far more immersive and habitual. And forums like the Loop have made it clear that real communities can prosper on the Web if they're populated by interesting people and mediated by well-designed software tools.

Is there a genuine revolution lurking in those developments? Probably not. Publishing a magazine on the Web is still mostly cheaper than publishing in print, so the barriers-to-entry are lower, but you still need some kind of budget and staff to put out a professional-looking publication. Hypertext lets you move effortlessly from site to related site, which is an improvement over television or print, but links haven't done much to change the sentences or paragraphs that make up most content on the Web. Reader discussion forums clearly improve on a letters-to-the-editor page, but they are usually cordoned off in a special area -- teased on front doors with pull quotes and "The Readers Respond" tags, but cordoned off nonetheless. An author writes a piece; an editor edits and then publishes the piece; readers can send in their own feedback after the piece appears. That's the basic model at ninety-nine percent of content sites today, including FEED. It's a perfectly good model, but it's not a radical break from print magazine publishing.

But all that is starting to change. After six years of pseudo-interactivity, the Web is finally starting to deliver on its original promise, which was to foster collective intelligence by connecting all the world's information. We've learned over the years since Berners-Lee first proposed HTML as a common standard that you need more than raw connectivity to create a network that grows smarter with use; you need more than interlinked pages to create true self-organization. You need specific tools -- but those tools themselves can be relatively simple. (In fact, sometimes the simpler the better.) And if you design your system well, and populate it with enough people, something genuinely revolutionary will happen, something radically unlike a print magazine or a television broadcast, closer to the way an ant colony works, or a city neighborhood.  You can see the first years of the Web as its embryonic phase, passing through the body plans of its cultural ancestors: magazine, newspaper, mall, sitcom. But there is something radically new about to be born online. Its features are still undeveloped, and it hasn't yet become self-sufficient. But its time is due.

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Can self-organizing systems make the Web, and Web users, smarter? Share your thoughts in the Loop...


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