This is the fifth salvo in Michael Rutherford’s regular column, Fire for Effect. Take it away Mike…
The planet LUGNET… The Lego User Group Network… The Home World. Once the undisputed hub of the entire AFOL sector, it was a powerful marketplace of ideas. Almost 20 years later, LUGNET hangs invisible from the ceiling of cyberspace… like a gigantic, arthritic bat… hidden from view in the darkness, but still clinging defiantly to life. A desolate place… its once thronging multitudes are long gone, fled to the promise of a better life in the off-world colonies. Those few who remain on the Home World are merely stewards who live in the ruins, creatures of habit who hold out hope for better times and new track geometries. The mighty stream of message traffic that once flowed in from every corner of the AFOL sector has now slowed to a trickle of Ones and Zeros… Occasionally, the dusty silence of litter strewn streets is broken by a distant sonic boom, a recon drone swooping down from orbit on a preprogrammed census sweep.
LUGNET was a good thing and nothing like it exists currently. In its heyday, the site was a communications nexus, a cognitive disco and an atomic snow globe of creativity. Announcements of MOCs were the mainstay, but not the only commodity to be had. Ideas, conversations, debates, arguments, product news and other deliberations were all available in seemingly inexhaustible supply. And links? Links a go-go! Links to LUGs. Links to images. Links to other more specific groups. Links to other blogs. Links to contests. Links to Keith’s mom… It was the allure of this perpetual tumult that lured me into my first public utterance as an AFOL. It was Sunday, the 24th of October, 2004… at exactly 04:14:42 GMT. The transcript of this first transmission remain in the abandon archives even today! Prepare yourself, it was both insightful and inspiring.
Nicely put. Apparently I couldn't handle the dictionary after all.
Yet for all this activity, LUGNET was swept from majestic cultural centrality into the margins of the AFOL world in the blink of an eye. The thronging population crashed… seemingly overnight. Historians would argue about the cause of LUGNETs collapse… if they cared. But of course, historians, like most other people, could care less! But trust me… if they did care… they would argue!
What happened to LUGNET?
I think the AFOL race should ask itself, and perhaps ask beings from other races, this question. The answer to the question may be an unpleasant but valuable cautionary tale.
Why is our home world all but dead?
Well for starters… I sure as hell don’t know! I have deepened and broadened my ignorance by steadfastly refusing to do any serious historical research. Further, I have carefully cultivated a massive cataract shaped exactly like modern consumer communications systems. I don’t know an iPhone from a xylophone (Wait wait! I know… the iPhone is the one you play with little mallets!) On the upside, failing to back your opinion with research means you don’t have to worry about the age-old question: APA or Turabian? So, in the unlikely event that you are STILL reading… know ye this: Every word of this article is based on the subjective opinion of an aging white man! I’m also pretty sure my world view is mired in the Western tradition… and further tainted by years of work in the service of the state! Also, my daughter says I’m a misogynist, but she is incorrect… silly girl! So read on, only at the peril of your plaid wearing, Panini eating, Seattle’s Best drinking, hipster soul! And get your rebuttal in gear… because I think I’m setting myself up for some rotten tomatoes here… Oh, Shush… here comes my thesis!
My best guess regarding the cause of the great population collapse on LUGNET is three-fold. First, the rise of the specialized sites. Second, the triumph of the visual over the verbal. And third, some technical stuff that I can neither comprehend nor articulate… but I’m pretty sure it’s in there some place.
The first horseman arrives. Behold, the rise of the specialized sites! And like so many catastrophes, it sounded like a good idea at the time… As I recall, it was the castle community that inadvertently broke the first seal in 2003. The castle heads were the first sub-community to strike out from the home world, they were the first brave souls to seek a better life on a distant planet, which their wizards had named Classic Castle.
In the interest of clarity, I don’t mean to point an accusing finger here. I think the castle heads, as a culture, have always been one of the more refined and dignified AFOL sub-cultures. They embody a sort of renaissance ideal. They strike a balance between the icy, unblinking technical competence of the Train Heads and the aggressive emotionalism of the Spacers. The castle heads are a calm, restrained and tolerant people. They are by and large a friendly lot and enjoy a culture of gentile artisans and hearty drinkers. Always willing to make room at their table, always ready to laugh (Come to think of it… Castle Heads might actually be Halflings…). No, my intent here is not to admonish.
Photo Credit: “Very old Friends” by the always entertaining Pate-keetongu.
Their efforts seemed at first to be akin to the early colonial era. A small band of souls, setting searching for a new start on a foreign shore. Who could foresee the cataclysm approaching like an invisible tsunami?
About a year after the quiet departure of the Castle Heads, the Spacers took flight! With all the braggadocio and fanfare of a legion departing for battle… the Spacers left. All the while, speaking with great confidence of how much better life would be on their own world. A distant planet in uncontested space they had terraformed for the benefit of their own kind. A world they called Classic Space Forums. Sadly, the colony is no longer available for your perusal, it has been raized and replaced by a rather mundane blog focused where to find and purchase sci-fi themed toys.
And with that… the die was cast. What had started as an isolated migration became a planet wide diaspora! One after another, prominent builders from many genres sought to establish themselves as leaders out amongst these new-found worlds… tiny sovereigns of tiny specialized planets. The trend hit the LUGNET population like a plague of piranha. The mighty leviathan began to buckle, bite after bite. Small groups, leaving one after another, each with a mouth full of LUGNET flesh clamped tightly between pointy teeth, each leaving a tiny bleeding wound behind them. The piranhas began to eat the elephant, and it didn’t take long for the wounds to become fatal.
Eurobricks, Mecha Hub, Builder’s Lounge, JLUG, From Bricks to Bothans, MOCpages, BZPower, and the groups of FLickr… A myriad of brave new worlds sprouted like new grain even in the shadow of LUGNET’s collapsing silos.
But this is just an account of events. It does not talk to the “WHY” of the thing. And a slippery WHY it is! Who knows? Can we know? Not really. Why, has always been a lot harder than “WHAT” or “WHEN”. But… I offer this timid guess: Tone. The name of the first horseman was Specialized Sites… but he fed on disrespect, on cruelty and intolerance.
As I stated, the Castle community are a kind-hearted people. Sensitive and respectful. They left due to the deteriorating tone of LUGNET. The sprawling idea markets of LUGNET had become more like the public executions of the French Revolution… the amphitheaters had become blood soaked arenas. Notions like interpersonal respect, or rhetorical restraint had faded. I don’t mean interpersonal respect in a “love thy neighbor” or a “Stepford Wives” kind of way. I’m not talking about disingenuous communication (where candor is dead) . I mean respect more in the “keep your tongue civil” kind of way. The generic respect we all still use today when dealing with people face to face. The way we talk calmly but respectfully to the store clerk at Walmart when we return merchandize. Normal public civility and nothing more. The tone HAD BEEN civil for years… but that tone, that “public respect” was gone. Replaced with hot and hurtful language. (I know… I just said: hurtful… but don’t worry! I’m not going all Allen Alda here). Flame-wars were no longer simply on the rise… they had become the new norm. It was from this fire and blood rhetorical landscape that the Lego renaissance builders fled. What? You dare to doubt me? Go check out Classic Castle! In addition to all the great builds… take a moment to savor the tone. It’s a kind and friendly place. I’m not saying it’s Camelot… but it is very nice. Deliberately, manicured and polite…welcoming even. Hey come on… Classic Castle is not like Duloc!
LUGNET was a little bit like that before the darkness fell. And while such a culture does produce a distinctly saccharin after taste… there is also a very real and culturally relevant reason to adopt such affectation. Namely, it prevents blood in the streets! It might have kept the Castle Halflings on LUGNET… and might have stemmed (or at least delayed) the collapse. I say delayed because Specialization was but the first horseman…
The second horseman arrives. Behold the triumph of the visual over the verbal. Show me the money. Images. Pics. PHO-TO-GRAPHS! (Like Sam when he tells Sméagol: PO-TA-TOES!). Images on-line were not a new thing when LUGNET fell, but there was an increase in the use of “image sharing sites”. On such sites, people let the pictures do the talking (logical when one considers that each pic is worth a thousand words!). The visual medium is a more economical way of communicating… as long as your unit of measurement is time, and not data size or detail in meaning.
I read some place (trust me… I read it!) that men tend to be more visually oriented, and women tend to be more verbally oriented. In short, that’s why men dig porn, and women dig steamy novels. Yes… yes, yes. Don’t start! Men can and do read books with Fabio on the cover… and yes, women look at Pornhub… but MOSTLY it’s the other way around.
Well, if that is true (even if it’s only mostly true) that really is important when you consider the ratio of men to women in the AFOL population. What is that ratio? Piss off! I don’t know! Anybody who coughs up a number made that shit up! But I’m on pretty solid empirical ground when I say: The ratio is a lot of guys to not a lot of gals. (Somebody once said that’s why the hobby is “male dominated” but I’m not buying that) And mostly it was the same people… guys… who made up the population that flocked to image based sites. First MOCpages, and then Flickr.
MOCpages….as I mentioned in an earlier FFE rant, is to me, like another vast and fascinating ruin. A crumbling island citadel where the old king is an absentee landlord. MOCpages is the defining artifact of a better managed time. It definitely contained more images than the Home World, and less reading, but it did leave some room for verbal communication. Truth be told, I think MOCpages struck a masterful balance between the visual and the verbal aspects of the hobby. And the population of AFOLS and indeed… all manner of FOLS was massive! The rate of fresh builds was like a torrent! On a daily basis you could go there and anticipate seeing SOMETHING new and fequently interesting! The tone was always a bit rough and the image compression sucked… but who cared? There were so many images and AT THE SAME TIME so much talking! It was like LUGNET but with pictures! Lots and lots of them…
But unfortunately “This island MOCpages” was also doomed. It was often difficult to upload pictures to the site and it suffered from frequent and frustrating power outages. Nobody is less tolerant of needless delay than the tribe of the Techy. And as we all know, there is a long and storied history of overlap between the AFOL peoples and the TECHY peoples. I can recall being angry at not being able to upload an image… and being told by a MOCpages adept: “It’s not that hard! You need to learn some basic HTML… Gosh!” I got it, I’m technologically inept, this is not even remotely in dispute. But I know I wasn’t alone in my frustration AND, in the “Put up or shut up” competitive environment of the internet… anybody who’s site is just as good, but easier to use… will win! And in a few short years, MOCpages, like LUGNET before it, had become a necropolis. Nailed to the doors of so many MOCpages groups were quickly scrawled notes reading: Gone to Flickr!
Now remember, I loved MOCpages. I still long for that balance of visual and verbal. As I think I mentioned in that other FFE, I ran three groups over there. And while I held on stubbornly, for love of the site’s content… even as I watched so many others flee to distant lands… technical problems not only endured, but increased. The site was down more and more often. I would click on the site and find not functional utility, but rather a “funny” little note that read something like “Clank, Bong, Thump… Something is broken!” it stopped being funny after about the ninth time in as many months. And of course, with the departure of most builders, I was mostly alone with the remaining population… mostly child zealots of the one true God, eager to proclaim, testify and condemn…
Planet Flickr is almost entirely an image centric world. Images abound there even today, and although many proclaim that it’s high-water mark is past, it’s still the closest thing we have to a second Home World. Uploading quality images is fast, easy, and free. It is a very good example of what it is: an image sharing site. And now that little note boxes are back it even sort of supports verbal AND visually oriented critique… but the visual still rules. Quality conversation may occur there, but I’m dammed if I can find it. Starting a conversation in the Flickr group “16+” is like trying to bring a mannequin to life with a defibrillator!
Enter the third horsemen… his name is… “Some Technical Stuff”. As I mentioned above, the tribes of the TECHY and of the AFOL are intertwined, and they are both intolerant of anything that is less than cutting edge where consumer computing and communication are concerned. They like to use words that are strange to me. Platform. Modality. Protocol. Giga-thing. Mega-other-thing and Terra-super-big-thing. Like Saruman, they have minds of metal and wheels. (Thankfully, unlike Saruman, most of them look nothing like Christopher Lee) And it is apparent, even after only a cursory glance… that LUGNET is nothing if not OLD SCHOOL. It’s not even colorful! It’s sort of drab…subdued even. The esthetic is a legacy of the time when the TECHYs dominated all online activity… the time of naked utilitarianism! (yes… back in the early days, most online communication was done in the nude!). Bright colors? Why? This is a web site, not a boutique! Ease of use? Hello! It’s called HTML… Duh! Balding men laughing behind their clip boards and slide rules… So… in my inarticulacy… (Had to check but yes… it’s a word!) I offer that LUGNET fell in part because it was seen as clunky or primitive for some technical reason… that is really important… to TECHY/AFOLs. The concept of a multi-step posting system involving email authentication of any post is unthinkable in today’s fast-paced world.
Yes, I put this horseman last in part because I am unable to describe it intelligently. I think it’s real. I think it matters. But I can’t pretend to be able to explain it. And in a serious discussion, I’m sure this issue alone could be the focus of several focused articles. But I also put it last because I feel it was the least important of the contributing factors that lead to the great collapse.
I’m not just being cavalier about stuff I don’t understand here. I think we (the larger population… people in general today) often allow the technological aspect of communications to eclipse content of communications. To put it in the crude but maybe better known example: Email makes sending letters easer, but using Email does not improve the quality of your letters. If you write lousy letters, your message will be lost whether you hand write it, email it, or text it. Content (message) is neither enhanced nor damaged by format (tech). I was in a group of builders once, who were emailing one another about a collaborative project. They younger guys wanted to stop with the writing and discuss the project on SKYPE. It was all going to be “so much easier” they insisted. So, I got all SKYPE ready… and then we did the thing with the thing, that lets you do the other thing… and we were suddenly able to converse. Real time audio and visual. Behold the Tech! Just like talking to Star Fleet! I was nervous about how to USE the visual medium. What were these guys going to SHOW one another? And these guys once we got on the system that they said was so important… had jack shit to actually SAY or SHOW. They just sort of mumbled vague half sentences… fiddled with some parts (which none of us could see on our screens) and then started talking about TV shows. Had the project been related to TV shows this would have made more sense to me. But as should be obvious right about now… the project had nothing to do with TV shows. The tech was desired, and the tech was employed, but in the end, it contributed nothing to the achievement of our goals. It was just an arbitrary standard, adopted but not used to its potential in any way. We didn’t “show” one another what we were doing. We didn’t even “speak” about what we were doing. But my team mates all thought the meeting was a success because everybody was doing SKYPE at the time. SKYPE was state of the art commercial commo, so anything less than SKYPE was clunky and not to be tolerated.
While I refuse to dismiss the relevance of tech stuff entirely, I think what really trumps tech is the art of communication. And communication is what I am looking for on-line and not finding. Pics, yes. Hits, yes. Likes, yes. But rich communication? No. A comment, a response, and then a re-phrasing or adjustment of the initial comment? No. Critique, response, discussion? No.
LUGNET had an interesting feature that visually depicts, albeit in an abstract way, the depth of conversations. It’s like a little map of lies and stars that shows the development of the thread, post by post. The maps used to baffle me (back when I was throwing jaw bones up in the air down by the obelisk… ah, good times). Now I understand them a little better. The maps show any who care to look how the thread splits, and how a split can really last a very long time in terms of comments.
Now read all the messages on one of those maps. You will find lots of silly crap and resentment, but you will also encounter complicated ideas being communicated between people. You will see ideas being rebutted, or qualified. Reshaped and re-presented. Ideas that are changed by the process of review and adjustment. Conversation. Real, nuanced, spontaneous and vibrant conversation. Sometimes heated, sometimes inane, but open, and ultimately inviting participation.
So… if your still reading, first let me say… Wow. You’re an iron reader! Second, congratulations! You have made it to the part where I say what my point is! My point is this: LUGNET was in many ways, the high water mark for AFOL unity. A clearinghouse for all the many facets of the AFOL world. And certainly, a hotbed of conversation. Conversation IS the hobby just as much as building itself. Conversation seems to be in decline every ware on-line. And as conversation goes… so goes the AFOL a community. Stop talking, stop growing. Stop growing, stop regenerating. That’s cultural sterility. That’s cultural death. Back to the pre-internet days of building in our own little isolated worlds. I’m not saying that conversation doesn’t occur any place on line today…but I am saying that I can’t find anything like the volume of conversation that was LUGNET any place on line today. I am saying that what I see on Facebook and Flicker today is not conversation. It’s a list of drive by shouting, crafted to make the speaker look funny or clever. These drive by comments are not conversation. They do not help refine ideas or improve building. They are more like random dog barks in the predawn gloom. It’s a trap… this culture of drive-by comments… I’m in the trap myself. I’m also saying that conversation cannot survive as an art if we don’t all guard our tone, and treat one another with respect (except for Goldman, who of course deserves no god-damn respect from anybody!)
I miss LUGNET, but I don’t like shuffling around and waxing nostalgic about it. There are reasons it collapsed. There are reasons it became irrelevant. What are the reasons? Can we do anything to resurrect the culture of discussion?
The name of the column is Fire for Effect. And you just read my opening volley. Call the FDC, swing your tubes around, pull the lanyard and deliver effective counter-battery fire.