Before the Days of the Blog

Earlier this week, Harry posed the question: what is a “Civil War blog”? A fair question. One he and I (and others) have debated over beers. And it’s not like the answer becomes an enforceable definition.

Robert, as he often does, answered Harry’s question with a question: who are Civil War bloggers? Again another good question to ponder.   I don’t want to inject words into anyone’s keyboard output strings, but both questions point back to discussions about the types of historians. Does one have to establish a set of “credentials” to be a historian, and by extension ply the product called “history” to the public for consumption?  I hate to call that a professional (or academic) vs. amateur debate.  But that’s where most folks take it.

These questions that prompted me to hop in the way-back machine to examine my roots in Civil War blogging. My original “Hello World” post captured what I was thinking at the time. Since then I’ve edged about in some different directions. But the underlying concept remained – share what I have, just hoping the information connects with what others have… to build common understanding.

So did that noble idea start with blogging? Well let’s dial the way-back machine to the early “Internet”.

In 1992, when most folks thought “email” was a typographical error, I had an @ after my name.  Being part of the Army’s elite Signal Corps, the internet was our frontier.  Stationed in Korea with lots of off hour time in which to do nothing important, I became involved with the “bulletin board” communities. We posted files, mostly little applications for geeks to use.  But on mine I had a folder called “CivilWar” – all one word, mind you – with text documents I thought worth sharing.  Got a few exchanges.  But in those days the internet was the realm of true geeks.  Our 386 computers would not waste much of the 9600 baud connections on anything short of productive data transfers.  Still somewhere on that old hard drive is my “review” of Ken Burn’s Civil War… sans Ashokan Farewell.

I made forays into the USENETs back then.  I can’t remember if it was alt.war.civilwar.us or soc.history.civilwar.us or some other derivation.  But again, given the bandwidth of the time, there were some lively discussions.  And the tone was that of “contributing” to the general knowledge.  And everyone seemed to have something to contribute.

Sometime in the following year, the fine people at America OnLine were kind enough to send a floppy disk with AOL 1.5 to me.  How honored!  So I loaded that up.  Great concept – chat rooms and message boards.  Modems ran at 28.8, and we had bandwidth to burn!   Naturally I was drawn to the corner of AOL where Civil War types hung out – the Mason-Dixon Chat Room.  With hundreds forum posts and hours spent in the chat room, I became a regular.  Being a regular, I was offered the role as “moderator” and took on the nom de guerre of “CW Host 16″.  Weekly trivias and two hours of chats were the staple.  Heck, I even met my future wife in that crowd.  No kidding.  Long before eHarmony, the Mason-Dixon Line was hooking people up!    (I know, TMI…)

Still the activity was focused on “contributions.”  Not uncommon for someone to open a forum thread with several pages of information about a topic – some common place others obscure.  Heck, I learned all I ever wanted to know about ships’ anchors as used in the Civil War from one of those posts.  We also had a “files” section where contributors offered up papers or pictures for the greater audience.  Remarkably, most of the submissions were original materials, and often well researched and written.

I was proud of being a “manager” in an online history community.  Even listed it on my resume when applying to graduate school. Unfortunately I found out most inside the faculty rooms had no clue what AOL was, much less a chat room or message board.  Some things never change….

By the late half of the 1990s, AOL was sending out CDs to anyone with a mailbox.  Everyone had a @aol.com account and the chat rooms were hopping. Soon the company that brought the USENET eternal September had brought the Vandals to the gates of Rome.  Not much fun being a chat room moderator when the chat room has the tenor of a road-house bar.  The topic of the day, every day, was a mix of “the south was right!” and “black Confederates” and “Lee should have moved to the right” and “Grant was a drunk” and “Abe Lincoln: Despot or Liberator.”   The true “contributions” tapered off amid a deluge of “I think…” submissions.

Finding it of little practical value, and much frustration, I left the Mason-Dixon Line forum/chat room around the start of the new century (that sounds SOOO cool).    I hear the place lingered on until AOL collapsed the old forums in 2004-5 or so.  Crying shame.  If you look for those old chat logs, message boards, or documents, there’s scant trace of what was, for a time in the 1990s, a frontier establishment in the Civil War internet community.

Now back from that trip down memory lane… back to blogging.  The blog format took hold just about the time AOL started axing those forums and chats.  The great thing about the blog format, improving over the old formats, is the authority of the author to maintain the topic, tone, and tempo.  The old format allowed parity, which is a good quality but often arrives with unwanted results.  The new format, while more authoritarian, is better suited for the “contribution” to the community.  Some bloggers are OK with free for all comments.  Others, like me, prefer to showcase free speech by shunting the trolls, filibusterers, or distractors.  Others just flat don’t allow comments, recognizing they do alter the context of the contribution.  To each its own.

Bottom line here is that I seek out, and seek to produce, content that contributes to the community.  While I don’t wish to impose that upon others and their blogs, I would consider that objective to be the definition of a true “Civil War Blog”.   And that qualifier is not something appearing new with the blog format.  It’s been around since the dawn of the internet… or perhaps longer….

That’s my thought of the day… with a grain of salt.

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3 responses to “Before the Days of the Blog

  1. What a great post “down the memory lane”.

    The next question might be: Who is the-civil-war-blog-reader ? :-)

    My older brother, just retired as Major of the Danish Army, has a serious hobby: he is writing books and articles (some articles is on the internet) about old danish steam-locomotives. It’s all about technical details and historical facts about the building of these steam Engines and he had done this for many years now. He is even a member of a museum board and responsible for the renovation of this museum old locomotives and wagons.

    For my self ? Yes – one of my interest/hobbies is in civil war cannons as you know and another great hobby is Danish paintings from 1800-1860 and from 1880-1930. I have a lot of books about these 2 hobbies.

    Back to my brother; he once told me: “Little-brother – you and me have a huge amount of unnecessary knowledge to, for other people, weird areas.”

    I think that describe the civil-war-blogger and the the civil-war-blog-reader very well ;-)

    I really enjoy every post at your blog :-)

  2. I’m thinking I got on the AOL forums back around ’97. Yes, the discussions there degenerated into circular arguments. But through them I got hooked up with a couple of email groups (which, not surprisingly, generally devolved to a similar point in the absence of a strong moderator, like Teej Smith at the CWDG Yahoo group), and from there to a few boards and then the blogosphere. The use.net was a cesspool already by the time I dipped my toe in. Always felt like I needed to take a shower after leaving there.

    It all makes you wonder what will be going on in 2 or 3 years, and what we’ll think of what we’re doing now – then. Maybe we’ll be bitter old bloggers, bitching and moaning over how these new…whatevers are screwing things up for us old “pros”, and how they’re not to be trusted because they don’t do things the old, tried and true way. ‘Scuse me now, my pipe’s gone out and I’ve gotta get the wife to re-sew these elbow patches on my blazer…

  3. Interesting story, thanks! I remember Usenet and the old AOL disks. Seems like I got a CD every few weeks! We all owe AOL a debt of thanks for bringing the web to ordinary folks.