Think back to the mid-'90s when the Web was young. It was a world without Twitter, Facebook or FriendFeed — long before social media became a household term — a time when Web 2.0 was, say, Web 0.2.
I remember those days fondly because, as USA TODAY's online technology editor then, I had the dream job of being paid good money to surf the Web and write about new and notable websites.
Every single day, wondrous new destinations would materialize in the online landscape. They ranged from art galleries and investment services to personal diaries and digital newsstands. They served up a feast of seemingly endless tips and data about everything from health and careers to entertainment and computers.
There was no scarcity of sites to choose from. Cyberspace was undergoing a virtual Big Bang, with constellations of websites growing explosively — multiplying more than six-fold in a single year, by Yahoo!'s reckoning, from 100,000 sites in '95 to 650,000 in '96. The only challenge for me was to pick out the very best from so many stars.
As Michael Neubarth, then-editor of Internet World magazine, said in his intro to the 1996 "State of the Net" edition, it was a "hectic and breathless" year. The Web propelled "change and adaptation in almost every walk of life, from grade-school students to corporate CEOs," the magazine's report concluded.
Amid all the online commotion that year, one of the sites that got my close attention was POV Interactive's Re: Vietnam | Stories Since the War, which billed itself as a gathering place for personal accounts about Vietnam's legacy.
A companion site to the POV/PBS broadcast of the Academy Award-winning documentary Maya Lin: A Clear Strong Vision, about the creator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Re: Vietnam website stood out enough for me to feature it in a Dec. 30, 1996, column entitled "The Net's Best Year."
For one thing, the site exhibited the courage and imagination to use this newfangled medium to help heal a national wound that, even after two decades, was still raw and painful. It sought to foster reconciliation for everyone from anti-war activists to combat veterans, advancing the effort begun by the Wall more than a decade earlier. That alone would have made it notable.
But what impressed the online technologist in me was the site's campaign to create a many-to-many dialogue at a time when most websites were content to replicate the traditional-media's one-to-many formula. That is, instead of merely broadcasting to an audience through the usual one-way megaphone, it invited visitors to have a public conversation about their Vietnam-era experiences. By providing a meeting ground to participate and interact, the site foreshadowed today's social-media techniques that transform content consumers into content producers.
"We called it an experiment," Marc Weiss, the former POV executive producer and founder who conceived the site, said in a recent interview. "We didn't really have many models."
The site's premise, developed after multiple brainstorming sessions, was that people who came through the dark night of Vietnam were profoundly changed by it and would embrace the opportunity to talk about and exorcise the ghosts of that divisive war. The experiment paid off beyond expectations.
"The first thing that surprised me was the quality of the stories they were submitting and the quality of the way people engaged each other," Weiss said. "The second thing was how much people were willing to explore their demons."
Case in point, these dialogue excerpts:
Dr. Barry Spatz: "I stood up to screaming patriots, and burned my draft card. I protested and marched, screamed and cried, told my generation to stop, don't go, this was wrong."
Tom Dier: "Honor the resister. Good idea, but don't crucify the soldier. Not everyone was as privileged as you must have been to decide not to go."
Spatz: "You are right, and I was in error. I did not intend my e mail dialogue to get so righteous, nor did I want to be name calling, and your response brought that home right between my cyber eyes."
Dier: "Thanks for your kind words and for your offer of mutual respect ... It was not an easy time for any of our nation's young people. But, the exchange of words that we have had now are evidence that there is reason for optimism in the future."
Perhaps visitors were predisposed to be respectful because they were invited to the website at the close of the deeply moving Maya Lin documentary, or perhaps the time was just right for peacemaking among old Vietnam culture warriors - for whatever reason, something rare, a community of both diversity and respect, "crystallized" on the pages of Re: Vietnam, Weiss observed.
That something is sorely lacking today, he noted: "It's a big loss — public debate has become more and more the captive of who shouts the loudest."
Rather than tolerate the online cacophony, many of us have learned to tune out. We have powerful social-networking tools at our fingertips but most of us maintain guarded circles of "friends" or "followers" and drift to enclaves that espouse our personal points of view.
The result often amounts to "a giant echo chamber," said Leslie Walker, who was washingtonpost.com's editor in the formative era of Web news and now teaches at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "It's really harder to stand out and make meaningful connections."
It may have simply been the Web's novelty that fostered good behavior, said Stephen Pizzo, who served as senior editor of the pioneering online 'zine Web Review. "For the early adapters, it was a lot like the ham-radio community — the fascination to reach across vast distances and connect with people," he said.
Then again, after a decade of shock and awe, we probably shouldn't be taken aback by the shortage of online civility compared to those bygone days when America's hottest conflict was the Microsoft/Netscape browser wars.
Paul Saffo, the technology forecaster who has long watched the Web's development, said in an e-mail message that the "quaint idealism of early cyberspace" has clearly morphed. We now inhabit a kind of social-media "cyburbia," he said. "A complex mix of exciting and bland, wonderful and appalling, and above all, growing like crazy, just like the suburbs did half a century ago. For better or worse, it is our new home..."
Our new home it very well may be, but we can still learn a thing or two from our old one. Though primitive when compared to today's sophisticated networking technologies, "Re: Vietnam":http://www.pbs.org/pov/stories set a lasting example of how to weave the Web's social fabric. As Weiss said: "In a funny way, we're still experimenting with that."