Tag Archives: USENET

From Normative to Nodal

Back in the day, the mid-1990s, when the Web was still a comparatively new and rather bewildering concept to many people, I had the great fortune of surfing onto the pages of one of the great visionaries of cyberspace.

Jim, an amateur scholar and attorney who lived in Brooklyn — neither his full name nor scholarly interests are germane to this discussion — had a passion for a field of study that also interested me.

Mind you, this was at a time when the Web moved at a snail’s pace, Facebook was a mere twinkle in the eyes of an obscenely young Mark Zuckerberg, and the rare spotting of an embedded graphic amid a sea of dense hypertext literally was a sight for sore eyes.

Yet, with a working knowledge of UNIX and hypertext, Jim pulled off a miracle. Using the cybernetic equivalent of a quill pen and inkwell, he constructed a remarkable byway within this emerging network.

Small wonder why: He was a wordsmith par excellence at a period of the Web’s development when engaging, crisply-written prose meant everything. His Website was made up almost entirely of self-published, carefully reasoned, thought-provoking FAQs and essays.  Monuments to concision, they were also written in a style that was highly accessible to nonprofessionals like me.

Indeed, Jim was a master of the science of stickiness, writing in a way that ensured that his subject matter was both accessible and stuck in his readers’ heads.

He had also assembled a mind-bogglingly comprehensive resource list comprised of hundreds of rare book and magazine titles, which had been passed along by members of his USENET discussion group. (This was years before listservs could be conveniently constructed via Yahoo and Google accounts.)

After a few weeks rummaging through this esoteric treasure trove, the realization hit me: Jim was a trailblazer who had demonstrated how  Web-based resources could be marshaled to disseminate knowledge with remarkably greater speed and efficiency, which, in turn, secured a considerably lowered learning curve.

Think about it: Setting out to acquire a similar working knowledge of such obscure subject matter would have taken considerably longer in, say, 1978 — many months, if not years, in fact.  An allusion in a book would have led me to a footnote — if the book were footnoted — then to another book followed by another and another.  Of course, way back in the 1970s, how well acquainted I became with any subject-matter area ultimately depended on the range of books available via my local library.

While I was unaware of it at the time, Jim had anticipated something else that is now commonplace in cyberspace.  He had used his comparatively rare skills to function as an aggregator, assembling a vast reservoir of esoteric knowledge on behalf of hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring scholars. Even better, he was acting as a curator, using his facts and essays to present this complicated material in a deeply enriched context.

Reflecting on this experience, another thing strikes me about Jim: Despite the fact that he was only a self-taught scholar, he had managed to draw some of the world’s first-rate scholars of this subject into his USENET discussions.

Granted, he was not the leader of this discussion —among many of the professional scholars, he likely was not even considered a first among equals — but he was valued both for the role he had served in assembling this eclectic body of scholars and for his frequent and insightful input, which always served to enliven the discussion or to refocus it when it occasionally wondered off topic.

Little did I know at the time that he was setting a benchmark for my coworkers and me — for the Extension educators of the 21st century.

Not too long ago, Extension work was largely a normative undertaking.  By that I mean that we were among a handful of vanguards operating on behalf of the nation’s land-grant universities and entrusted with helping define the standards for farming, nutrition and fitness, and youth and community development.

Yet, as my New Hampshire colleague, Peg Boyles, aptly pointed out recently, Extension educators are transitioning from a normative to nodal outreach approach.  By that, she means that we Extension educators increasingly will function as important nodes within a vastly extended informational network in which all sorts of people, experts and laypersons alike, are interacting within an increasingly collaborative and democratized knowledge landscape.

To be sure, much as Jim demonstrated more than a decade and a half ago, Extension educators will still serve a critical role using Web 2.0 technologies to expand the opportunities for dialogue and substantive discussion among our traditional clients and public and private partners.

Even so, we will no longer enjoy the normative role that defined our work in the last century. Much like Jim, we will be valued for the role we serve as aggregators, using social media tools not only to assemble critical resources on behalf of our clients, but also as curators, providing this material within enriched, value-added contexts — and, when the need arises, to enliven and refocus discussion.

Lessons for Cooperative Extension

I’ve been an active user of the Web for some 13 years now — since 1996.

Shortly after I got started with Web surfing in the mid-1990s, I cultivated a fascination with an intellectual topic that was dominated by one guy, a Brooklyn lawyer, who had posted a cornucopia of FAQs, resource lists and external links related to his specialty on a very nondescript page.

He complemented this material with online interaction on a USENET group he had created using his vast knowledge of UNIX (As it turns out, he is a polymath of sorts:  a summa cum laude graduate in mathematics from Dartmouth who later enrolled at Yale Law School to pursue a legal career.)

Years have passed and I’ve moved far beyond this particular intellectual interest, but I still remember it as one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.  With the comparatively primitive technology available in the 1990s, this guy, this very smart, creative guy, provided his audiences with a body of knowledge as vast as it was compelling.  But he also provided something more: A shallow learning curve.

Knowledge that would have required years to obtain, moving from one book another — and only then if I were lucky enough to live near a well-equipped library — required only a few months of intensive online reading.

I was fascinated and captivated by the whole thing — hooked to the very marrow of my bones.

Looking back, roughly 15 years later, I realize I owe this fellow a significant intellectual debt.

And as we press ahead into the brave new world of Web 2.0, there is a lesson here for Cooperative Extension.

Years ago, this exceedingly bright Web pioneer was providing his audience with rich context.  Within this comparative crude medium, he established himself not only as a rich source of information but also as the DEFINITIVE source.

With the vastly improved technologies available today — blogging, Twitter, and Facebook — this is what Cooperative Extension must do:  provide our audiences with the deep context they seek. 

In a few rare cases, especially those in which we still enjoy distinct comparative advantages, we must do something more: We must provide not only deep context but also strive to serve as something akin to the definitive source.