Monday, 25 September 2006 – a slightly premature obituary for a web innovator.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Everything emerged in '99 and soon became Everything2, the website which wrote the book for user maintained content. Back in the days when the closest thing to web 2.0 was the review pages on Amazon, there was nowhere as user driven as Everything2. At first it hid in the links behind it's butch elder sibling, Slashdot, but it wasn't long before it broke away. In posting this I am expecting a little heat from the last few diehard members of the community (it is still online), but it should be pretty apparent to outsiders that the bellcurve is slipping closer and closer to infinity. So, while the outside world might still care, I'm going to say a few words.

E2, as it is affectionately known, was an online community before MySpace, an online encyclopaedia before Wikipedia, a searchable database of random web content before Digg and an online writer’s workshop before… Well, it’s fairly honest to say that nothing has filled that market yet. If you never encountered E2 before I suggest taking a quick browse before you read further - the way to play with it is to type a random topic into the search engine and see what crops up, then surf the links that sit at the bottom of the screen for interesting related topics - I've lost days wandering these chains of "softlinks".

E2 – a site where users could add content on any topic they chose, where it would be accessible through the on site search engine. You wanted to write a piece on Khruschev? You could write the definitive essay on his life, or crack jokes about his shoe and his bald head. The encyclopaedia form lasted up until the sillyness began to get creative. Everything had an editorial policy to match its name, so its buzzing userbase rebelled and started adding elaborate in-jokes, fiction, poetry, anything that could be transcribed in prose at less than 5000 words. On top of this was a game-like level and feedback system that meant influential users became the most important judges and voters on each other’s work - any work submitted was “judged” by the community, a massive asset to beginning writers in need of advice and acceptance, I for one would not be writing for LMWN if I hadn't cut my proverbial teeth on E2.

The place underwent a few revolutions in it’s time – with in house references to them becoming ever more convoluted (GTKY, Raising The Bar and Node For The Ages all incomprehensible to the uninitiated, turning the place from an anarchistic riot to an exclusive gentleman’s club) but there was a continuous stream of high quality wordage by talented writers for years. Unfortunately the web crash at the end of the nineties hit E2’s development team, and while the community thrived, site maintenance became a hobbyists field, with advertising funding never accepted as income. Other websites emerged and sucked up parts of E2’s purpose – probably the most damaging being Wikipedia, but just as bad was the lack of graphics, which made the place seem increasingly out of touch. While there is still a dribble of new content, and a fiercely elitist old guard of a community, E2 is no longer the force it was and is unlikely to be again.

Here I get to the guts of this piece. E2 has a truly awesome content base – possibly one of the greatest of any website, and certainly among the most varied. But as the site becomes ever more cliqueish and distant from the rest of the web it’s becoming less likely that anyone will ever see it, and in the dim future someone is bound to pull the plug. Over the 7 years it’s had fashions, leaders, followers and internal political movements – a world in miniature. A couple of examples of what it does at its best are here for literary fiction, here for sillyness, here for the sort of fascinating information you wouldn't find elsewhere, and here for essays - it would be a travesty for this all to vanish. The problem is that under E2’s policies the user maintains authorship and copyright, so a content sucker is out of the question. Further, the content is so heavily integrated into the site’s tone and architecture it would make little sense if you just took the database on its own. I don't know how to save all this material, but it should not be left to die.

So, I write this brief obituary, to say goodbye to a website that lead from the front. I encourage those who read this to go and spend a brief time exploring E2, take a look at the flowers and the topiary – an empire that has fallen. Please don't take too much notice of the Morlochs rampaging around the shrubbery, they are all that is left of Rome - and they wish to protect it from the evils of bad grammar, poor punctuation, and the threat of unbridled creativity.


SharQ said...

Hi there,

I'm one of the 'content editors' on Everything2 (but I'm writing this entirely from a personal perspective), and I can't say I agree entirely with your orbit.

E2 started off as some sort of a competitor to Wikipedia - I have no idea which of the sites started first, and I don't particularly care, but I do know that, when I started hanging out on E2, both were small, fledgling sites.

Wikipedia developed in one direction, and E2 developed in another. I would probably say that comparing them no longer makes any sense, but using both does - especially if you are a writer who is passionate about things.

As a journalist, I've learned a lot from E2, as a writer, I've developed a lot through E2, and as a person, I've changed a lot because of E2. All of this is for different reasons, but mostly, because of the people - an aspect that you don't find very often - and certainly not to this degree - on other web-sites.

Sure, E2 may be developing rapidly in a direction which means it chooses its users - rather like the old joke that 'Linux is user-friendly, it is just selective about who its friends are'. I don't necessarily see a problem with this. With writers on E2 spanning a vast diversity such as IceOwl, The_Debutante, Wertperch and Dann, there is always something worth reading, worth learning about, and worth growing passionate about.

You also touch upon one of the great features of E2 - the soft links. It initially started off as a way of tying arbitrary nodes together in a mind-hive type of way, but it has grown to become a truly marvellous way to research connections between writings, writing styles, topics, etc. When you finish reading a Node (i.e a page filled with (a) writeup(s)), you have a series of choices on 'where to go from here'. For a bored afternoon of exploration, you can't get much better.

Your argument, essentially, says that a local pub loses its appeal when a series of bigger, more modern bars and clubs open on a street. The analogy works, but there will always be people who prefer to come home to a place where 'everybody knows your name', where you have to earn your right to talk bollocks, and where respect doesn't come easily.

I agree it isn't for everybody, but I have yet to find a Noder (someone who is active on E2) who isn't a facinating individual.

Horses for courses, but I'll stick to E2 for now, and for the foreseeable future.

- SharQ

Jessica Pierce said...

it's /= its.

there's your problem.

Charles Pooter said...

Jessica: Whoa! Picky! I can see only one it's/its mistake in all of Edwin's post. Most likely a typo. I'm sure there must be more than that in the average Grauniad article.

Jessica Pierce said...

It was a joke. Sort of. And there are two.

Scarletblood said...

I'm actually willing to stick around in E2 for the many years to come.

Anonymous said...

Wow, we've up and died? Is that why there are so many writeups being added lately? Kinda like how more soldiers dying in Iraq is proof that the insurgency is in its last throes?

Also: /me destroys you... WITH PREMATURE TRIUMPHALISM!

Hogs and Kisses,

mkb said...

Oh shit, dissed by an unknown blog monkey, I guess that's it for E2.

Anonymous said...

OH NOES! E2 IS DYING! etc etc.

/me yawns.

Will someone please change the record already? I've been hearing the same doomsaying now for the one and half years that I've been here, and it really is getting very boring.

I find the rumblings of discontent tend to come most from previous long-term site users (whose egos got a little too big and sensitive) due to (an) admin(s) deleteing a piece of their work. Something about feeling they've earnt their bullshit, or similar. Anyway, said previous long-term site users then have almighty hissy fit, act like little divas, and demand that, since they're going to have one piece of work deleted, then delete all of them and be damned.

You know what? Grow up. You're no longer five years old, and throwing a tantrum and storming off whenever you don't get your own way isn't really the best coping mechanism when life puts a bump in the road.

So, Mr. / Ms. Anonymous Blogger, which of the recent slam-door departures are you?

Or is this actually a wonderful and amusingly twisted publicity stunt in order to divert more traffic our way?

In which case, carry on bitching.



Charles Pooter said...

Anonymous 7:30pm (paraclete):

I've been on the 'net since 1996, but I hadn't heard about E2 until Edwin told me about it a couple of years ago. It seemed interesting, but I was put off by the jargon, shoddy interface, lack of a proper search function and the evident cliquishness. Hopefully this will be solved at some point, but it doesn't seem to have changed since I last looked. Can one even post an image on there yet? I thought Edwin's post was quite respectful and has actually prompted me to have more of a look around E2. There's some great stuff in there. Wouldn't it be good if more people got to see it?

jes5199 said...

Premature? It's been dead for years, in my opinion.
~jes5199, e2 user since Sep 3 1999

Anonymous said...

It would be more than good if more people could crowd E2's halls. This is why I've assumed this blog entry to be an attempt to advertise the place.

I've only been on the net since.... my university gave me free access two years ago. Yes, it's clunky, and cliquey, and ever so slightly ugly looking... but so am I.

Uh... what I mean to say is that considering the place is currently completely free to use, and does provide a great forum for getting feedback on works that you've penned (no matter the genre), why is everyone complaining about it not being all singing all dancing? Dudes, this is probably the first free lunch I've ever had. Bar the ones I get off pharmaceutical reps, but that's another story.

No, you can't post pictures unless you're willing to contribute 300 writeups. But the lack of pictures means that you've got to make more of an effort with your writing style to get your point across. We'd (for now) rather have the thousand words, ta.

And it takes a while to get your head around the terminology, but give it a week and you'll find yourself using the 'language' of E2 with ease. Helps if you're the type who's easily influenced though; I'm an advertising executive's wet dream, so I was straight in there.

I suppose the best analogy for E2 is that of a dodgy bar on the wrong side of the tracks. You don't want to look at the floor because there's things moving down there; the bar hasn't been cleaned... ever; the smell coming from the direction of the loos warns you off even thinking about emptying your bladder; and the locals are staring at you whilst stroking the various pieces of weaponry that they carry around with them for no obvious reason.

But, get this, the beer is free.

Maybe I'm just too much of an alcoholic to regard that as being a no-brainer.

And yeah, t'is a respectful article indeed. Shame it had the word 'obituary' in the title. It's like picking up a paper and finding out that everyone thought you'd died last week, and that's why no one's called you recently. And why you've been getting so many flower deliveries.

Just hold your nose, dive in, and get addicted to the place like a large number of other people have over the years. Be nice to see you in there.


Miss P.

Suzanne said...

I've been on E2 since it was E1. I don't think it ever existed to be a web innovator; it existed to be fun. For many of us it still is fun, and we're still here. There have always been those for whom it didn't look like fun and they never got started, and those for whom it stopped being fun, and they left. But there are always new people finding it and finding it fun, too. And we're going to quite a lot of effort to keep the site going, be it with work on the content or fundraising for equipment and stuff. I think your obituary is far more than slightly premature.


Halspal said...

I think it's interesting that you don't mention the name of your E2 account. It would provide some context for your perspective and your gloomy prognosis for E2.

Anonymous said...

This is quite a fair article. You certainly got the response you anticipated. Personally I find myself spending less and less time in E2, because there is less new content that interests me being posted.
But if this post gets a few interested readers to look around E2, than that is a good thing for the site. Don't be so defensive you noders.


Mike Sugarbaker said...

(It would be useful if the E2 user base would respond a little less defensively to criticism.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if e2 will die. I think perhaps its fea will consume its hroar, and it will become a rustic folk of wood and dale, choosing only to appear to others on nights of a cold moon.

--Glowing Fish

Anonymous said...

Hah! You think my essay was good! :D

I just re-read it. I really ought to get more to noding. Sorry that e2 isn't doing it for you anymore. I've had my faith shaken too a couple of times, especially now that I've started to take free culture so much more seriously. If e2 fails (which I highly doubt it will), it will be because it isn't open enough. Already there is talk about open licenses for our writeups, so something good could come of it all.

We've been getting this E2 IS DOOMED remarks forever. Reminds me of that passaged in H2G2 in the prologue where many think that coming down from the trees was a bad move, and others think that we should have never even left the oceans to begin with. It's impossible for change to please everyone, but things change and websites evolve.

Godspeed, anonymous ex-noder. May you find your niche elsewhere in teh interwebs.

Anonymous said...

Dang. You folks get hellsa defensive whenever anyone says anything critical about e2. WTF, people. Chill out.

Anonymous said...

"Those were the good old days, when nodermeets where orgies, nodes only had to contain an ampersand to make everybody laugh their pants off, and catching a glimpse of Segnbora-T's cleavage was geek heaven."

What an old load of bollocks.

E2, like a living organism, is constantly changing (something one really can't say about most established internet stalwarts like). It has shed users, it has gained users. Some of us leave forever, some of us come back after some downtime. The noderbase might change, but its primary goal to foster creativity expressed in poetry, prose or factual writing is being maintained. The only thing that can kill E2 is nate pulling the plug of its UPS.

As an attempt to diss one of the great institutions of the internet, this 'obituary' deserves nothing else but a C-.

Maybe you need an Editor?