The Decline Of Community

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The history of Hotline is legendary among Mac users. I was one of the very early users of Hotline, from the much-storied "early beta" days. This, however, is not a typical rant against Hotline SW, nor a mindless "Free Hinks!" drum beating. Instead, it's an analysis of one aspect of Hotline that was critical to its early success (and eventual decline) as a strong platform for on-line community: the News.

To understand why Hotline News is central to its decline, it's important to recognize two major changes to Hotline since its inception; Trackers and PC Hotline.

Before the advent of trackers, Hotline servers existed as isolated, clandestine ports of call on the Internet. Finding servers was via word of mouth. Users took to creating lists of servers, which was helpful, but in those early days servers came and went, so the lists were rarely accurate for very long. Since finding a server was tricky, once rooted at one, a faithful user would tend to stay put, or at most bounce between one or two dedicated servers.

The Tracker was a major development for Hotline; now it was possible to bounce from server to server without the need for clumsy text lists. Early on, Trackers worked well, and server descriptions were helpful in locating the type of information you were interested in finding. However, the signal-to-noise ratio soon dropped, and it became more difficult to weed out the good servers from bad. Old time users tended to stick with their usual servers, but many new users to Hotline liked to bounce from server to server, looking for software or porn, rarely engaging in chat or news posting. This led to the new phenomenon of the silent server, where scads of users would be idly downloading software, with little or no chat or news postings. Once Hotline was ported to Windows, the floodgates opened.

The creation of the PC version of Hotline opened up the HL community to a vast new audience. Despite popular opinion, PC users are no more lame or annoying than their Mac counterparts; however, the sheer number of PC users that were exposed to Hotline created a major shift in the way the application was used. Suddenly, trackers were overrun with thousands of servers. Server descriptions became a morass of cryptic definitions and "l33t" talk, and the S-to-N ratio was drastically increased. Ironically, it became so difficult to weed out the good servers from lame banner-click porn sites, that it again became necessary for dedicated, long time users to count on select word of mouth locations for servers; an underground network to an already underground (albeit increasingly commercial) application.

Even with Trackers and PC Hotline, it was the change to Threaded News that created the most damaging change to Hotline, one that I believe many users do not appreciate or even consciously recognize. 

In the original Hotline news, one could post text that would immediately appear in the News window. The News window stayed open as you went from server to server and loaded automatically. Although conceived as simply a way for admins to post server information, Classic News became a catchall for users to post anything they wanted, unmoderated and uncensored. Personal thoughts, tech information, funny or interesting web links, scatological insults, etc, it was all fair game. The overall effect was of a free form, stream of consciousness ramble of text. This led to an immediacy of information that was seen by every eyeball visiting the server, automatically.

The other effect this had was to help foster tight communities of users. Live chat is of course a bonding mechanism, but the parallel conversations and information posted in Classic News created a multi-tiering of group dynamics unique to Hotline. If a user was away from a server for a week and returned, they could easily re-link up with friends by reading the goings-on in news, or posting a quick note to say "I'm baaack!". I knew one server where it was rare to find someone else online, yet the news constantly flowed with interweaving conversations.

Because News was written to a single text file, it could take a long time to load if it got too large, thus slowing the login process. Sometimes users would post very long messages, often quoting of entire bodies of text (like this one), which aggravated the situation. This system was much maligned by users, who came up with many ideas about how great Hotline would be with a more robust threaded news system. 

After many false starts, Threaded News finally appeared in Hotline 1.5. "Classic" News was no longer supported, thus it was impossible for 1.5 users to see Classic News in 1.2.3 servers, and vice-versa (this was later corrected so that 1.5+ users could read and post to 1.2.3 Classic News servers, but not the other way around). The Threaded News window doesn't stay open; it has to be opened manually each time connecting to a server. Threaded news also removes the immediacy of reading posts; a users must proactively dig through newsgroups, then subtopics, to get to messages. When someone posts news, it goes unnoticed without digging in and refreshing the window. The dynamic and impulsive nature of thought and interaction is gone.

I don't mean to say Threaded News is a Bad Thing; indeed, practically speaking, it's a much more organized and efficient way of sharing information and engaging in linear discussions. However, it takes away what made Hotline Hotline. I find it no accident that the Hotline servers I still visit not only stick to 1.2.3 with Classic news, but many of the users of these servers are old time Hotliners who, whether consciously or not, understand that Hotline 1.5+ is not their Hotline. 

Where does this leave us now? Times have indeed change since Hotline b7 four years ago. One could argue that Threaded News or not, the drastic increase of use and accessibility of the Internet in the intervening years would have dealt a blow to online community anyway. It may indeed be impossible to return to the idyllic days of Hotline, when slow bandwidth made trolling for mp3 and MPGs unheard of, but at least I can use alternate applications such as Carracho [], which have not been totally polluted by the leeching masses.

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