Friday, November 04, 2005

Time For A Break

Discussion forums have been at the heart of my internet experience since the mid-late 80's on university mainframes. For the longest time I was involved in USENET groups covering everything from Statistics to Programming to Handheld PDA's to Jazz and finally Gaming. It is only recently that the reality of the 'Death of USENET' has caused me to stop checking the newsgroups.

I have never gotten much into 'internet chat', but remember well the advent of 'web forums', and resisted them every step of the way. Why bother checking at and and various small, specialized sites when you can just have a dozen or so groups you're subscribed to. Over time, though, the USENET groups shrank in their audience and relevence while the Web forums grew. Instead of the convenience of a few groups in one application from a single source, I was now faced with monitoring many web forums in addition to USENET. That was unsustainable, and in the end I dropped out of one USENET group after another.

Some of it was tough - you develop relationships with these people, some of whom I had 'known' online for 10 years or more. Some keep in touch, but for most it is all just memories of the 'good old days'.

The same thing happens on Web Forums - people come and go, communities are fluid, and so is the focus. For example, one of the first non-technical communities I became part of was at '', which I had found and lurked around while waiting for a game called 'Obi-Wan' that was in development for the PC. After Obi-Wan was cancelled, speculation turned to confirmation that there would be a true successor to the classic Jedi Knight, I became a very active member of the forums. There were many people of a similar age group - their 30's - in the crowd, as well as someone who also used a Mac on a regular basis as well as PC's. That crowd became pretty close-knit over the ensuing months of speculation and dribbled-out information, and some decent relationships were formed. Immediately following the game's release, however, the average age of members seemed to drop by half, as did the maturity and respectfullness of the discourse. Several people left the community almost immediately, others lasted longer, still others never left.

I personally realized that it was time for a break - for me to part with the community and just check in occasionally.

Several months later, Jedi Academy was announced, and while the pre-JKII level of intelligent dialogue never resturned, the community became somewhat more mature and focused. A few months after Jedi Academy was released, however, it became clear that as the average age had dropped to about 15, the ability to discuss anything not of interest to 15-year old male Star Wars fanatics was quite limited. So, despite having a few friends, it was time for me to leave. And it was a good thing for me, as it allowed me to better spend my forum time. I will still check in on occasion, probably every month or two, and perhaps even reply to a post, but largely it is a part of my past.

There was another Star Wars gaming site formed largely by people disillusioned by the JK site, who wanted a place of their own. They were by and large older and more serious, and after talking to a couple of my best 'friends' from the original site, I joined that community. Growing a community is a good thing, but when sampling from the same pool you'll get the same water, as it were. So as the new forums grew, some from the old site came along for the ride - many frequent both places. In addition, personal reasons caused one of my oldest and closest online friends to have to all but leave the forum worlds at large, leaving me pondering what to do. I was finding the discussion I was involved with were not worthwhile for the time I was spending, and that I was putting an effort into a community for which I was not seeing a return in value.

I once again realized that it was time for a break, to step away for a while, then come back with a fresh perspective and decide what level of involvement was appropriate. During that break I was contacted by four people from the site - one person was the founder, a young guy who was pretty decent and just wanted to check in, and the other three were people I'd been involved with for nearly five years - they were all parents, gamers and Star Wars fans, and all understood what I was thinking, but wanted me around regardless. I realized then that the community I sought was right there, and happily returned - in a much lighter mode.

One of the reasons for this post is that I heard from an old friend today - someone who I have known since some of my earliest days of PDA's, back in the HP200LX days in the early 90's. We were involved with Microsoft directly in some of the beta testing for their earliest PDA forays, and stuck together through the Newton demise. After a couple of years in the Pocket PC world, each of us was heading in a different direction. We still keep in touch, but that is pretty much all that is left of what was once a big part of my 'hobby forum time' - PDA's.

It is interesting how things change over time.

I have always been a gamer - back to Pong in the 70's. And my top priority in life is my family. So is it any surprise that perhaps the biggest forum time involment - and major gamign writing commitment - is at GamerDad? Andrew Bub had a vision to create a place not for kids, but for parents who care about games, care about kids and care about the games their kids play. I have been full on-board with that vision from the moment I heard about it (can't recall where) nearly 2.5 years ago. And during that time, as other forums or newsgroups have come and gone, GamerDad has remained. Why? Because it is the community that makes sense to me - adults, gamers and (mostly) parents.

So how does this tie in? Well, despite being a member for over 2 years and a very active member for most of that time, it is really in the past year since I have become first a reviewer and now also a regular columnist that I have felt a true part of the site. Like I am part of making something real and of value, which is not something that happens much in the non-hobby part of a hobby. I like contributing articles and reviews to the site, and take pride not only getting emails from people about the articles, but from getting people giving praise about the site in general and how cool it is what we are doing.

But last week I had sort of a "who's your daddy" moment at GamerDad ... and not for the first time. While the site is generally friendly and light, we occasionally wander into more serious territory. And when we do, things can get pretty heated. That is fine, I can deal with that. But there is a saying that goes something like 'don't critique the wine choice when you're a guest for dinner'. The problem is that when you are working in a forum that is generally light it is easy to toss somewhat flippant comments around. Occasionally you need to provide the proper context, or just say that you were off-base. But there is a different feeling when it is with the creator and owner of a site, especially one who can give a pretty decent smack-down. For whatever reason, despite the generally great relationships I have in general at the site and specifically with this person, I let this bug the heck out of me for a while.

After that I asked myself - is it time for a break here? The thought barely crossed my mind before I knew the answer - NO! This was just a normal disagreement that felt weird because of the relative positions of the participants. There have been instances before and after from others where they have made comments along the same lines "it is your site after all ... " And I realize, it isn't just me - and it isn't necessarily related to him - it is likely just due to the position.

I also have had a couple of other 'blasts from the past' in the last couple of weeks. A couple of other online friends have contacted me - one from my heaviest programming days, the other from my even more remote music past. It is amazing how things change - neither one was involved with the stuff they were doing back when we talked all of the time. For my music friend, that was no surprise - neither one of us figured a career in music. He ended up in a corporate job at a large office supplies store chain based in our area.

The other one was more interesting. Here was a guy I had loads of contact with for quite a while using Turbo C++ for DOS, involved with in the early VB days - not some superstar from one of the big companies, but a reasonable programmer on Usenet, someone who did that stuff for a living. So what is he up to now? He has a small farm in Vermont. Huh? How did that happen? Seems he decided it was time for a break, and never looked back ...

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