The Web was invented so that people could use computer networks to collaborate—that is, exchange documents, discuss them, learn from one another, and create new documents that express the collective knowledge that emerges from this collaboration. It was, in other words, supposed to be a groupware application.
Despite the astonishing popularity of the Web, it has yet to fulfill that original mission. Today’s Web is more like a combination of electronic publishing and broadcast television than it is like groupware. The Usenet is, for better and worse, the Internet’s most compelling groupware application.
A central theme of this book is that we can, and should, draw a sharp distinction between the idea of online communities involved in threaded discussions and its most familiar implementation—the Usenet. That institution, at once a crowning achievement of our species and a sprawling mess, will evolve (or not) according to its own rules, in its own way. My message here isn’t that we should reinvent the Usenet (although I think we should), but that its model of collaboration—and its existing, proven tools and technologies—can also serve other vital purposes. On public web sites, on extranets, and on intranets, NNTP conferencing today can support just the kinds of collaboration that the Web has, thus far, failed to deliver.
What we collectively know, in organizations, is expressed in the documents that we write and exchange. Although a new protocol called WebDAV promises to turn the Web into an authoring environment (I’ll say more about this in Chapter 3), we’re not there yet. The Web, for the vast majority of users, is a library in which we read, not a bulletin board on which we scribble. The Internet application that we do use for scribbling—endlessly, prolifically—is email. But as we’ve seen, email alone can’t do everything we need. It operates in interpersonal spaces, not in group spaces. The value of conferencing is that it enables us to write documents as easily as we can with email and to share them in group spaces as effectively as does the Web.