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By Jay Thorwaldson

Blogs, hm, seem a lot like conferences ?

Uploaded: May 30, 2006

Some years back, 1977 to be a bit more precise, I ventured a daring prediction to a class of Stanford seniors who wanted to learn how to write news stories.

"In 15 or 20 years I believe 80 percent of us will be getting about 80 percent of our information through computers," I suggested in class about the future of journalism, as a community-based "lecturer" in the Communications Department (a notch or two above a teaching assistant, actually). My day job then was covering Palo Alto community news for the old Palo Alto Times.

My prediction was met with distinct incredulity. The class was still using non-electric typewriters in our writing lab, and struggling with how to insert carbon paper the right way -- not an easy task for Stanford seniors, it seemed at the time. (Did I hear someone ask, "What's carbon paper?")

But the aura of disbelief increased significantly when one bright student asked, "What if we want to keep a printed copy?"

Now I was in untried ground. Hadn't thought about it. So I winged it:

"Oh, I suppose we'll all have little printers in our homes that we can print stuff out on," I replied. The class looked at me as if I'd just stepped out of a flying saucer from another planet.

In today's keyboard era, of course, one needs to be a certain age to have ever used a typewriter, or even to know what a typewriter is. My bit of academic prescience, by the way, didn't extend to the dot-com mania that hit 15 years later, where virtual real estate became as valuable as the real stuff in Palo Alto, for a time, so I never got rich off my insights.

I left the PA Times in 1979, shortly after it became the Peninsula Times Tribune and began its painful, 14-year spiral into oblivion (in its centennial year, 1993). After nearly two years of consulting work and becoming involved in local non-profit organizations and some political issues (from which I had refrained as a journalist), I ultimately headed up the community relations/public affairs office of the then-new Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and became even more deeply involved in the world of local non-profit organizations, as a collaborative inter-agency team-builder.

By 1982, still fascinated with how computers might affect our lives, I chaired a multi-agency committee that created an experiment called the "Inter-Agency Communications Network," or ICNet. With the loan from Apple Computer of 20 rebuilt Apple IIs and 300-bits-per-second (translate to v-e-r-y s-l-o-w) modems, we linked 20 agencies that provided some type of services to seniors in northern Santa Clara County.

We soon found that the modem-to-modem dial-up was far less reliable and efficient than a simple phone call, and that the level of conversation more closely resembled the CB-band chatter between truckers than efficient business communications: "Hi, good buddy. What's new?" We concluded that we were a decade or two ahead of technology, and put the learning experience to a well-deserved rest.

Then came The WELL, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, an outgrowth of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog, which emerged in the late 1980s as a Bay Area "bulletin board service," or BBS -- the way most people accessed the Internet in days before graphics became possible circa 1993-94. America Online (AOL) and other giant BBSs, later evolving into Internet service providers, ultimately overshadowed The WELL, except for diehards who still visit its conferences or keep e-mail addresses as a kind of virtual collector's item.

What set The WELL apart was its conferences -- in case you wondered where this was headed.

It had conferences on just about everything from current news events to what home printer was the best buy to varieties of adult fare worthy of triple-X rating, conducted discreetly behind closed, invitation-only screens. That, and monthly parties of WELL members in Sausalito, made it a special, almost personal experience. You actually knew the people who were running your Internet.

In 1991 I took time off from my day job at the Medical Foundation to serve as media coordinator for the First Conference on Computers, Freedom & Privacy, of CFP1, and later co-edited a book of transcripts that for a time served as textbooks in some colleges for this emerging field that today seems more relevant and immediate than ever. The dynamic dialogue between privacy zealots, academics, Libertarians, average people concerned about data security and computer hacking on one hand and representatives of the CIA, FBI, the Secret Service, police agencies and district attorneys' offices on the other was a phenomenal experience. This dialogue could not happen today, in our more entrenched times.

In 1994, the Internet "arrived" big time in Palo Alto. The city became the first to launch a municipal Web site, during its Centennial celebration. The Palo Alto Weekly became the first newspaper anywhere, to our knowledge, to post its entire editorial content directly onto the World Wide Web (without going through a limited-access BBS). At the Medical Foundation, I spearheaded the creation of the first (to my knowledge) community health care Web site.

And, beginning in late 1993, I and a couple of dozen others (including former Palo Alto head librarian Mary Jo Levy) co-founded the Palo Alto Community Network (PA-ComNet) listserv that began discussing ways to get something better and faster going than pokey dial-up modems, long before the community became entangled in an endless debate on whether to go to "fiber to the home."

In June 2000, when I was named editor of the Weekly, the staff had just begun talking about posting news stories online each day, which I wrote about in one of my first "On Deadline" columns in the Weekly. Former Editor Brian Aronstam completed a report on online postings, and we began with two or three postings a day. We now post between 35 and 50 news stories per week, everything from updates on community crime statistics to a streaker at a Stanford basketball game (which drew nearly 11,000 readers). Earlier big stories included the Fitzhugh murder case and when the mountain lion was wandering around Palo Alto neighborhoods looking for a free meal.

Now, a dozen years after the public discovered the Web, we arrive at blogs, Web logs -- a long step or two beyond the old text-only BBS conferences and the personal Web sites individuals and families have created since.

I still remain to be convinced that blogs are all that different from the hosted conferences of the early WELL days, except that in my blog at least one won't get "flamed" for posting too-long comments or ridiculed for not knowing proper Web protocol or procedures. I lurked around the WELL conferences for several months before venturing a comment, absorbing the give-and-take and learning the customs, like a timid anthropologist observing a new culture.

In this blog I will make some personal observations, provide historical anecdotes and tidbits from local history and make myself available to answer questions about the community -- which I began studying as something of a kid reporter in 1966. Every week, it seems, I discover something new about the community and its residents, mostly good, sometimes disappointing.

At age 16, working as a caretaker at a former summer camp in Los Altos, I discovered the Palo Alto Times and decided I wanted to work for that newspaper, finally landing a slot in 1964 covering Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale, Moffett Field and NASA-Ames. Two years later, I was promoted to the Palo Alto beat, as busy then as it is now, and the community grew upon me as I survived political battles over growth, antiwar and other demonstrations, the emerging environmental movement and even police and fire news.

As a longtime journalist, I'm more comfortable asking questions than answering them, but I have picked up historical detritus along the way. And, as with many journalists, I know whom to ask if I don't know the answer.

Ask me a question. Challenge my answers. Correct or enlarge upon my recollections. Tell me your stories.

Welcome to my blog.