Last year I joined a planning committee, to replace a friend who was leaving.
"Can we still count on Frank?" asked Bill. Frank had been responsible for some of our work for the past several years.
"Yes," said Brad. "I'd like to get started a little earlier this year, so that the schedule doesn't slip."
Some of what we were planning to do was written down, but much of it wasn't, held only in our heads. That's institutional memory. Every group or association or organization we join has some institutional memory. In the working world, it might be described as the culture of a company; in a social group it might be thought of as "That's the way we've always done things;" and in an online community part of it might be contained in a Frequently Asked Questions list about how to behave--or not.
Open Salon has an institutional memory, much of it maintained and extended by its longest-standing members. designanator's posts showing past OS covers are a good example. You can see who was posting four years ago and what they were interested in. You discover that OS had a beta period, when it was an invitation-only site. (designanator is not the only beta member still around today.) Things moved more slowly in those days (one of the sidebar categories lists most-read posts in the past week; ten or fifteen minutes[!] might pass between comments), but much is the same as today: the top banner is mostly unchanged; there are still open calls; the writing is a mixture of politics, personal stories, humor, and culture.
Here's my contribution to OS's institutional memory, in the form of a list of things I remember doing when I joined the site in August, 2008, soon after OS went public. You'll see that institutional memory is a collaborative thing--I've forgotten a lot of detail. (Chip in if you care to.) My goal isn't to say, "Those were the glory days of OS," but rather to find connections between the way OS was yesterday and the way it is today. This is what I remember:
When OS was young, many (most?) members blogged under online aliases. In late 2008 or early 2009, there was a coming-out period of mutual introductions.
This overlapped with the adoption of a Facebook "25 things about me" meme.
We liveblogged the 2008 Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates.
We posted reading lists.
We had running discussions (arguments, even battles) on a range of topics. Politics, of course. Sexuality. The Secret. The value/uselessness of meta-posts (like this one). In-group versus out-group dynamics on OS. Where OS was headed in the future. Who OS was for--people who care about quality writing? about writing, good or bad? about simply saying something in public? (OS hasn't changed very much in this regard.)
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.