Rob St. Amant

Rob St. Amant
December 31
My roots are in San Francisco and later Baltimore, where I went to high school and college. I stayed on the move, living for a while in Texas, several years in a small town in Germany, and then several more in Massachusetts, working on a Ph.D. in computer science. I'm now a professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. My book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals, will appear this fall from Oxford University Press.


MAY 27, 2012 10:01AM

Boring stories of... (OS)

Rate: 22 Flag


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.



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Indeed, your last paragraph is as applicable now as it was four years ago.

I believe Mishima666 was also a beta- member.
You forgot about calves.
I think you're right, Dom. In John's screen shots I also see bbd and epriddy, who still post on OS.

Hi, Julie! You were one of the early joiners, too, weren't you? I don't remember calves, actually.
I like seeing those old OS covers -- the prompts seemed more creative then, to entice good stories to the forefront, but maybe that's just my thought by the few I've seen. OS seems so different than when I first started looking around over two years ago...
...yet not, as you say.
It's been a trip. I joined in December '08 (so am not one of the beta members) and, since I didn't know what I was getting into or even whether this site was legit, registered under a nom de guerre with a real email address containing deliberately misleading information.

Anyway, the evolution has been extremely interesting -- the flame wars, the pirate wimmin's insurrection, the invasion of Canada, the loss of many good people, the gain of many good people, the seemingly endless permutations of editorial judgement, etc.

My favourites list, which had you on it from very early on, is a reminder of all that's happened.
Hi, Just Thinking. I have the same feeling, looking at those early covers. The main had already gotten less sparse when I arrived, more like a newspaper than a magazine site. I think as a community grows, it naturally broadens, and that's reflected in the variety of topics written about on OS.
Hey, Lee, thanks for adding your memories. (I just realized that part of the evolution of OS is that I know a fair number of people's alternative, non-OS names.) As a newspaper person, if I remember correctly, you probably have a good deal of insight into this notion of institutional memory.
Yes, Rob, I am a proud member of the Beta Corps.
i felt like i was walking into a very exclusive club when i nervously posted my first blog in the summer of '09. i wasn't a beta either, same as boan, but i remember much of what you describe going on when i got here. and after. i miss all those smart, funny, terrific writers who have left and value greatly those who slog on. :)
Julie, I'm awfully glad I'm not a Beta, because I don't work so hard. (Sorry--I'm recycling a misquote I've used before.)

I think I had the same feeling, Candace. But OS was "open" then as now, so it didn't take me too long to get over the feeling. One of the challenges that emerged over the years was getting noticed, which wasn't as big an issue in the early days.
Rob, many, many thanks for mentioning my post about the OS covers here and also for your insightful and thoughtful discussion about the evolution of the site and the institutional memory of Open Salon!

There has definitely been lots of interest over the past four years regarding what purpose the site serves and where it is headed. I also remember that in the early days we had both Joan and Kerry leaving comments on posts not only during the weekdays, but at night and on the weekends, too. We even had a 'thumbs down' button for a while, but that was removed as a feature along the way.

Kerry's blog is a historical record that shows different features that were added to the site along the way since he announced the changes through his posts. I cataloged many of them on this post:

Features like search, or sending a PM weren't available at first, but added in over time, along with the Tippem payment system and Google ads.

It's really great to have continued discussions about where we've been and where we think the site is headed in the future, plus to have so many from the earlier days of OS still here publishing new posts and commenting on others!

@Julie, I remember the many calves posts and I can't remember laughing as hard as I did when I saw the various posts at that time! I'm happy that you mentioned that here!
Oh, and thanks for the pointer to calves, Julie! (It was before my time--but pretty hilarious. I think I caught a few tail-end references in reactions to Barry's photographs-from-great-heights posts.)

John, I hope you continue to catalog the evolution of the site. Thanks for what you've done over the years.
Interesting evolvement, I lurked then posted first in late summer '09.
It did feel more exclusive to me and I have learned not to get to attached that people come and go. I do miss a lot of folks that left in the 2010 exodus.
Fun times.
Rob, you've always been one of my very favorite contributors, though there are many that I love. And "affection" for you and what your brain produces is entirely appropriate, and it extended in getting to know a bit about your personal life with gifts exchanged offline, including a now treasured piece from your own lovely bride.

My fourth anniversary came and went unremarked in early April, an "early" beta member if there is such a thing. I still know my member number—198, which I love to mention now and then and seems all the more unusual given the current membership numbers (though those membership numbers include dispatched spammers which constitute their own vast horde).

And I regret that I now am so consumed with the mundane tasks of getting our current home for sale and the exhilaration of building a new home from scratch that I haven't taken the time to contribute. I think once I move to the new location to lend a physical hand in the construction that it would be interesting to document the process, so I hope to offer more in the future.

Thanks for all you've done and do, and to John as well who is an exemplary OS archivist.
Thanks, Barry! If there's one thing I treasure about OS, it's that this place brought me your friendship.

Rita, sometimes I think things move too quickly online. But that's just me.
Dec 1 2008 - so I'm an early adopter. I've used this blog for all sorts of personal reasons, to air my political views, as a travelogue, but primarily for memoir. And to mark growth and change. Thanks for reminding us, Rob.
Hi, Dolly! We haven't interacted very much over the years, but it's funny how you remember people; it's part of the community, I guess. Here's to the continuing OS...
I was a late-comer to the early stuff, so missed the early early stuff.

It helped that I knew you, Rob, from another forum. That gave me a sense of immediate tie-in and made it easier to settle in. Still took me a little floundering to find a voice I liked and figure out what I'd write about. Oddly, when I was finally going, I realized I'd been blogging before, just without a named fancy term for it.

And there was a precipitous drop-off of interest in politics after the 2008 election. This worried me because it seemed politics must not be an every-four-years thing. Indeed, the 2010 election snuck up on a lot of people because many don't pay attention to off-year elections. And this is how the Tea Party gained its hold, on voter interest and turnout.

Some interesting t-shirts were made in the early days. I have two, one home-made by my wife for me, one that someone made with a lot of thumbnails of avatars.

There was a lot less spam.
Oh, and about institutional memory, I think there's a culture war afoot in which companies recognize the importance of it but prefer it be stored in more durable form. To the extent possible, large long-lived companies like to extract any such information so that people are more expendible. I can understand that it's good for a company not to be fragile, and yet at the same time I think the push to make individuals valueless, however obvious and perhaps inevitable, is something worth serious lamentation.
Interesting to read the history Rob. It was the best of times, it was...
Hi, Kent! I first started "following" you on the Usenet newsgroup comp.lang.lisp, though what following meant in that forum was mainly editing a score file.

I'd forgotten about the T-shirts and cups, with the OS avatar collage! That was fun. We could play Romper Room: I see Kent, and Rob, and Elizabeth, and...

I suspect you're right about the nature of institutional memory changing. Back in the heyday of expert systems, there were good reasons to try to capture the expertise of people who might eventually retire, but nowadays it seems a bit more ominous.
Hi, Abrawang! I didn't realize that you've only been on OS since 2010; you've pushed OS in some good directions.

It was the best of times, it was...

This could be the beginning of a beautiful book.
Rob, it seems like you've been around forever, I thought you were a beta! You and mishima (and who else?) wrote invaluable How To posts on coding and formatting. Ric Tressa started creating amazing blog headers for anyone who asked. Stellaa kept us honest, Dr Amy raised our blood pressure and Sandra (then) Miller mesmerized us with her stories. Derek created two OS collages: a small beta group and a much grown later version. I have the T-shirts of both showing some incredible avatars.

Like Barry, I came aboard in April, 2008. There were so few of us, you'd write a post, get an Editors Pick, be on the cover and still get only two or three comments, almost no ratings. And we didn't care. Hard to believe, I know.

In the early days, we were writing and reading, not heavily competing. No FB, DIGG, RSS feed or any outside sharing, just us in our OS bubble. Sometimes squabbling, but as on a Listserve, The Well, an extended family, like that.

I wrote a meme post in June 08 that went viral here. A first, I think, but we rarely linked to each other back then.

Elizabeth Priddy showed, as always, her perfect dry wit as Judge of Calf Wars. My entry Half Calf.

There are too many memories/stories to share, but it's only fitting to pay homage to the Freaky Troll Stages Open Salon Cover Coup. (Click on the link at the bottom for enlarged version and look at the posts then current in the right column).

I can still hear Kerry yelling, THOMAS!!!!

Thanks, Rob, this was fun!
Thank you for this retrospective. I feel like the X generation, fitting in neither with the original joiners nor a newbie any more.

October 2009 brought me by chance to this place, where I had no idea what I'd do, nor how long I'd stay. It's been an interesting journey.

I meant to mention that the COMMENTS on the links I included here provide a valuable view of the easy-breezy "insider" conversations you'd see on most beta and early posts.
Hi, Sally! Thanks for all the memories. You're right--I did some searching around and yours was the first "Things About Me" post I could find here, but you were a big part of the place in the early days in other ways.

And Freaky Troll! I'd forgot to mention her, as well as Deven's Movie Nights. (I still think that could be turned into a nice book.)

Fusun, I think you're now one of the more prominent writers on OS (whether that was your intention or not :-). I'm glad you've found it worthwhile to stay.
Kanuk writes: "I believe Mishima666 was also a beta-member."

Yes, I came aboard in April 2008. I am number 329. By the way, if you want to know your member number -- go to your main blog page. Select the "View Source" option from your browser and search for "uid=". The number immediately after that is your member number.

The beta-members were selected from people who had commented on Salon.Com articles. As I recall, comments could receive some kind of special recognition by the editor or author of the article -- "favorite comment" or "best comment" or something like that. And people whose comments had been thus recognized formed the pool of individuals who were invited to be beta-members.

Kerry's blog contains notes on the early history. Around February 8, 2008, alpha testers were brought on board. On April 8, 2008, beta-members began to be invited. As of May 21 OS had over 600 members. And around August 11, 2008 OS became truly "open," and anyone could sign up.

In early September 2008, Kerry published a post about how to get on the cover. I believe this was in response to one of Rob's posts (which no longer exists). So the controversy over what posts should be on the cover and how they are selected has been going on for a long time now.

Kent writes: "There was a lot less spam."

As far as I know, the very first spam message was posted on June 8, 2008, from the "Miller Huang" account. This spam account features a Chinese company that manufactures acrylic nails, disposable shower caps, and hair rollers. The account is still out there. I don't know how it got there, since OS was still in the beta test phase.

And speaking of spam, I recently came across one spam account that generated over 1,200 spam posts in less than 12 hours. Spammers are irritating, but one must admire their energy and dedication.

As far as attracting members, Open Salon has been very successful. It has been less successful in keeping them. But the internet is a rather volatile place, and it is not unusual for web sites to have a lot of turnover of participants.

OS has done a lot right, but where OS has fallen down is in not having an effective account management function. This is why every month thousands of spammers can sign up and leave tens of thousands of spam posts and comments. Another problem is that the membership has grown by a couple orders of magnitude, but the cover format and search tools are largely the same as when there were only a few hundred members. What worked well for 300 members does not necessarily work well for 3,000 or 30,000 members.
Thanks for this Rob. I'd add the Ric Tressa banner. I don't know how many he did--but I bet it was a lot. He did mine. I still love it as much as the first time I saw it. He added a lot to the look and feel.
(@CG -- I was lucky: Ric did mine, too. When I asked him why he'd go to such trouble, he said it was because I'd said something nice about him. What a guy.)

Yes, Rob, your memory is accurate. The mid-sized paper where I spent most of my years had an institutionalised staff when it came to hard news/spot news reporting, which suited me just fine, since that was my forte.

No matter what generation of staffers, they consistently won awards for their work. It started, I'd think, with the returning veterans who'd been everywhere and seen everything and nothing was going to get to them.

It became a tradition that no one from any other paper or media outlet could work faster and better under adverse conditions. It's still that way, from what I see in retirement (although other things have been lost, it must be said).
Hey, cool. I'm 1487. Thanks, Mishima. Also for the pointers back in time.

I agree that the spam is horrendous, and I appreciate your behind-the-scenes efforts to reduce the problem. It's a losing proposition, I gather, without a lot of software support (i.e., paying software people to write the code). You once suggested a small fee for joining or staying here would also work, perhaps with "scholarships" for people who couldn't manage it, but that didn't catch on. But it will take money, I think, one way or another.

Kerry published a post about how to get on the cover. I believe this was in response to one of Rob's posts (which no longer exists).

I was excited when that happened! But in a fit of... pique? self-indulgence? humility? I deleted all my old posts before returning to OS in March, 2010. Here's the revived Ten rules for getting on the cover of Open Salon, with the original comments.

Hi, Roger! You were another person I was thinking of when I wrote about longstanding members. And RicTresa--I was fortunate enough to have banner from him, too, like you and Lee.
I'm obviously not a beta member, either. I've been writing here on OS since I believe January or February of 2010. So, about 2 1/2 years. It's been an interesting experience here, of late, to notice how few rates it can take to get in our 4 hour feed, as opposed to how things were two years back. I think we've got fewer rating readers today, in part due to spammers and technical difficulties, but I could very well be mistaken about that.
Hi, Poor Woman; isn't it funny how even with all the differences between OS members, we share a lot of the same perceptions about the place? I think you may be right.
One thing that's been consistent since I started blogging on OS in November, 2008 - is Mr. St. Amant's wise, measured, always interesting and frequently wry posts and comments. I think a little appreciative applause and a nod to the gentleman might be appropriate at this point. [clapping & nodding]

One thing I miss a lot from the early days is the direct involvement of the OS editors. Back then, it was common for Joan Walsh and Kerry Lauerman to read, rate, comment and occasionally get involved in some of the more interesting, amusing or contentious discussion threads.

It was something that made OS feel quite special, and it added to the "personality" of the site. The editors since have done a fine job (and I can't imagine how they manage to scan through so many posts each day to select EPs and the occasional posts to be featured on Big Salon), but I do sometimes wish they'd join the conversation here.
Thanks for the compliment, Man Talk Now! I've always enjoyed your work--you take on challenging, controversial topics and handle them with style. (I need to visit again; it's been a while.) I've learned something from your insights.

I liked the days when Joan and Kerry were a part of the OS scene, too. I'm reminded again of Freaky Troll, who wrote, "Again. The OS editor, I won't name names, let's just call him Zerry, stepped in my way to get on the front cover of OS." The editors were around enough to spark their own OS memes.
@Barry, thanks very much for the kind compliment! Your photo essays raised the bar to a very high level from the earliest of days!

@Mishima, that's a great way to check your ID number and thank you for the tip! Previous to reading this I had told some OSers to send a PM to a friend and the ID number will show up on the email alert. I have really enjoyed your interesting posts, including iPhone photographs, plus your careful analysis when commenting on someone's post.
Ah, nostalgia! 'Tis ever so bittersweet! You may recall I was involved in The Secret wars; it was then I was accused of being a wife-beater, tho that charge was levied with the same amount of evidence as exists for The Secret. That would be none.

As for this, "That's the way we've always done things;" -- I dealt with that folly in my book The Disappearing Cemetery. My metaphor was a field planted over and over with the same crop until the ground becomes infertile.
You were at the forefront, Tom. That may have been how I got to know you; it was a good introduction.

(I have yet to pick up a copy of your book--what's my best option?)
To avoid any further crass commerce, I PMed you.
Rob, I am fairly sure that even though time has passed, Truncati are still evident. Have you noticed any humorous ones recently? They still originate in the left "My Recent Comments" colu
Hi, Coyote--What a coincidence! I was just checking another blog site, looking to see where the (very few) hits were coming from, and so I clicked the Traffic Sources button. And at the top of the window, sandwiched between other information, I read "Stats... Traffic sour". I'll keep an eye out here as well. "Truncati" was your coinage, wasn't it? Clever.
There was the ongoing mystery as to where the hell was The Squirrel's restaurant. At some point early in 2009, cartouche became the hub of the OS wheel. She was writing, reading and commenting everywhere, including promoting good, new bloggers.
Thanks for this, Rob. I am, as usual, late to the party (that should be my name instead of sierrasong) but enjoyed the walk down memory lane. I was so surprised (and pleased) to be invited to join OS when it was in Beta (#328 - just ahead of Mishima!) and dithered around until June when I wrote my first post about my son's graduation from high school. Joan W's daughter graduated the same year and it was nice to become friends with her before she became a television star! My only real claim to fame is coining the term "big Salon" and having the honor of sitting at the popular kids table (remember that, Sally, Julie, Barry, Sandra and Lauren??). We got loads of EPs back then because we were so few and "Zerry" kind of knew us all. It is a side benefit that so many of us are FB. friends now. I hope to get back to writing this summer...thanks again!
Hi, Marsha! Thanks for stopping in to share your memories. You were a big part of the early days; it was a good time to meet people here.
Oops, I missed you, Stim. You and the squirrel and Roger and a few others were a big reason I've thought about visiting Chicago over the past few years... The biggest U.S. city I've never been to.