dot.org socialists

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Jun 26 11:40:15 MDT 2001


NY Times Op-Ed, June 26, 2001

Serfs on the Web

By WALT CROWLEY

SEATTLE - But how do you make any money?" This is the automatic
response of virtually everyone upon learning that I run a nonprofit Web site
- a dot-org - devoted to local history.

The question is usually posed in quizzical but sympathetic tones, as if
addressed to
someone who poses a potential danger to himself, if not others. "We make money
the old- fashioned way," I reply. "We beg for it." This satisfies no one,
but it's the
truth.

Things have not improved since the dot-com meltdown. People assume anyone left
on the Internet has gone from riches to rags and been reduced to selling
off vintage
pinball machines to pay the mortgage. But those of us in the domain of the
dot- orgs,
the gentle realm of "venture socialists" who measure success in community
service
and usefulness, haven't experienced that change of fortune.

Dot-orgdom was the first civilian settlement in cyberspace after its
invention by the
military-industrial-academic complex. The dot-coms arrived later, building
a tangled
Web of virtual strip malls. Now their skydiving fortunes threaten to take
the Web, or
at least its credibility, with them. Fortunately, there is a safety net
(sorry): the
dot-orgs, dot-govs, and dot-edus that happily provide free data without
having to
post losses on the Nasdaq.

But just as many venture capitalists have discovered that the same basic
economic
rules apply in cyberspace as in the real world, so it is with public
service. I have
learned this the hard way in developing HistoryLink.org, a community
history site for
the Pacific Northwest written for the Internet, offering the electronic
equivalent of
12,000 printed pages.

This project is not an inexpensive undertaking, when you take the radical
step of
paying historians, writers, designers and editors a living wage instead of
stock
options. At first, I naïvely assumed that this resource would appeal to
local sponsors
motivated by community pride.

I soon discovered that globalization had severed ties many corporations had
to their
local communities. Most traditional foundations also proved skeptical, if
not openly
suspicious, of the Internet, while younger cyber-riche philanthropists were
already
bored with it.

The project would have died early but for local governments and a few
progressive
donors who recognized its value in promoting history education and citizen
debate.
Still, fund- raising remains a daily struggle, and in this, a dot-org is no
different from
any other nonprofit group. Practicing venture socialism may not make you
rich, but
it's more honest than a lot of defunct dot-com business plans.

(Walt Crowley writes frequently on Pacific Northwest history and is the author
of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's guide to Seattle.)


Louis Proyect
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