I fingered [you] today

in Musings

There is this website, Grinnell Plans, that I use a lot. It is a difficult website to explain. It is at heart a social networking site, but it is also the opposite of nearly every other social networking site that exists. Rather than a slick new technology that people talk about using words like “web 2.0 and “platforms” and “leverage,” it grew out of very simple, decades-old network conventions, the finger protocol and the .plan file.

On a multi-user Unix-based system, like Grinnell’s old VAX email system, every user has a .plan file, which is just a simple text file, which any other user can see by “fingering” you. And, somehow, it became common at Grinnell for students to write information about their lives and messages to their friends in their .plan files (this is basically the purpose of the .plan, though obviously if you are in a work environment you are going to have different kinds of constraints on the things you write). VAX was gone by the time I got to Grinnell, but my understanding was that communication through .plans was definitely a popular part of campus culture. Then, when Grinnell finally switched from VAX to a Microsoft Exchange server for email, some enterprising students created a web-based version of the .plan system, Grinnell Plans, and by the time I got there, the plans website was firmly established in campus culture. So, I have a plan, and it’s…just a text file, on the internet. I can add some very basic html, create links to other pages, bold and italicize text, and not much else. And I can easily link to other people plans, and see who has put a link to me on my plan. If I know what someone’s email username was at Grinnell, I can “finger” them and read their plan. And somehow, between the tight-knit on-campus culture of Grinnell, and this odd little system of text files, Grinnell Plans has become a unique and vital community. I keep up with many of my friends from undergrad through plans, and have even gotten to know older alumni through it.

These days it’s a little easier to explain plans as “twitter, if your twitter was just one big text file that you edit.” Though of course that only really works for people who already use twitter to keep in touch with a group of friends – perfect for my IU classmates, who use twitter in many of the same ways my Grinnell classmates use plans, not so perfect for the people who don’t “get” twitter, or primarily use it for something other than maintaining social awareness with a network of friends. Neither group seems to see much value in twitter as such a tool, but that is a very different blog post.

So anyway, Grinnell plans is great, and without it my life would be much lonelier and less rich. But it’s a closed community, only people with specific ties to Grinnell can get accounts, and while my plan is accessible to anyone else with an account, it is not accessible to anyone without an account. More or less, what happens on Plans stays within the Grinnell community. Mostly that’s fine, because I’m writing for my Grinnell friends, and lots of people outside that community would probably find my writing there as boring or pointless or indicative of the downfall of civilization as they find the way I use twitter (I mean, I haven’t been attacked personally, but…again, another blog post, that other people have already written quite ably already). But sometimes I find myself writing something else, that I think might be worth something as a more public communication – and more permanent. There is no formal archiving of plans, I’ve just got the one file that I add to until I’m nearly out of my allotted server space and then I start over. If I want to keep something I throw it into a word file on my own computer, but that’s just for myself.

Sometimes it turns out what I’m really writing is a blog post. It finally occurred to me that maybe I ought to be putting such things on, you know, my blog.

So now I have a such a thing that I just wrote on my plan, and I wanted to mention that it began life on my plan, but in order to that I had to write 700 words about plans itself, and now I’m thinking this should just be its own post. And I’m ok with that. I am interested in how people use computers to communicate with each other, and, much like Grinnell itself, I think Grinnell plans is an unusual and interesting sort of place.