GlamKitty on why Backwash.com was so important — and cool.
Like lots of things, BW seems even more important and fabulous in hindsight. When I think back, what strikes me most about Backwash is the novelty of it all. Sure, the Internet itself was pretty novel back then. But what we did at BW was new and exciting — and remains so, even for an evolving medium in an ever-progressing digital world.
David Ring created a site dedicated to cutting through the clutter of information overload by organizing the Internet by personality. He provided the tools; we columnists ran with them. We threw ourselves into the digital playground with a dedicated abandon that sometimes puzzled our real-world peers. It was a labor of love; but labor still.
Every columnist, or personality, at Backwash, was responsible not only for writing (blogging) but also had to provide several links of interest (content curation) and moderate any discussions regarding their columns and links, as well as any communities, topics, and newsletters they managed. All resting upon a social network platform. Each of these components was important. When combined, it was too powerful to resist.
Some of us came with the mission to build our businesses. Some came to polish their writing. Some came just to give voice to their thoughts or passions or otherwise express themselves. Some came with the single-minded purpose of finding and organizing a directory of sites on a theme. Whatever our reason, we had to write columns.
Columns were original works. In Internet terms, they were content — and BW knew that Content Was King. Sure, today some people write or blog or post their creations (their content) at sites like Facebook; but the only way you can really find it is by already knowing the person and following them. After a while, all you can find on your timeline is the most recent or the most popular posts — and only if you are looking at that home page timeline at the right time. (If you think you are following Facebook Pages, heaven help you. You only think you are following them; Facebook severely cripples Pages and their content from appearing in your timelines.) For this, and other reasons I will get more deeply into in just a few paragraphs, your original content is largely wasted at FB. At BW on the other hand…
It was understood at BW that original content provided a main gateway into the site. Columns were the means by which we displayed our personalities. Every columnist and community moderator had to provide columns. And they were easily accessible too — even the newsletters were archived on the site. Links to columns, communities, topics, newsletters, and the discussions of each of them could be found on the site itself; and the content, with links to discussions, could also be found searching outside the site itself. The idea was simple: If a person liked us, liked what we wrote about and/or how we wrote it, then they would follow us anywhere — at least follow us anywhere on the Internet.
Each page on BW was full of links on the word wide web. (Click the image on the left for a visual of an actual page; via.) Along with each column were links to more columnists, communities, newsletters, that were picked based on the columnist’s work and who they liked. There were links to message boards and social member profiles too. And of course there were the directory links that lead off-site too.
At BW we were were building a hand-picked directory listing of websites and content by topic, much like DMOZ, Yahoo, and others at the time. Only we were doing it better. Because our directory of topics was based on, and cross-referenced by, personality or “Flavor”. This meant you didn’t have to know exactly what you wanted to find, what it might be categorized as, or even what it was called. You just had to read some columns you liked, hang out with the kids you thought were just like you (or cool, knowledgeable, or whatever made you like or trust them) and follow the link trail they left you.
Of course, with it’s customizable options, you could skip the columns if you wanted to and just get to the links themselves too. (See image below; via.)
It was better than most of today’s content curation because we didn’t just clip something from the web and categorize it; we wrote our brief individual reasons for sharing the links as our directory listing and we rated those links too, designating the links we thought were superior as Gold and Silver. Any registered member could rate or rank the links as well. Along with the directory by topic, the communities, and flavors, there were links shared via the message boards and chat sessions. (Yes, chat sessions; columnists could actually set and publish chat times, so that readers and other like-minded folks could come hang out and ask for resources and the like.) It was the Internet by personality — and very personalized at that.
BW may not have been the first in social networking or social media — but it certainly was ahead of its time. Of course, not everyone understood the social media aspect back then. I remember trying to get my extended family to join and use the social network. They didn’t get it; didn’t join. (Now, however, they are the reason I have to use FB — and I really don’t like it *sigh* for reasons I will get to in a minute.) BW was better at social media — it may even have been The Best. Certainly better even than Facebook is today. Why? Again, I refer you to the tagline, The Internet Organized By Personality. The keywords here are “organized” and “personality”.
The Internet Organized
BW wasn’t a closed community, like FB and other sites are. That meant you could use a search engine, any search engine, and find content and postings at BW — and find them again later on too. These are things you just can’t do at FB. Go ahead, try to find something you know you saw at FB. Try to find something you know you posted at FB. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.
The fact is, the search on FB is not a search engine for FB — unless what you are looking for is the name of a person, place or thing that exists on FB and is marked “public”. Otherwise, you are given links offsite (via Bing). If you can’t search the site for what’s on the Internet, how can the Internet be organized? Answer: It can’t.
Instead, FB wants to hold you captive to your timelines and home page news feeds so you don’t miss anything; but it also views what content you produce there as ephemeral and not worthy of finding. Unless you already have the permalink. (So begin the cycle of remaining glued to that feed or timeline and bookmark all those permalinks!)
Yes, BW wanted you to come to the site, and often; but it didn’t try to keep you there, compulsively checking timelines. At BW, we would send you to other places on the web and count on our coolness, knowledge, personalities — whatever you’d call it — to bring you back to BW again.
The Internet Organized By Personality, Not Legal Name
Today, most of the large social media sites require a person to be “transparent” and use their real name. But what if you don’t want to share your personal business with everyone — let alone with your customers and potential customers? Yeah, Google+ tries to give you those privacy options, placing people in circles; but Google too only wants you to be a real person. (I swear these sites are just days away from forcing you to provide documentation; like 2257 and “papers please!”)
But at Backwash, you could be you, yet maintain some privacy in both name and image because we were graciously allowed to write our columns under pseudonyms, pen names or just plain old wed IDs.
Remember the anonymity of web IDs? Remember how freeing it was to be you, say what you wanted to say, be as real and even as uncomfortable as you needed to be at the moment, and still just be whatever you dubbed yourself? (Even if that name had to be followed by some numbers because a bunch of other cool people thought of it earlier.) Your identity was hidden, but your truth, your personality, would shine. Oh, how it would shine! The result was that you could Dear Diary as much as you wanted without fear. No reason to fear name or image searches by future employers. No need to worry about embarrassing your parents, your kids — your conservative sister. In fact, Backwash was so a-OK with you being whoever you wanted to be, you could pretend to be your pet and anthropomorphize to your heart’s content!
The Bottom Line
The bottom line, Backwash.com was fabulous because it provided true original content — columns — and those columnists were organizers and taste-makers, building a directory based on topic as well as personality. There was a reason to go to BW; you could always find something interesting to read, share, maybe even discuss. It wasn’t solely based on who you already knew, allowing you to swim in the small ponds you already belonged to, limited by whatever privacy concerns you may have. Instead, BW was based on topics and personalities you could continually discover!
It was ever-evolving.
Until it wasn’t.
Social media may not be the Google juice your SEO guru told you it was.
Why they force you to expose your real identity online.
Do you think that anonymity leads to troll-behavior? Think again.
Have questions about the difference between content creation and content curation? Go here.