And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
The Glue That Holds h2g2 Together
1999 was a great year for the Internet. Douglas Adams created the h2g2 website, the embodiment of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or at least the Earth edition of it. Like many others, Douglas was trying to make some money from the Internet. His contribution was a quirky website where members of the public would write the articles, building up a huge guide to the world, something which had not been tried before.
The site had some problems – the too-narrow white letters on the dark blue background looked dated and virtually unreadable. The quality of the articles was a bit hit and miss as well. Style was considered as important as content, and some of the earlier articles appeared to be totally lacking in content.
Nevertheless people flocked to the site. On the first day alone, more than 10,000 people registered as 'Researchers'. Ten years on, h2g2 has changed somewhat, but is still recognisably the same site. For a website to last that long, there must be something which makes people stay. So what is the glue that holds h2g2 together? I'll come to that in a moment.
Seventeen months later, things had settled down a bit. The default colour of the site had changed to a much easier to read black on white, scientifically proven to be easiest on the eyes. The blue 'goo' look was still available as an option, for those nostalgic souls who harked back to the early days a year before. And the quality of articles had improved, as a new system of 'Peer Review' had been introduced. It wasn't quite the system we have now, in that if something took a Scout's fancy, they could pick it immediately, but it was a better system than the previous one.
One day at the beginning of September 2000, a bored computer programmer clicked on a little picture of a yellow fish on a search website and was brought to a page on h2g2. (The Babel Fish is still there on www.altavista.com, but it no longer links to h2g2). He looked around, liked what he saw and decided to stay. He gave himself the name 'Gnomon' and started writing.
Time marched on. h2g2 did not succeed as a money-making venture. The site did not become well-enough known to make advertising on it a viable proposition, and Douglas decided to sell it. It was bought by the BBC, who didn't intend to use it for advertising, but instead as an example of a community-run site.
A few years later, we were introduced to a site called Wikipedia which was a bit like h2g2, but with not as many pages, and no Peer Review. Everybody just changed anything they didn't like. We didn't think it would ever produce a reliable source of information, and the jury is still out on that one. We waited, and Wikipedia passed h2g2 out as the Guide to Everything. But still I kept writing for h2g2. I'm still here. A few times I have tired of the site, and decided to leave, but I've always come back.
The reason? It is the warmth and friendship I encountered here that make it so good. h2g2 Entries are (or at least should be) a joy to read. They teach you about the world in an easy to read way and, true to Douglas Adams's vision, they open your eyes to how amazing a place the world is. The people you meet here on h2g2 are the friendliest that I've encountered on the web. Some of them write, some of them chat, but they all enjoy the friendship of the place and will help each other out. I've been to meetings with these Researchers, and strange though it may seem, they really exist! They're real people who like to talk, drink and hug.
Without the h2g2 community, the writing would soon get tiresome. The prose would become tedious and dry and would end up something like Wikipedia has ended – all facts and no soul. And without a soul, h2g2 would die. Those wacky h2g2 Researchers keep us from becoming po-faced academics arguing over trivial details, and get us to put a bit of spirit in the stuff we're writing. They comfort us with cake and hugs; they remind us that friends are more important than facts.
One Special Researcher
One special researcher was the epitome of this spirit of friendship. Joining in March 2002, he picked the name 'Pheloxi' for himself. Being a native Dutch speaker, his English was not particularly good, and he did not attempt to write Entries for the Guide, but instead concentrated on bonding the h2g2 community together. His United Friends of h2g2Space club was one of the most successful on the site, with a simple premise: joining everybody in a spirit of friendship. Pheloxi never said a bad word about anyone, and was always around, suggesting ways to cheer people up.
Confined to his house by very bad health, this meant that he was nearly always on-line and available to make his sometime witty and always cheerful comments. Most of us encountered Pheloxi at some time or another.
It was with great sadness that we heard about his sudden death on Sunday, 19 April. He suffered a heart attack or a stroke. He had been posting on h2g2 only the day before, his usual self. Pheloxi was cremated on Friday, 24 April. The site will be genuinely poorer without his cheerful comments.