Sunday, October 5, 2014

A brief history of dinosaurs on the Internet

Thescelosaurus appeared on October 7, 1999, under the auspices of a University of St. Thomas student program. 15 years and two changes of address later, it has gone from a shameless imitation of an early version of The Dinosauricon to one of the last sites standing from an earlier epoch in Internet paleontology. 15 years ago, someone interested in dinosaurs would usually hear news first on the Dinosaur Mailing List, and would then find it incorporated into any of a number of personal information sites. Today, that same person may still be a follower of the DML, but they will often hop onto Wikipedia and find the article on the latest new genus, or stop by their favorite blogs, or check the social media chatter. In honor of a site that in all likelihood has outlived most actual thescelosaurs, here's a brief exploration of dinosaur information on the Internet.

How to find history on the Internet

The Internet is a universe of ephemera, and likes it that way. In this universe you have one friend: Internet Archive. IA has some limitations, though: it only goes back to 1996, it doesn't archive everything (message boards and forums, for example), and you need to know the URL of a site to find it. Probably the most troublesome part is that last caveat. If you're trying to look up something that existed 15 years ago, and all you remember is part of the name, you're not going to have much luck with IA. Thus, you need to look "sideways". The Dinosaur Mailing List Archives go back to February 1994, and paleontological websites were frequently mentioned. Another helpful source is the links pages of websites you've already found on IA. Period books also sometimes include lists of sites. For example, the first edition of The Complete Dinosaur (1997) has a text box featuring nine early institutional sites. Below are a few URLs for notable defunct sites, should you wish to go trawling through history. Some of these URLs have been usurped since their abandonment, which is why I didn't include active hyperlinks. These usurped versions can be found in IA as well. If you request a site and the timeline shows a long tail with few archived versions, it is likely that the tail represents another use of the URL. Similarly, a pronounced break in the history can represent the same thing. The former exists in the history for the .org version of Dino Russ's Lair, and the latter for the .com version.

Selected URLs for Internet Archive searches:
Dino Russ's Lair: http://www.isgs.uiuc.edu/isgsroot/dinos/ for much of its history, www.dinoruss.com or .org for the mid-2000s
DinoData: www.dinodata.net, eventually replaced by .org
Dinosaur Interplanetary Gazette: www.dinosaur.org
Dinosauria On-Line: www.dinosauria.com/
The Dinosaur Reference Center: www.crl.com/~sarima/dinosaurs/ for the 1990s
The Dinosauricon: www.gl.umbc.edu/~tkeese1/dinosaur/index.htm for the 1990s (cancel if it wants you do to something in Internet Explorer 6), dinosaur.umbc.edu/main/index.html or dinosauricon.com for the 2000s
The Official Dino Land Website: www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Galaxy/8152/dinosaurs.html, but archived more frequently at www.geocities.com/stegob

The pre-feather years

Paleontology and dinosaurs were represented on Usenet, although for dinosaurs the main claim to fame was hatred for Barney. The period 1994 to 1996 was when the first major online resources became available, beginning with the Dinosaur Mailing List Archives. Associated with the Archives at this early time were Dinosauria On-Line, perhaps the first one-person encyclopedia, and the earliest online version of George Olshevsky's Dinosaur Genera List. A message from T. Mike Keesey shows that early versions of two more influential sites, The Dinosauricon and the Dinosaur Reference Center, were active at this point as well, but they don't show up in IA until later. Also from this period were the Dinosaur Interplanetary Gazette, an online science magazine; Dino Russ's Lair, essentially the "canonical" web directory for dinosaur paleo; and the still-active Oceans of Kansas site. The earliest institutional-based websites (museums and universities, mostly) date from this period as well. On the whole, I've found institutional information sites to be disappointing. Museum sites usually aim for a general audience, and university sites often only last as long as the particular researcher who started them. Both types also seem peculiarly vulnerable to link rot. One towering exception is the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

Unlike some other niche interests, the online dinosaur paleo community is not known for a major forum or message board, the DML fulfilling most of these functions (outside of light, off-topic chit-chat).

The Age of Webrings and Online Encyclopedias

By about 1997, with the population on the Internet increasing, it had become easier and cheaper to get websites, and personal dinosaur websites were popping up widely. The golden age of the personal websites was roughly 1997 to 2004. The early crop was joined by a diverse group of sites, often linked together by one or more webrings, the idea being a sort of mutual advertising. Some of the more notable introductions of this period include DinoData, the Official Dino Land Website (created and maintained by a young Steve Brusatte, who went on to greater things), and the still-extant Palaeos (itself a combination of two personal sites, with interests far beyond mere dinosaurs) and The Theropod Database, from the tail end of this era. Other Mesozoic favorites received star turns as well, including plesiosaurs (The Plesiosaur Directory and The Plesiosaur Site, which both started out with a www in their urls) and pterosaurs (The Pterosaur Database).

Many of these sites did not feature huge numbers of images, this being a function of the vastly slower Internet and the smaller storage space allotted to users. Workarounds had to be devised, one of the most lasting being the "ASCII Tree" or "ASCII Phylogeny", where lots of ` and - and + are used to show relationships between taxa. It started at The Dinosauricon and has since spread widely. There are a couple of exceptions to the rule: sites often featured little banners of recognition from other sites, and occasionally you stumble across animated images, which now move ridiculously fast.

If you set up a personal website on dinosaurs, you were basically doing it because you loved dinosaurs and you wanted to share with like-minded people, or you had really fringe ideas and the personal website was a 1990s equivalent of a self-published book. It wasn't really a path to wealth or fame. Directly monetizing a dinosaur information website has proven to be an unfavorable business plan. A few people have tried to set up premium content, but it has never caught on, perhaps because most people are looking for who-what-where-when-size, basic facts that are given away for free on multiple online venues. This isn't to say you couldn't leverage a website to some extent. Think more along the lines of "something to put in a college application", or "credentials to give a talk to a local hobby club" or "be part of the community" or "make contact with professionals you admire". More recent blog writers have produced books incorporating material from their entries, but this is not strictly comparable to the various online dinosaur dictionaries.

The End of the Beginning

The majority of the personal encyclopedias faded away during the early and mid-2000s, with the authors finding other interests, deciding that the sites took too much time to maintain or were too expensive, or becoming stuck in ambitious overhauls. For whatever reason, new personal sites did not outpace the losses, the world perhaps having seen enough of quaint personal dinosaur encyclopedias. Similarly, traffic on the DML peaked in mid-2001 and fell off rather steeply going into 2003, when it began a long, gentle decline to present levels. It is not exactly clear why things should have slowed down, because the next few years would show that it is impossible to get people to stop writing about dinosaurs on the Internet. One very significant professional site that first appeared in this period is the Paleobiology Database (with older predecessors), although it would be several years before the public section started to resemble the modern version.

Posts to the Dinosaur Mailing List, assembled by copy-paste of the monthly archives and having Word search for "@"; about a month is missing in late January and early February 2014, and there may be other gaps.

Blogs, social media, and Wikipedia

Just as the Paleozoic marine communities of horn and tabulate corals, bryozoans, brachiopods, trilobites, and crinoids were replaced in the Mesozoic by scleractinian corals, bivalves, snails, sea urchins, fish, and (for a while) ammonites, the dominant dinosaur information venues of the early Internet changed from the DML and a host of amateur sites to blogs, social media, and Wikipedia. The switch occurred between about 2005 and 2008, beginning with the first blogs and ending with Facebook and Twitter being firmly entrenched.

A blog is in some ways comparable to a personal site, but it functions differently. While a personal site is often updated continuously, a blog has discrete entries that are usually left alone. A blog also usually has more of a community aspect, and is logistically simpler (you don't have to spend any money, for example). The growth of the dinosaur blogosphere is fairly easy to track because of the automatic archives. For example, here are some of the most influential early blogs in order of appearance. Links go to their current incarnations (Laelaps and Tetrapod Zoology have gone through multiple changes of address). Not all of them are still active.

Palaeoblog: February 2005
Tetrapod Zoology: January 2006
Laelaps: January 2006
Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week: October 2007
Dinochick Blogs: January 2008
Theropoda: January 2008
Dracovenator: May 2008 (replaced by A Fragment of Gondwana)
Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings: June 2008
Chinleana: August 2008

The explosive growth of Facebook began during this period, with Twitter following shortly thereafter, and at about the same time deviantArt was colonized by paleoartists. Because of the immense diversity of individual social media accounts, it is difficult to generalize about them, but in practice they function like a much more diffuse DML, where news is disseminated and interested parties offer brief (or not-so-brief) commentary.

The end for the personal dinosaur encyclopedia, at least in English, was heralded by the appearance of Wikipedia. Unless a personal site could provide something different, like detailed specimen lists or technical information, it was more or less redundant with a fully-formed Wikipedia entry, the latter also having the advantages of more stable resources, multiple editors, more aggressive inclusion of sources and images, and greater visibility to search engines. An article like that for Allosaurus, for example, makes the old personal sites look puny, and even the articles for obscurities are at least on par. The major period of growth for the WP Mesozoic vertebrate paleontology community was approximately 2005 to 2008, with some loss of momentum after that following the departure or reduced activity of several main contributors, and the harvesting of much of the low-hanging fruit (all genera getting articles, many of the "big names" with large articles). Interestingly, unlike other niche interests, there has never been a sustained wiki competitor to Wikipedia for paleontology, at least in the English-speaking world. This is probably due to how Wikipedia changed in the second half of the previous decade: many pop culture topics were clamped down on (cynically, I assume this was to make WP look more professional), so the contributors moved to dedicated wikis, but scientific articles were permitted to flourish, so their contributors were not motivated to fork the content. A substantial entry could be written on the English Wikepedia's paleontological sector, but that will have to wait for another time.

Wrap-up

Where will the dinosaur paleo community on the Internet go from here? Not being blessed with the ability to predict new venues, the takeaway I get is that the discussion will continue to diffuse. As new venues appear, people interested in dinosaurs will follow. On the one hand, following numerous social media accounts and blogs is not as simple as getting everything from the DML, which will probably continue to decline in usage. On the other hand, having more vehicles for communication is a good thing, because more people will be involved.

4 comments:

  1. As a relative newcomer to the online paleo community, this is an illuminating look back on how we got to where we are now. I sometimes go through the DML archives and am saddened that it is no longer as active as it once was, but social media outreach and quality blogs and Wikipedia articles are nice things to have. The fact that sites like yours and the DML remain standing at all (and are still useful resources) is no mean feat!

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    1. You're welcome! I think the more venues, the better, because when there's only a couple of modes of communication, you lose people who aren't interested or comfortable with those modes. (even if it does get complicated keeping track of everybody!)

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  2. Great write-up!

    Note that it wasn't even called the Dinosauricon when I wrote that message, but "The Dinosaur Web Page". (I could have sworn it was plural at some point.) I think I was taking Tom Holtz's "Topics in Dinosaur Research" colloquium at the time. A very early version had Greg Paul illustrations, but when I realized unlicensed usage on the web was illegal, I replaced them with my own. Rachel K. Clark and then Pete Buchholz sent me some of their illustrations shortly thereafter, and the gallery grew from there.

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    1. I'm glad you liked it! I was quite surprised when I stumbled over the message; before that, I thought both your site and the Dinosaur Reference Center dated to 1997, but that's probably just my own time bias.

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