All good things must come to an end, and while it was a long, wild ride, there were a number of problems “baked in” at the start, and a number of larger environmental factors, which meant that UCD Netsoc was going to have some large identity questions in the medium-term. At the time of writing (late 2015/early 2016), all I can find of the society is a Facebook page and a not particularly recently updated Twitter account. None of the websites or domains that used to be hosted are working, and as best I can tell, that might well be the intended outcome, and indeed the correct outcome, given the situation.There does appear to have been a number of events in 2015.

This would appear to contrast strongly with the other Dublin netsocs I’m aware of, TCD and DCU, both of whom still host their own pages; indeed, the DCU Netsoc, Redbrick, I believe has managed to hold onto the mantle of largest society in DCU. It seems like UCD Netsoc has morphed into what the Computer Society in UCD used to be, before Netsoc made it largely irrelevant in the mid to late 90’s – that is, the “default” society for that particular degree course.

Intersocks behind the couch

From my point of view, there were a few factors I would attribute this situation to.

In the first instance, the comparison with DCU is illustrative. When Redbrick came on the scene, it was 1996, one year later, and the college computing facilities were sufficiently advanced that the question of providing the most basic of connectivity services was already answered. So Redbrick didn’t need to focus on being a “dumb pipe”, a provider: it could focus, as so many ISPs early on wanted to, on building a sense of community, and having services for students, by students. This motivated the creation of e.g. the Redbrick MUD, discussion groups, and so on.

Indeed, the Redbrick experience was deeply influential on Margaret Synnott (neé McGaley), who discovered that she really wanted to do Computer Science after starting her Engineering degree in DCU, and went off to Maynooth to do C.S. and, not incidentally, replicate the Redbrick situation.

Mags states that the Maynooth Netsoc, called MINDS, “never got to the same status because it was in a different period. The time that Redbrick was set up, it wasn’t easy to get an email address, it wasn’t easy to get a website, and they made that possible. But MINDS had to compete with hotmail and gmail and so on.” (This was in 1998, Mags having encountered Redbrick in 1997.)Unfortunately, MINDS came a bit of a cropper because of some sloppiness when it was starting up. Mags: “When I was setting the society up, Redbrick donated a machine and I went to the sysadmin for the department and organised to get an IP and all that kind of stuff. It was actually badly done because he didn’t inform the College authorities that he was doing this, so later on, in a controversy I can’t remember around the Union of Students in Ireland, someone had this bright idea to get everybody emailing the Minister for Education to say, please don’t bring back fees, and somebody in Maynooth wrote a script to send five emails from your email address to the Minister, and someone in MINDS decided to edit that script, so that it was fifteen thousand emails or something, and knocked over the Department’s servers.” Well, at least the Gardai stayed out of it, but the Internet connection for the society was shut down for quite a while. This would seem to reinforce the notion that the 1995-1996 period was particularly crucial, but still does not account for the relative failure of UCD & Maynooth to replicate the Redbrick success.

Indeed, in UCD, we were starting from further behind, and had so many conflicting demands (and so little time) that we ran ourselves into burnout just doing the basics. I like to think our basics were pretty sophisticated, and lots of people were very grateful that we did them, but the focus on service provision led most of the social interactions to be peer-to-peer rather than group oriented: people logged on to chat to their friends, and not because of any particular long-lasting group identity separate from that friendship.

Additionally, the service provision work that we did dragged on for far too long, presumably precisely because Computing Services felt that we were doing a bang up job and saving them a crap ton of money, energy, and time. So when they got around to introducing undergrad access, and our service provision role fell away, membership cratered because there was nothing to keep people around, other than an association with Computer Science.

This is not to say that we were completely unsuccessful at the whole social thing; we ran a number of successful and very large events, and had for quite a while a regular pipeline of people interested in becoming society officers. But informal conversations with later auditors underlined the point that the health of the society was greatly dependent on the energy/time/skill levels of the individuals in question – one of the auditors likened it to an on-again, off-again relationship where the baseline enthusiasm just wasn’t consistently there.In the same conversation where he apologised to me, as men sometimes have this strange habit of doing, for becoming romantically entangled with my ex-girlfriend of about 10 years ago. It might also be claimed, and I haven’t made my mind up for this, that the student population of UCD might be more inclined to regarding these things as a platform which is to be provided for them, rather than something which might cause excitement in and of itself.For what it’s worth, today, they seem to be a fairly regular student society, but as I say, not interested in the platforms in and of themselves.

Another incredibly important point – and this is a lesson which definitely persisted into my experience with startups – the particular combination of starting-off people was uniquely powerful, with highly complementary and reinforcing skill-sets, and a strong vision. Partnerships and teams that work that well are damn rare, and you often don’t realise how well that was until you have a few other teams that don’t work so well under your belt.

Finally, as far as I know, both TCDFull disclosure: I was asked to help the startup phase of TCD Netsoc by Thomas Holmes, but I did very little and they did just fine without me. and DCU had a room that was their own, where they could put computers, have members chat, and so on. When UCD Netsoc was setting up, we didn’t have one – indeed, I think it was rare if not unknown for UCD societies to have rooms of their own – and I feel that this was perhaps another difficulty in creating a sense of community. We did have access to a room for training the sysadmin folks, but I recall it being shared, and not something that we could generally have people in. Photos of TCD Netsoc show the opposite. Physical space is very important, and we didn’t realise it because no-rooms-for-societies was the water we swam in, but if I was doing it over again I would try and fix that too.

It might also be that, as Internet connections have become pervasive, it’s simply not as interesting to be in that “business” and do your own thing. Innovation has moved out of the platform and into the application layer.

Minimum viable product

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that we were so popular in our early days. The reason I had that feeling of excitement, and of riding on the coat-tails of something big, was primarily because it was exciting riding on the coat-tails of something big. We’d managed to create a minimum viable product, in the business jargon of today, and people really wanted it, so they tried to get it. I also shouldn’t have been so concerned about getting permission because the society essentially did Computing Services’ job for them.

But we were trapped by the effect that some startups experience, of the minimum viable product being actually slightly too minimum, yet being compelled to maintain it. (I expect a similar effect pertains in evolution, where the simplest, stupidest possible thing that can reproduce, no matter how badly designed, will run away out of control in an otherwise safe environment.) We couldn’t really have scaled back with a straight face, so we were stuck with a lot of work to keep things going.

Apparently, historical theory comes in two flavours: “great man” theory, as was popular pre-1900, stating that all history (of significance) is the result of A Great Man, who takes it upon himself to Change Things, dammit; the other flavour states that, as Keynes says, many a great man is secretly a slave to societal effects, and society… historical tides, if you like… is actually the driving force behind what happens.“Men are as the time is”, as Shakespeare says, although I often say, but what is the time, except composed of the actions of men?

Having seen the rise and – well, not necessarily fall, but more quiet mutation – of a particularly obscure subgroup affected by wider changes, I’ve come to appreciate that change is a function of both the above. There are people who take events in their own hands and determine to changes things, come what may. They also might happen to have the larger sweep of history behind them. But whether the sweep brings the person tumbling to prominence, or tidies them under the rug, is difficult to predict. Wherever it ends, the journey has been fascinating.

Another fascinating journey was also ongoing for me at around that time - the struggle to name things correctly, which as any Computer Scientist will tell you, is one of the really hard problems in that profession.

Netsoc Rise and Fall - March 3, 2015 - Niall Richard Murphy