North Wind And Sun

Snooping, Snitching, Looking – Why PlanWorld is Amherst’s best (secret) tradition

I want to tell you about PlanWorld, but it turns out that I probably shouldn’t. See, Planworld is a bit of a secret at Amherst, a closely guarded, and well-kept tradition that has done more to bring together Amherst College students than any fight song or football game. But, chances are that most Amherst’s students haven’t heard it, and its likewise a fair assumption that, for those who have, Planworld is either an enigma or a troublesome Pandora’s box better kept closed.

So let’s open it, at least slightly, with a bit of history. PlanWorld is a product of the Internet before the Internet was cool, a barebones, text-based social network created by Amherst students in the 1980s. It is, in that respect, a dinosaur relative to far more popular networks like Facebook, MySpace, and Livejournal – but for many, that’s a part of its charm: It’s text-focused, text-centered, all about the text. Sure, with a little bit of HTML knowhow, users can post images and videos, and do all sorts of wizardry – but the core of Planworld is that its used to convey thoughts.

This, naturally, has put many potential users off. In the Facebook era, images and videos rule, and explaining to an Amherst Facebook user the benefits of taking the PlanWorld plunge is often a difficult affair. The Internet, for better or for worse, has moved on, leaving ancient text-based services like PlanWorld lounging lazily in the past. This, of course, is just fine with many PlanWorld users, who have grown highly protective of their community. Recall earlier this year when Facebook nearly committed userbase seppuku by making the jump to a tabbed interface, a change that most users have since gotten along with. Well, take that reaction, square it, add a few PlanSurveys, and extended cross-Plan arguments, and you have the typical Planworld reaction to just about any interface change. The addition of a WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) editor caused quite an outcry, and the more recent efforts by some alums to revamp the New Athenian and make it cross compatible with PlanWorld have likewise not been taken well.

But none of that is too particular to the PlanWorld community. Tweaking a social network is like altering a part of the users’ bodies, and very rarely are interface changes initially applauded. The problem, however, for PlanWorld, is that this lack of change over the past ten years or so has created an extremely stagnant community. Thus while one would find very few current Amherst students using PlanWorld, there is an abundance of alumni who are very much dedicated to it. And, as the years go by, as numbers of new members continues to dwindle, these dedicated become more and more protective. As a result, there has for a long while been rumblings of a Amherst College administrative takeover of the service, with the College being interested in using PlanWorld as an alumni-organizing tool.

After while it becomes clear that the PlanWorld situation is a self-perpetuating trend: New users don’t dive in because they don’t know where to start and people that do join find that they don’t know anyone that’s using it.

But here is the gist of it: PlanWorld doesn’t hold hands. It relies on a bit of adventurousness, as well as a taste for more intimate communication than services like Facebook and MySpace are able to afford. This is why many are so protective of it – its a small community, sure, but its one built on a philosophy that transcends friend counts and inane applications.

But that doesn’t mean that new users shouldn’t be helped along. Everyone has to start somewhere, and in the sprit of that certainty, I offer a brief primer to PlanWorld for those curious enough to get started.

1) PlanWorld is what the user makes of it. Your Plan is a blank slate, allowing you to effectively do whatever you want with it. Rant, feud, journal, post your writing, your contact information – the possibilities are pretty much endless. Just don’t expect anything flashy.

2) Snitch! Snoop! Finger! Snitch allows you to keep track of all your stalkers (or readers – its sometimes hard to tell the difference) in a simple one-page format. Snoop lets you know when someone links to your Plan. These are two of PlanWorld’s most important features, and once you master them, they will open up many doors. Also, by typing ‘random’ in to the box marked “finger,” you will be taken to a random plan. This is likewise key to getting the most out of PlanWorld.

3) All you need is friends. PlanWorld, unsurprisingly, instantly becomes more welcoming once you know people using it. Of course, chances are you won’t know many people in your first ventures into PlanWorld. That sorts itself out soon enough, as, once you start posting, people will eventually take notice. Moreover, the PlanWorld community regularly has actual fleshy get-togethers like the PlanWorld tailgate and Apocalypse, the annual (since 1999) PlanWorld party.

4) Just explore. Honestly, none of what PlanWorld has to offer is going to be compelling unless you dive in and try things out. It’s not difficult – just head over to http://neon.note.amherst.edu/planworld/, log in, click edit, post something, and let the rest take hold. Also, try this – once you do get your feet on the ground, link to my Plan via !Rbilton10!.I’m sure we will become the best of PlanWorld friends.

(Originally published 3 December 2008 in The Amherst Student)

One Response

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  1. Daniel Kauwe said, on 12-December-2008 at 1:02 am

    Oh the 1999 Planworld party
    That was a crazy group
    James Hunter, now that’s a character


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