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OLO: here's to the next ten years

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 6 April 2009

Any journal can do a retrospective. I've seen plenty of them. But On Line Opinion doesn’t aspire to be just "any journal", so to celebrate our tenth birthday we've decided to do a prospective.

It doesn’t seem like ten years since I sent out an email to my 20 best friends asking whether anyone was interested in setting-up a new journal. In fact, that was probably ten-and-a-half years ago.

Lionel Hogg was the only one who said "Yes", and we then spent some months talking about what an Internet journal should do that a traditional hardcopy one couldn’t, or wouldn’t.


At last we decided that talk was one thing, but talk informed by practice was much better, and that called for an action research project. We decided to "just do it". So in April 1999 On Line Opinion was born, published using a laptop and Microsoft FrontPage from a location in Coorparoo not too far from where I am writing this.

The first edition consisted of six articles by Bryan Horrigan , Chris Sidoti, David Moore, Nick Ferrett, Everald Compton and me. Three of the articles centred around the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's Bush Talks, starting our tradition of features where writers take a variety of opposing positions. The other two were about the future.

Everald Compton wrote about his vision for an inland railway, 10 years on seemingly no closer to fruition, while Bryan Horrigan made 10 predictions about Native Title law.

These last two were emblematic of the fact that we didn’t just want to ventilate current arguments, but to start new ones about what might happen before other media had become interested in them.

So it is only appropriate that in our tenth year we invite contributors (of whom there have been a total of 3,071 to date) to make predictions for the future.

It is also fairly brave, as who, looking forward in 1999, would have predicted where we would be today.


1999 was the year after Pauline Hanson's One Nation won 22.7% of the vote in the previous Queensland election making it the second biggest political party in the state. In fact, while I did predict that One Nation would burn out, this win was one of the catalysts for initiating OLO as it seemed to me that some Australians were being undeservedly marginalized in debate. The result of this marginalization was movements like One Nation. We wanted a journal where anyone, no matter what their philosophy, could publish, believing that robust debate is the best way of dealing with wrong beliefs.

Will there be another One Nation in the next ten years? I don’t think so, although no-one could have predicted One Nation even a year before it happened, let alone ten. But what I do think we will see in the next ten years is the continuing growth of Independents. This will be as a result of the decline in the standard of candidate selected by the major parties, as well as the network opportunities offered by the Internet. Organisations like GetUp are just the beginning.

GetUp demonstrates that the long tail can be leveraged by gathering a left-leaning disenfranchised demographic together and giving them a much stronger and focused political voice. The next innovation, which has occurred in the US, but not yet here, will be to turn this into actual representation in legislatures, most probably through the opportunities provided by upper houses.

On Line Opinion hopes to play its part in this diversification of politics by providing a platform for new stars to make a name for themselves. Because of our philosophy of "gate-keeping lite", a relatively open architecture approach to publishing ideas, along with the fact that mainstream media regularly comb us for story ideas, the opportunity is there for thinkers and doers to start to build public awareness of themselves and what they stand for.

1999 was notable for other things. In March that year NATO launched airstrikes against Yugoslavia, undoubtedly a war crime. Again we broke ground. Vladimir Sukalovic was then a student in Belgrade, and as the civil infrastructure crumbled around him sent us posts on what it was like to be on the wrong side of democracy. I recruited Vladimir using ICQ, and his first post was in our second edition.

Now it is commonplace to hear from people on the other side of a war via blogs, or broadcasters like Al Jazeera whose material is freely available over the Internet. In the next ten years I am sure that this will become more prevalent, but no more effective in stopping these wars, than was Vladimir.

The Yugoslav conflict was a different type of war. It was a pre-emptive strike and probably the first time we were bombing for democracy, not to defend our countries, or an ally. Had the Yugoslavian conflict not succeeded in producing democracy in the Balkans I doubt whether George W Bush would have been persuaded to invade Iraq.

Now Bush and Bill Clinton have gone it doesn’t make pre-emptive strikes less likely. I predict that Barack Obama will be just as interested in them, but will be constrained by the size of the US budget deficit.

In November 2003 we asked if this was the Chinese century. I’m not sure that it will be, but I am absolutely certain that it won’t be another American century. Kevin Rudd is right to be spreading himself around because we need to make new friends. He's wrong to be neglecting the countries that will make the most difference to us in the longer term – India, Russia and Brazil. But OLO won’t be neglecting them, with a look at Brazil our feature for May this year.

In some ways the Great Depression made the US. This depression is unmaking it. Not that it won’t continue to be a significant economy, but that the measures that it is taking now will institutionalize low growth and low productivity, hobbling it and increasing the time that it takes to recover and allowing other countries to surpass it. It won’t get another deal like WWII.

It may also be a significant set-back to Australia if we continue to copy US economic policies. 1983 saw the worst recession since the Great Depression (until now) and was used by Paul Keating to modernize the Australian economy. Floating exchange rates, low tariffs and a robust banking system, strengthened by increases in flexibility in the workforce and large government surpluses under the Howard government, mean that Australia has done better than most countries in the current circumstances.

Yet the present government is using the Global Financial Crisis to start unpicking much of this valuable work in the pretence that it can cushion Australia from the effects of the crisis. Where is the heir to Keating who can turn the crisis into impetus for further genuine reform? Where is the concentrated intellectual opposition to these government policies?

We seem to have come to the end of the classical liberal reform period. 10 years ago it was weakening, and 10 years of continuous growth since then, as well as the 8 before, have convinced voters that affluence is their birthright, a payment received in return for just turning up. Ask Geoff Huegill. It's one thing to be world class, it's another to stay there, and it is much harder to come back once you've left.

Another momentous event 10 years ago was the imposition in January 1999 of restrictions on Internet use in China. Since then the "Great Firewall of China" has become a global joke, so who would have thought that our own government would plan to implement one here?

My prediction is that Australia's Great Firewall will be an expensive failure, but that nevertheless the Internet will become less free. This will be through the actions of lawyers and litigants using lowest common denominator defamation laws in whatever country suits. Just as the Internet makes international boundaries porous it also makes publishers and writers much more subject to foreign jurisdictions than they have ever practically been before.

While Vladimir may be free to say what he says in his own country, it is by no means certain that he, and I, might not commit a crime by publishing him in a country like, say, Australia, if what he said was deemed to be contrary to our national security interests.

Which brings me to another consideration. OLO was first and foremost an eDemocracy initiative. In the first years I felt considerable urgency to launch a whole suite of projects, because if we didn’t someone else was certain to see the possibility and do so. A decade later the potential of the Internet for democracy is still unrealized.

I’m not sure that it will ever be realized. Or that if it is, it won’t be mostly in a business as usual way. I referred to GetUp earlier on as showing how the long tail can be leveraged. But GetUp is really just an alternative type of political party. It doesn’t give members a real say in policy, and it stands for only a small, if significant, minority.

The potential that we saw in the Internet was to make it easier for voters to talk to each other and to those who form, influence and administer policy, as well as to politicians. We thought that it would provide a venue where the whole resources of the community could be brought to bear on common problems when and as they arose. We thought it could add to social capital by increasing civility and understanding.

It hasn’t done that over the last ten years, and my fear is that in the next ten it will actually tend to raise global "nervous anxiety" by increasing the speed of dissemination of ideas and undermining the institutions, like newspapers, that used to provide checks on what found its way into the public domain.

Modern societies run on trust, and the risk, and the likelihood, is that the Internet will make for a less trustworthy environment. Political organisations acting like GetUp will make sure that is so.

One thing that struck me about the contrast between 1999 and now is how little has really changed. With the notable exception of climate change, most of the sorts of concerns we had then are still with us.

So my last prediction is this. In the next ten years we may do business differently, but it will still be the same business. On Line Opinion was a Web 2.0 project conceived before the term had been invented. In 2019 we may well be onto Web 4.0, but it is very likely that it will be much the same thing, and I predict that we will still be there to see it unfold.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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