Despite his young age, Tom Murphy (pictured) has led an eventful life. He founded Spin Solutions, a software company, only to see it become a casualty of the economic slowdown; he co-founded Electronic Frontier Ireland to promote digital communications. But it was for his work in founding Boards.ie, a public online meeting place where people can exchange views on a wide range of topics, that he is best known. In December, he was awarded the Irish Internet Association’s Net Visionary Award.
Ironically, Murphy would never have founded Boards.ie if he hadn’t won a bet with his friend John Breslin. Breslin had been trying to register his nickname ‘Cloud’ as a domain with IE Domain Registry (IEDR). However, at the time, IEDR policy prevented the registration of generic terms. At around the same time, Breslin and Murphy had been discussing setting up a public bulletin board system similar to the one they had set up based around the Quake computer game. After his experiences with the IEDR, Breslin was not confident that the chosen name could be registered. “So I made him a bet,” says Murphy. “If I secured the domain name, would he build the site? And he agreed. Murphy then proceeded to change the name of his company from Spin Solutions to Boards for one day, gathered all the paperwork and submitted it, and was granted rights to the domain. “True to his word, John put the site together,” says Murphy.
According to Murphy, one of the biggest societal impacts of the internet has been to allow people to find like-minded people. “A lot of that is why Boards.ie exists,” he says. “If you look at its societal impact it brings together people of like minds who would never have found each other previously. IrelandOffLine is a good example of that. Some people were unhappy with the Government because of the broadband situation. They could have talked individually to politicians but that’s not very effective. But, put those people together, which is what we did with Boards.ie, and you have a critical mass of people who are all angry. It’s the difference between a raindrop and a tidal wave.”
However, as Murphy points out, it needn’t be a cause that brings people together. There are now thriving communities in Ireland based around activities such as the poker, racing or scuba diving that came together because forums were set up on Boards.ie. “That’s just a microcosm of what has happened on the internet in general. People have the ability to speak to the masses without having to take an ad in the paper. Before the internet, you had to do something major to get onto the radio or TV. That’s gone now. You can say what you want.”
One thing that’s on the way out is the stereotype of the internet nerd, closeted away with no contact with the outside world save through their computer. On the contrary, says Murphy, the internet is bringing people together. “I organise to get together with like-minded people through the internet. Another difference it is going to make is removing the geographical locality imperative. People aren’t going to get to know their neighbours as often … So in that sense maybe people will become more isolated but I don’t think so. Ireland is one of the few countries where that happens. You are more likely to see groups of people meeting up having first met on the internet rather than people sitting there all night and day chatting on the internet.”
In order for the internet to survive as a tool for the people at large, however, certain issues will have to be tackled. One of the most important, in Murphy’s view is the liability for libel. “Everything that’s said on Boards.ie is a liability to me,” he says. “You’re not responsible for what you say. I am. That’s a disgrace in a developed country. We need to change that law to make individuals responsible for what they say. The reason I am so keen to see that law changed is that it is a very convenient way for anyone to shut down the public speaking ability of individuals. You can have the freedom of speech all you like, but if you have nowhere to talk or sites on which to publish, you are in trouble. To reach the masses requires one centralised place and one centralised place is one centralised target.”
If the internet does survive, however, Murphy predicts that we will be using it in much the same way that we do now with a few differences. “One of the things I would see being more common would be video interaction. Most laptops and computers are sold with webcams now. They will become built in and they will become higher quality. It will become increasingly common for the internet to be just on. The broadband revolution will be over and there will be greater integration between your Xbox and your TV.” These, he says, will lead to a massive change in the delivery of entertainment. “You will see entertainment being streamed down with on-demand becoming increasingly common. The internet will invade the front room through applications such as the Xbox and through internet-aware TV and personal video recorders. It will become common but less obvious. It will just be there and you will use it like electricity.”
In the shorter term, however, Murphy has plans for Boards.ie. “We don’t have or want financial backing. Everything Boards.ie does is supported by the community and I want to keep it that way.”
By David Stewart