It's fashionable these days to scorn Usenet as a bastion of jerks, stalkers, bozos, spammers, and LCWs (loud, confident, and wrong), but the truth is there are still plenty of newsgroups that are still as useful as they ever were. My own personal hangouts are rec.sport.tennis, alt.showbiz.gossip, and uk.music.folk, and while I have to admit the first two of those are not in particularly fine form right now, nonetheless they are recognizably the same newsgroups I first joined back in - well, I think it was 1993.
Doubtless someone will now conduct a search and tell me I give myself too much credit and that I arrived much later.
I have no idea when my first posting was or to which newsgroup (most likely one of those, or possibly alt.religion.scientology), but apparently enough people think their Usenet inauguration is significant that Google has warned that while it's happy to accept suggestions for its timeline of memorable Usenet moments it can't include everyone's first postings.
Unfortunately, that means our favorite posters' first outings don't get memorialized, but the obnoxious Canter and Siegel's does (1994. Green Card. Spam that launched a million other spams.)
Of course, we all love saying that Usenet isn't what it used to be. We no longer have mythological events like the Great Renaming, the 1986 reorganization of the Usenet hierarchies. We have spam. We have warez. We have porn. We have infinite noise. And we have a horde of 40-year-olds panicked about what exactly they posted back when they were students. I can see the personnel managers rubbing their hands from here.
But my guess is that if you go back to the time when you could read all of Usenet in a single day (!) you will find it wasn't as much different as today's snobs like to think. As John McEnroe likes to say about his tennis, "The older I get, the better I used to be."
For one thing, every September the influx of the year's freshman class caused as much disruption as they cause in small towns, taking all the parking spaces, clogging the restaurants, and getting drunk and making a racket in all the wrong places. So every September you had the usual round of Make.Money.FAST until all the new bozos had been taught to behave - er, educated about community standards.
Yes, there were doubtless more academics posting in those days, people whom you now find only on the right mailing lists. On the other hand, there were still plenty of flame wars. It isn't because they were all polite, respectful, brief, and knowledgeable that the term Netiquette was coined or that Gene Spafford wrote (and maintained for 11 years) Emily Post News as a guide to how to behave online. And certainly the old-timers have nothing to boast about in their behavior towards AOLers, when they came streaming onto the Internet in their million-moron march in 1993 ("the year September never ended").
As a reposting to alt.best.of.usenet (one newsgroup that really used to be a wonderful resource and is unusable now) made plain, it wasn't AOLers' fault; they were software-disadvantaged. Kind of like they are now, with AOL 6 and AOL 7, which refuse to believe that such as thing as plain-text email exists.
What has been lost to Usenet as a whole is the sense of a small community that naturally sprung up when its population was 10,000 instead of millions and cross-populated newsgroups across the board. It's years since anyone emailed me saying something like, "Hey, don't I remember you from alt.fan.tv.mad-about-you?" - the fiefdoms are much too separate now.
We've also lost so many of those great jokes, often embedded in the names of newsgroups never intended to attract postings as much as to make people laugh when they logged on first thing in the morning and saw the newgroups list.
The thing is, instead of scorning Usenet, we should appreciate it. Usenet is, as many people forget, not dependent on the Internet. It began life running over UUCP, with news being exchanged at night directly between computers. That, and its hierarchical, text-based design make it accessible on much cheaper technology than the Web. If the Internet becomes as tightly controlled as Lawrence Lessig fears it is in fact becoming in his new book, The Future of Ideas, Usenet may wind up being important all over again as a free, accessible, public resource.
The Web is the downtown shopping area; it's the library; it's the movie theatre (or will be soon); it's the radio station; it's the newspapers and the corporate billboards. Usenet is the town square, with drunks and graffiti, and loud rock bands, and idiots with megaphones shouting out loud reminders about remaindered stock, and con artists, and people huddled in corners trying to have real conversations about things they love. Now that physical-world places like Times Square are being Disneyfied, there aren't many gathering spaces like it left.
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Save the Cookie
net.wars: Digital rights and the new era of world terrorism
Wendy M. Grossman, whose Web site is pelicancross ing.net, is author of From Anarchy to Power: the Net Comes of Age (NYU Press, 2001), net.wars (NYU Press, 1998), and the Daily Telegraph A-Z Guide to the Internet (Macmillan, 2001). She can be reached at this email address.
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