Friday, May 21, 2010

Interred with their servers

Usenet meant a lot to me, at one time. Specifically, the time between 1997 and approximately 2001. I spent most of my spare time there; I made a reputation, I made friends, some of whom graduated to real-life friends; I met my wife there. If that doesn't qualify me to feel nostalgic for it, I don't know what would.

So it's with some sorrow that I read about the death of Usenet. While this death has been reported many times before, this time it probably means something.

For my less-technical readers: Usenet is (I'll use the present tense for now) a worldwide network of computers, called servers, that exchange messages. The messages are written by people - ordinary people, like me for instance - who "post" them to their local server (in much the same way as one might write and "post" an e-mail), addressed to one or more "newsgroups". Once posted, a message is promptly copied ("propagated") between hundreds or thousands of other Usenet servers in the world - this process normally takes a few tens of seconds - and subsequently read by other people, anywhere, who "subscribe" to the newsgroup you addressed it to. Anyone who reads it then has the option to reply, in the same medium.

Discussions - sequences of replies stemming from an original post - commonly go on for several days, often running to scores of posts from a dozen or more participants. A long post might spin off half a dozen tangents, and people will commonly pick on just one detail to reply to; so you frequently find yourself conducting many different, distantly-related discussions with different people. And (and I think this is the aspect that appealed most to me) all of them can read what you're saying to all the others; so you have to be either consistent or clever, or at least witty. You could take as long as you liked to compose a reply, and there was always the option of not replying at all; but if and when you did reply, it had better be consistent with what you'd written before.

It's a medium that encourages both thought and honesty. So maybe it's not surprising that it's dying.

It has its problems, of course. Spam is one - although it's not nearly so intractable on Usenet as it is in e-mail, thanks to a mechanism called "cancelling". Anonymity and anarchy can be problems: it's a perfect forum for bullies, and for loons with too much time on their hands. Usenet gave us the concepts of "flame wars" - the exchange of written insults as a form of competitive performance art - and "trolling" - the art of provoking thoughtless responses from people who haven't been around long enough to know better.

Worst of all, it popularised the form of debate that has since become known as "fisking" - line-by-line dissection of an opponent's argument - which, I think, has done a lot to shape the over-cautious, content-free journalism of our time. Journalists soon realised that no well-written article can withstand fisking (it's named after Robert Fisk - possibly the greatest journalist of his generation - because he was the most popular target for the (American) right-wing political bloggers who coined the term). The only effective defence is, simply, to avoid saying anything that it's possible to disagree with.

So why am I sad that all this is gone? Is it just nostalgia?

Well, it's interesting to note that all the bad effects are still with us. Spam, cyber-bullying, trolling and flaming and fisking - all these have outlived the medium that gave birth to them. But the good effects - that open, free discussion - that's gone.

On the web, discussion is relentlessly compartmentalised and, increasingly, professionalised. If you want to make friends on the web, you find a 'social networking' site, give them your personal details, agree to their rules, submit to their censorship, and generally put yourself at their mercy. What should be a free exchange between peers has been replaced by a commercial relationship, between users (who are, at best, a commodity), and site owners (who are gods).

If you wanted to make friends on Usenet, you just joined a group that interested you and started posting; you revealed precisely as much or as little about yourself as you wanted. You could present yourself as serious or frivolous, serenely wise, icily logical, tempestuously romantic or tortuously dadaist - all in the same day, if you could manage it. You could enter a discussion about the ageing of a fictional character between books in a series, armed with nothing more than a nodding acquaintance with literary criticism, and emerge with a wife. All of it without paying a cent.

"The evil that men do lives after them." The same, it seems, is true of technologies.


Anonymous said...

Speaking as a usenet fan for many years, I too mourn its passing. Usenet was a commons: free, open, and equal (or meritocratic, in that you gained karma by earning it) and fundamentally democratic. The web-based fora that have drawn its lifeblood are an enclosure of the commons, and impose a hierarchy that is at best benign dictatorship.

It seems to me that what happened was down to ignorance. Web fora happened "because we can" (I played some part in that myself back in about '95-97), the greedy saw it and made a land-grab (not guilty there m'lud), and usenet had no mindshare amongst journos reporting the 'net, or wannabes jumping on the ISP bandwagon. Generations of newcomers never saw the commons!

I'd say the best replacement we have today is not the "social networking" site (shudder), but rather the blog, and its community centre the aggregator/planet. Saying that, it's easy to see what we've lost: it's the ease with which a newcomer with a valuable contribution to offer can come to the attention of a community and earn respect. The blogosphere is great for ongoing relationships, but doesn't make it easy to make new friends.

vet said...

I agree, both about what we lost and how it happened.

I'd add one more factor that played in to the demise, though: elitism, on the part of the Useniks themselves. Many of them didn't want their little happy place being 'discovered' by the unwashed masses, and so they not only never evangelised it, they actively tried to suppress anyone else's attempts to do so. If a journalist ever did take an interest in Usenet, it was easy enough to distract them by showing them those web fora instead.

In recent years, if you've been reading Slashdot, you'll have seen a very common meme that says "We don't talk about Usenet". The ostensible reason is that Usenet binaries were a widely-used medium for sharing copyrighted content, and we didn't want to draw the attention of the copyright police.

I don't know if that's true - I never used binaries groups, nor did most people I knew. But I'm sure it also played into the culture of elitism.

niq said...

Don't think I observed much of that elitism. In fact, where I did see elitism was in the scorn poured on innocents who came to usenet through some web gateway, thinking they were posting to a forum at a website. If I ever got into that subject, I would try and steer any vitriol going towards the owners of websites that were misappropriating the commons (dejanews/google mostly excepted 'cos they added real value).

If you're thinking about disparaging references to "clueless newbies" or the perpetual September, the operative word is not newbies but clueless. Newbies who behaved sensibly, took hints, and only had to be pointed at FAQs once, were always welcome. Those who refused to learn and persistently made asses of themselves, not. But such is the order of things in pretty-much any social group.

btw, I too never touched a binary on usenet. Nor do I think I knew anyone who did.

btw2, posting to your blog is a pain: it regularly gives b***** unhelpful error messages. Right now it's "OpenID error", so I'm trying without ID.

vet said...

That's true - newbies were, by and large, welcomed so long as they showed themselves willing to accept the local rules (e.g. not top-posting, trimming quotes, using spoiler space, limited content-free posting). But I do recall, several times, having discussions - either face to face or online - with people who definitely felt that 'Usenet' was Theirs, and they didn't want too many new people thronging on to their newsgroups.

Maybe I'm oversensitive to these things. The groups I mostly played in had a well-oiled system for welcoming newbies, and I always tried to do my bit in talking to them and defusing tensions when they blundered, so long as I believed they were in good faith. I recall a couple of conversations where I tried to persuade people that it was a Bad Thing that no new names had started posting regularly for maybe six weeks. But even so, I don't think any of us wanted more than a steady trickle of newbies.

I've had trouble with 'OpenID' myself - gave up on it in the end. I don't know if that's just bugs or bad exception handling in OpenID itself, or if Google's actively trying to sabotage it - both seem pretty likely to me.