usenet, then and now

Posted on February 10, 2005

There’s an article over at Corante entitled “Many-to-Many: When usenet was the world…” which has struck a chord with me. It talks about how AOL has stopped offering usenet access because it is just not worth the cost of keeping the servers running.

The fact that usenet has become nearly useless these days (unless you’re a virus writer) and that it is ultimately doomed to go away and be forgotten is hardly news to me. My own company (an ISP) looks at the service in a funny way these days and I won’t be at all surprised when the order comes to axe the service. This will probably not happen very soon, but it will happen eventually, that’s for sure.

So what really got to me was the way in which the article at Corante is written. And this is because I too was a heavy usenet user for a long time. I too remember when usenet and email was nearly all there was to the Internet and it gave me a glimpse of the world through a perspective I could not have gotten any other way. Maybe it was because of this that I was so glad when I got to be in charge of the service at my company some years ago.

Yes, AOL created the “long September” and it may have ultimately doomed usenet in the process but let’s face it, it would probably have happened anyway. AOL is not single-handedly responsible for the Internet boom and the inevitable newbie plague that ensued. So maybe usenet could have continued to be a useful service for a few more years if AOL hadn’t opened the floodgates, that doesn’t mean the flood wouldn’t have come anyway, it might have been a bit delayed but it would have come anyway.

The fact is that when the Internet stopped being the playground of college students and a few other “elite” people and when we got to the point where granny at home uses the Internet to chat with her grandson across the globe and look at the pictures of his day-trip at school then a few basic Internet services of old where ultimately doomed. The newbies came and they did their best to get to grips with what there was available. Some things they understood, some others they didn’t. But most importantly, some things they just took for granted and didn’t care about.

In the end usenet was a very week structure in that it was very open. Anyone could abuse with great ease. For something like usenet to function people had to follow some simple civility rules. Oh sure, there were flame-wars, and memorable ones at that, usenet was the precursor of all those things, but in the end people used to follow some code or some “basic common sense” rules if you will, which allowed the debate to carry on, silly as it may have been.

But when too many people start barging in, creating a mess and then leaving without the slightest respect for other people and their discussions, when people who want to keep on talking and discussing things that interest them have to put up with more and more spam, one-time anonymous flamers and all the random junk that some people throw at them, then it is just not worth it.

In the end my view of it is that newbies (in particular AOL’s newbies) didn’t kill off usenet; stupid, inconsiderate people –either spammers or single individuals– did it. I truly believe that usenet could have withstood a barrage of newbies and the “long” or even “continual September”, what it could not withstand, not by a long shot, was simple, basic human stupidity.

It’s really kind of sad hanging around usenet nowadays, when most groups are filled to the brim with spam, others are just part of a huge virus-spreading or virus-updating network and only a few of my once favorite groups have any real traffic at all. On the other hand, those groups do tend to be coming back to what usenet was all about: just a bunch of people talking about something they like with people who share the interest. There are fewer people by far than there were a few years ago, but the fact is that the signal-to-noise ratio is higher now than I remember it being for a really long time.

Not that I believe in the resurgence of usenet as something useful, but I do get some comfort in seeing that there are others out there like me, old buffs who remember how it was once and how it could be so great.

There are many alternatives to usenet in the form of forums, specialized “chats” and even to some degree weblogs, but it’s just not the same. Not really.