Monday, June 14, 2004

Considering the Usenet

I'm not sure at what point one starts the era of popular use of the Internet, but when I got on in 1995, there weren't a lot of us. So, it's kind of sad, within 10 years, to realize that there's a large crop of Internet users who know little or nothing about Usenet.

Let's go back...waaaaay the mid-1980's and early 1990's. Back then, we dialed up our 2400 bps modems (yes, that's 2400, not 24000)and connected to Bulletin Boards (BBS). BBS's were where people went to chat, exchange information, or get technical support. Often these involved long distance toll calls, yet it was worth it because the quality of discussion on technical BBS was high. Of course, there were arrogant so-and-so's and outright idiots, but they either got moderated out or ignored.

Then along came CompuServe and it's forums. They had a forum for every topic under the sun, about all of which were moderated. You never knew who might turn up posting; Halton Arp, a controversial astronomer who has a whole family of odd-ball galaxies named after him, used to post on the Astronomy forum. Microsoft and Novell forums had developers and engineers posting solutions to problems. Graham Cluley, who you will see quoted in an article about the latest virus or worm, was with an outfit called Dr. Solomon (which got bought and destroyed by McAfee) used to post regularly in the Antivirus forum.

Now all this time, the Internet has the Usenet. In the old ARPANET days, scientists, engineers, economists, and other scholarly types would make a posting, called an "article", available to the 'net for comment.

(Slight diversion: Articles would often reference other articles. To make these easier to get to, a guy name Tim Berniers-Lee applied a concept called "hyperlinking". Click on the hyperlink and you got the referenced document. Of such humble beginnings was the World Wide Web born--child of the Usenet.)

As time went on, articles of similar interest were grouped into "newsgroups". As the ARPANET became the Internet, people began stumbling onto these newsgroups and starting their own groups. Some began to post binary files (the original place for music sharing). The Usenet was rough and ready with relatively few moderated groups; language could get pretty coarse, and a mildly controversial comment could get you flamed into submission.

(Second diversion: I once had the "honor" of being royally flamed by one of the original developers of Windows NT, for saying that Windows 95 was preferable to NT 3.51. If you never used NT 3.51, well, consider yourself lucky. Evidently, though, he took it personally. I'll have to write that story up sometime.)

(Third diversion: "Spam" started out as a Usenet headache. Technically, an article was "spam" if it was crossposted to many groups at the same time. It didn't have to be an ad. In fact, more often than not, the post was a rant or manifesto of little interest to most of the groups. "Velveeta" was a post that also posted to many groups, but it was individually posted, so that the "To:" section didn't reflect the crossposting.)

Ok, the story has gotten long, so let me start to wrap it up. As more and more people hit the Internet and started dropping in on the Usenet, the number of posts grew, but the number of good or useful posts dropped. Gradually, people looking for specific topic information gravitated to web-based forums, reducing the good posts even further. Technical groups lost most of the developers and engineers, to be replaced with newbies asking where the "any key" was who got answers from wanna-be know-it-alls who, of course, know little or nothing.

I used to post a modest amount on the Usenet, but I made my last post about a year or two ago. I quit reading at all a few weeks ago. Between RSS feeds, blogs, and Google, I can get the info I need when I need it. But, it's not the same.

What I regret most is that I'll probably never be able to get into a flame war with a developer of Longhorn.

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