An Ode to Usenet

Another day, another historic Internet artifact laid to rest. This week, it’s the Usenet server at Duke, where Usenet was born. This is just the latest in a string of developments signaling the imminent demise of the now-outmoded channel.

As I’ve written about before, my Internet roots are decidedly old school. In college, I was introduced to Usenet because it was a requirement for my communications survey course (bu.com.co101.announce, represent!). Using the UNIX client tin as my newsreader, I soon branched out to the groups surrounding writing and music, my two main areas of interest, and found communities that were as formative to my college experience as the Dragon World BBS was to my high school experience. Yessirree, it was a golden era, back when I still put two spaces after a period and had a 10-line .sig file complete with an ICQ number.

I spent the most significant amounts of my time in alt.music.barenaked-ladies, alt.music.dave-matthewsalt.music.ben-folds-five and rec.music.rem. The first two were high-volume, uber-fandom discussion groups, where we had a lot of great conversations about the respective bands and their music. The latter two contained fans of those bands, sure, but it was more about hanging out with each other than geeking out over the fandom. It probably makes sense that it is from those two groups where I acquired the most friends, a great number of whom I am either still in contact with or even correspond with regularly today. It also bears mentioning that the friends I made via Usenet are some of the coolest, most interesting people I have ever met.

I credit my Usenet experience with so much — expanding my music tastes to bands I may never have discovered otherwise; extending my social network across the country (and sometimes around the world) and forging some lasting friendships; providing me with an opportunity to write and pontificate and debate about music, thereby learning a great deal about both writing and music in the process. It was definitely higher education of the geekiest form.

As the web continues to evolve and the next Wave/Twitter/Foursquare/whatever comes down the pike, it pains me to see the bedrock of all this innovation left in the dust and not given its due. Every time I see an article describing hashtags as originated by Twitter users, I cringe. Hashtags, as a means of threading conversations, come from IRC usage. (Related: It’s actually quite cool to go back and read the early blog posts, shortly after Twitter came on the scene, by people proposing the use of things like hashtags.)

In the case of Usenet, it is the first place on the fledgling Internet where group conversation flourished (for better or worse), bringing people from around the world together around areas of common interest.  We might take such capability for granted today, but it was groundbreaking back then.

The web has its seeds sown deep in these now-clunky interfaces, but I don’t think it does a great job of paying homage to its past. Innovation is great — the web would be nothing without it — but I find it regrettable that we barrel forward without preserving our forebears in the collective memory. Is the only legacy in uncredited functionality? Is a short memory the price of innovation? (Related: I wish I had gone to ROFLcon II earlier this month if only to have attended Jason Scott’s “Heroes of Usenet” panel.)

But as with BBSes, it wasn’t the technology that made Usenet great; it was the people brought together by the technology. Earlier this week, I dredged up an old topic from the alt.music.ben-folds-five newsgroup to reference in an e-mail to a friend. Reviewing all of those old posts made me nostalgic, and I recalled some of the members of the newsgroup who I found particularly intriguing but never connected with, perhaps owing to age difference or other factors.

Among all the names and faces caught in my net of memory, who I often wonder about and sometimes search for, there are several from my Usenet days. Most of these folks I never met in person, much less IMed, but they left an indelible impression. I can’t help but wonder if Usenet meant as much to them as it did to me. What people and interests did it bring into their lives and what of those still remain?

If there’s one thing to be said for today’s web innovations, it’s that they sure makes it easier to try to find these people. Connectivity is the great legacy of the proto-web, and it’s growing every day. Sure, one historic server is shutting down. But a billion more will take its place, bringing those faded names and faces into ever sharper focus.

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3 responses to “An Ode to Usenet

  1. The death of usenet also saddens me. I suspect I’m a bit older (due to the band references) so I may be even more nostalgic for usenet. I also used tin and spent hours downloading updates by dialup and even more hours perusing threads and posting replies. It is so hard to explain why usenet was so much more interesting than any blog/forum but I’m sure it was because you had to read, think and compose; not just react with poor grammar and terrible spelling, quicker than the next guy. Note: no one was ever required to “register” to use usenet and there was no “site” to disappear and take all that archive with it. That is why I believe the web kills the promise of free intercourse that the original internet promised.

    nice post Georgy, thanks

    Mike

    • Thanks, Mike! I totally agree with what you mean by the “promise of free intercourse.” All of the information and conversation from systems like Usenet weren’t owned by anyone; it was all just there, in a giant common space. I thank Google for preserving it to some degree with Google Groups, but even then it is still now owned/managed by a company that could do anything it wants with that archive, including a toss to the curb.

      I was really, really mad in 1997 when the web was really becoming ascendant because it was killing BBSes, which were really DIY social networks. Luckily, Usenet was still thriving in the late 90s when I was in college. Now, when you go to old Usenet groups on Google Groups, half the posts begin “Not sure if anyone still reads this group, but…” It’s sad. I understand and embrace innovation, but… yeah. I still miss it and I wish more people were aware of our web roots.

      Some people describe Twitter as “public text messaging to the masses.” Maybe Usenet was “public e-mailing to the masses.” You somehow combined the intimacy and craft of personal communication with the diversity and conversation of a public forum.

  2. davidrobertlewis

    In apartheid south africa, usenet gave us the edge over the establishment. Activists relied upon it to spread information about the military dictatorship which had ceased power as a minority government.

    In countries where censorship is still practiced, usenet is an invaluable anti-propoganda tool. Wish there was something to replace it, a next generation system with the kind of indestructablity and intimacy of usenet.

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