Tag Archives: bbs

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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My First Social Network Was The Best

My first online experiences were on bulletin board systems (BBSes), specifically the South Florida BBS Dragon World.  While I’ve been online since I was 15 (1995), and on the web since I was 16 or 17, I still think that my experiences on Dragon World rank among my best and most formative in the online sphere for one simple reason: the people.

DW was perhaps the greatest socializing element I could have hoped for as an only child with a spotty record in the realm of friendship. It provided immersion in a deep social pool with a diversity of ages, backgrounds and, of course, neuroses. Through our online and offline interactions, we formed crushes, friendships, hatreds, the whole gamut. Many of those people I am still in touch with; it was through one of my DW friends that I met my husband.

While DW was a full-service BBS offering gaming, forums and private messaging, it revolved around the teleconference, or tavern. Some of my favorite memories of DW are from logging on late on a Friday or Saturday night — or attempting to log on, since it was just a 24-line BBS — to a completely full teleconference. (Check out this blast from the past.) The list of users and where on the BBS they were located was one of the first things you saw upon logging in, and seeing a whole long column that read “Teleconference” always made my day. I knew immediately that I was in for a good time. I mean, imagine walking into a room full of 24 people that ranged from close friends to good acquaintances and having infinite conversational possibilities at your fingertips. Wouldn’t you feel pretty damned good?

Over the years, as I became a more avid user of the web, those types of moments would rank among my favorites. Some of my best memories from senior year in college are sitting in AIM Buddy Chat with my friends from the R.E.M. Usenet group, just chattering on and on about music and life. 

The More Things Change…

As a web professional, it amazes me how in many online trends nowadays, I see echoes of the features I took for granted on DW and other “old” online mediums. Live chat? From a UNIX shell, all I needed was the “talk” command to have real-time chat with anyone else online at the time. SuperPoke? Old hat. Heck, I was Actions-Op on DW before the inventors of SuperPoke probably even had an e-mail address. I could “hug nit” to give Nitrogenous Base, the handle my husband used on DW for a short time, a hug. (In IRC chatrooms, you craft actions on the fly by prefacing a sentence with “/me.”) A friend of mine recently observed that AIM away messages are the grandfather of the modern-day Facebook or Twitter update. Perhaps the same is true of the entrance and exit messages we used to have in DW’s tavern. Also, how many people realize that the hashtag (#) you use on Twitter to thread topics and create a backchannel was inspired by IRC? We’re doing the same things we’ve always done, but with slicker GUIs.

But as for that giddy thrill I used to experience upon logging in to a packed tavern on DW, I’ve had glimmers of it pop up every now and again on Twitter and Facebook with particularly active chains of @ replies and comment threads off of status updates. But never to the same degree. As for Buddy Chat, I can’t remember the last time I had one.

Part of what made DW special, I think, is that it was a collective experience, but also a collective journey. We all had to dial-in, jockey for a line and navigate our way to the teleconference. Also, we had a lot of overlap between our online and offline lives; DW was a regional BBS, so we all lived within an hour’s drive of each other. There was not a whole lot of multitasking back then, either; people were focused, engaged and committed to the experience at hand. With Facebook and Twitter, maybe people are multitasking, or maybe they’re on the go and posting from their phone.  It’s harder to get a sense of people being in a room with you, bathed in the glow from the screen, sharing in the moment. I feel like the closest we get to that nowadays are the trending topics on Twitter, which engage people around a common topic and encourage interaction. But that, in my mind, is a poor substitute.

So why is that feeling of community in the moment so hard to recapture? Isn’t the social web supposed to be all about conversation? Am I just too old or too distracted now to feel the same way I did back then? Am I inured to it all?

Maybe it’s not about the medium or the moment. Just like it was back then, it’s about the people. At that time, for who I was back then, being part of the DW community was exactly what I needed, and it brought me more than I could have ever hoped for. Of course tapping into that community would make me feel alive.

So, sure, you can have the slickest, most advanced social web tools out there, but if you can’t find a community that means something to you, what’s the point? I look forward to hopefully, one day, finding another online community that enriches my life the way DW did. I’ll know I’ve found them when I feel that smile creep involuntarily across my face as I am filled with giddy anticipation, and a tiny voice inside me exhales and says, “I’m home.”