Hello, world

Well, I just flew in from DC, and boy, are my arms tired. But seriously, folks….

It’s a fine thing to be asked to guestblog by the eminent Dr. Oilcan, and I’ll do my best to entertain you sporadically over the next few weeks. Like he said, I first met Chad back in his Usenet days, which was back in my Usenet days as well. That’s obvious, yeah, but it’s key that we both refer to time on Usenet as long past. I haven’t read or posted to a newsgroup in five years, and even then my interest had been pretty much dead for a couple years.

I first encountered Usenet as a wide-eyed undergrad in the fall of 1994, where I completely embarrassed myself by stumbling into a well-established group in the rec.arts hierarchy devoted to a middling yet addictive sf writer, and asking stupid questions. It was 1994, though, and the old farts by then had realized that SeptemberNet was soon to be perpetual, and my faux pas (plural) were, well, not forgiven, but pretty much ignored. By 2000, I was in grad school, had largely lost interest in the author, and in general the scene seemed played. Soon after, Usenet was dead (to me.)


In between, I made a lot of friends. I didn’t much care for the book discussions after a year or two, but the off-topic banter and general social feel of the newsgroup was a big part of my life. I went to meatspace get-togethers in several cities, including an international gathering in Vegas, watched several people become schmoopy after meeting on the group (sadly not me, as my only maudlin pining was for a grouchy, bearded electrical engineer, who while in possession of a heart of gold wanted nothing to do with me), and maybe even became a better writer. I also was called a Nazi, I think, but back then you weren’t anybody on Usenet until somebody called you a Nazi in the heat of some too-long thread.

My friend Allyson talks about her fancy web-based Interwebbe community of the early-to-mid oughts in the same way; while I never could stand the whole web-board look-and-feel, the experience she describes rings a bell. As a shameless plug, I’ll tell you to go buy her book that’s kind of about that community. It’s a good read, especially if you’re into the personal essay thing. I’m typically not, and I dislike David Sedaris and especially Sarah Vowell, which I know makes me some particularly low Philistine. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it; she writes well about her experiences with “virtual” communities, and if you have a few bucks, pick it up. If you shoplift it be sure to send me a few bucks, which I’ll forward to her.

But these days, where’s a former Usenet dude to go? The whole web-board scene wasn’t really to my taste, and while a lot of people from Chad’s and my Usenet days migrated to LJ, it’s a different vibe that doesn’t quite hit the spot, although I should confess to having had a sporadic LJ myself for a while. There’s a weblog out there (which will remain seeekrit!) whose commentariat begins to approximate the vibe I got from Usenet in the late nineties, but with different mechanics. I even (almost) went to a get-together.

So, I leave you with questions- if you were on Usenet, are you still? If you left, what Internet communities now fill the void? Do you even know what Usenet is? God, I’m old.

Comments

  1. #1 Johan Larson
    August 17, 2007

    Usenet is still around, but clearly on the downslope. A lot of groups have been abandoned, and others are trending down. But there are still a few good places, such as the very active SF group.

    A lot of discussion has moved over to blogs, typically run, in the case of SF, by authors or critics of the genre. Compared to Usenet, there are pluses and minuses. On the plus side, since these blogs are owned, there is someone with the authority to kick out the real creeps. Usenet never managed to solve that one. But on the minus side, blogs aren’t really set up for proper discussions. Comment pages are a pretty poor substitute for threaded newsreaders.

  2. #2 onymous
    August 17, 2007

    Is the word “commentariat” used very often? I’m pretty sure I know what that seeekrit weblog is. I lurk there a lot, but rarely comment. It does seem to have a different dynamic than any other blog-comment-forum, one that I wish was more widespread.

  3. #3 Nathan
    August 17, 2007

    I actually don’t know where I picked it up…

  4. #4 Trent
    August 17, 2007

    Dude. I’d lost track of you, but glad to hear you’re hanging with Chad’s old NIST crew.

    Your Usenet comments track what mine would be pretty closely. I came to the party later than you did, and maybe left a little later, but I haven’t posted to or followed a group for years. That was a great few years though. I just can’t get as excited about LJ or blogs as discussion/conversation spaces.

  5. #5 Jamie Bowden
    August 17, 2007

    Hey Nathan, when aren’t you slaving away in the lab? I should introduce you to one of my friends who recently moved up here from Austin (He’s got a PhD from Carnegie-Mellon in Comp. Eng., he’s been working in a lab at Intel for the last decade down there, and now he’s working at the APL at Johns-Hopkins).

  6. #6 Mike Bruce
    August 17, 2007

    Threaded newsreaders: I’m not 100% convinced that threading was/is so great. The real key was that you could open a newsreader and it was immediately clear what was new. I also think the traditional one-article-at-a-time interface was, though not essential, very nice.

    As compared to blog comments, Usenet was better (along with today’s forum software) because discussion didn’t trail off just because the parent post wasn’t at the top of the page anymore. Though I suppose that was a mixed bag sometimes.

  7. #7 ObsessiveMathsFreak
    August 17, 2007

    You’ve forgotten the first two rules of USENET

    #1: You do _not_ talk about USENET
    #2: You Do Not. _TALK_. About. USENET!

  8. #8 Andrea
    August 17, 2007

    I was on Usenet, in the same rasfw* groups you and Chad were in, and probably left around the same time, too — at the time, James Nicoll was making a valiant attempt to single-handedly drag rasfw back away from the ravening political hordes but it was becoming obvious that he couldn’t succeed.

    Making Light comes closer than anything else to filling that void, and is the only blog I’ve found where comment threads continue for more than a day or two.

  9. #9 Pam
    August 17, 2007

    Well, of course you know my history in these matters, but in the interest of participating in the general conversation: I gave up Usenet for good when I graduated grad school, although my participation had been waning for a while. Didn’t do much public Internet-based socializing (stuck to e-mail for a while), eventually ended up on LiveJournal. It’s not the same as Usenet–less random shit, slower expansion/turnover in social groups, less arguing–but to be honest, I don’t think I could handle the old-time Usenet dynamic nowadays. I’m too old for that shit.

    I do quite miss rec.arts.sf.written, because I found it useful in picking up on what was new and cool in SF. Nowadays, I have to hope enough people whose blogs I read happen to mention what’s good that I haven’t heard of.

  10. #10 Josh
    August 17, 2007

    There’s a weblog out there (which will remain seeekrit!)

    Not that seeekrit…

  11. #11 John Novak
    August 17, 2007

    …Sweet Jesus, Andrea! You’re alive!

    I’m more or less done with Usenet, too, except for moderating a low-volume, high-spam group that has nothing to do with SF or socializing. I could cite two or three Big Issues that killed it, and a dozen or so little ones, but really, it was a natural process and doesn’t matter. Here’s the thing: We almost all hung out until the bitter end, it’s just that the bitter end just came at different times for all of us.

    LiveJournal covers the chatting and keeping up with friends space in my life. The disadvantage is that there’s not much in the way of political discussion, which I sort of miss. The advantage is that there’s almost no political screeching, of which I was certainly guilty, too, which I do not at all miss. (The later really does outweigh the former. See also, my absence from Making Light. Life is too short.) The difference in dynamic is partly because everyone is older and tireder, but probably partly because LJs have a proprietary feel, whereas Usenet was owned by no one.

    (People who don’t know who and where to find me there should e-mail me. I often bitch about work, is the only reason it’s pseudonymous. If I go back to school, that’ll change.)

  12. #12 John Novak
    August 17, 2007

    …Er, at john.novak@gmail.com, because I keep forgetting that even though I give my e-mail address to comment here, it’s not visible to other commenters.

  13. #13 Kurt Montandon
    August 18, 2007

    There are a few very subject-specific groups that retain some value – soc.hist.what-if, a few outdoors groups that are less inclined to massive political flamewars, rec.arts.sf.written.composition. A couple of message boards (malazanempire.com, mostly) are my primary online interest, and I’m easily amused enough that I pay five bucks a month for a TotalFark subscription.

    Oh, and Wikipedia makes a nice hobby, as long as you stick to very localized subjects that you, and very few others, know something about.

    None of them have quite the same ease-and-flow as a proper newsgroup with a solid core constituency, though. And nothing on the Web really has the same feel as a newsgroup viewed through a proper threaded newsreader. Message boards don’t really allow for the same mental filtering – you know, scanning down a bunch of threads, for new posts by people you want to read, on subjects you want to read about. Unthreaded blog and board posts just aren’t as … comfortable.

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