Friday, August 1, 2008

On Usenet - Will It Get a Second Wind?

John Biggs at TechCrunch linked to a Sascha Segan PC Magazine article reporting the death of Usenet:

In a way inconceivable in today's Web-fragmented marketplace, Usenet was where you went to talk. Conceived back in the idealistic, non-profit days of the Internet, it was—well, it is, but it mostly was—a series of bulletin boards called "newsgroups" shared by thousands of computers, which traded new messages several times a day.

On the text-only Usenet of my memory, nobody knew whether you were a dog, or a kid, or Finnish—only what you wrote. There wasn't the obsession with photos and video that overruns today's social networking sites.

After praising some of the early 1990s content on Usenet, Segan continues:

Some people date Usenet's decline as early as 1993, when millions of AOL users dropped into what was previously a geek paradise. As the '90s went on, the eye candy of the Web and the marketing dollars of Web site owners helped push people over to profit-making sites. Usenet's slightly arcane access methods and text-only protocols have nothing on the glitz and glamour of MySpace.

The Web also gave Usenet a new life through the mid-90s as a searchable database of questions and answers, via DejaNews and Google. But searchability also killed off some of Usenet's social functions....

Meanwhile, as multimedia became popular over the past ten years, Usenet started to become a way for pirates and pornographers to distribute massive quantities of binary files in a decentralized, untraceable manner; in other words, it became a proto-BitTorrent. That was likely when Usenet became truly doomed. Newsgroups had exchanged code along with text for years, but by the late '90s the "binaries" groups began taking up huge amounts of space and Net traffic, and since Usenet libraries reside on each ISP's server, service providers sensibly started to wonder why they should be reserving big chunks of their own disk space for pirated movies and repetitive porn.

It's the porn that's putting nails in Usenet's coffin. AOL dropped Usenet in 2005, but many other large ISPs kept carrying newsgroups. Now major providers are dropping the full alt. hierarchy, and even Usenet entirely, as part of a New York State government crusade against child pornographers who've been using the alt.binaries groups to distribute their wares.

I spent nearly twenty years on Usenet, off and on, and I don't necessarily agree that porn killed Usenet. If anything, it probably helped it. Much as I don't like to admit it, porn is something that helps to keep the Internet running, according to this 2004 article:

Pornography has grown into a $10 billion business — bigger than the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball combined — and some of the nation's best-known corporations are quietly sharing the profits.

Companies like Time Warner and Marriott earn revenue by piping adult movies into Americans' homes and hotel rooms, but you won't see anything about it in their company reports....

Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, through its subsidiary DirecTV, delivers hard- and soft-core porn to homes via satellite. Communications giant Comcast supplies various kinds of porn to homes via pay-per-view. And Time Warner owns a cable company that offers erotic programming from Playboy and other outlets, including hard-core.

More here (ABC News).

And yes, that was Time Warner that was piping adult movies into hotel rooms and homes - the same Time Warner that cut off Usenet from its AOL service a year later.

I suspect the real reason that companies cut off Usenet was because they couldn't control it. Let's face it, if you get people to talk on your server, then you can beam your ads and your content at them, and if there's any trouble (such as one million mango bacon posts from a single user in an hour) you can take care of it yourself, quickly.

However, now that it's 2008, we're seeing a movement to spread the conversations around, so that they aren't all centralized in one place, but decentralized all over. Does that mean that there's a possibility of a resurgence of Usenet?

Maybe. I mean, check the FriendFeed discussion in perl.cpan.testers. Or this post on Twitter in misc.writing.moderated.

And TechCrunch itself states:

As long as there are folks who think a command line is better than a mouse, the original text-only social network will live on. Sure, ISPs will shut down access out of misled kiddie porn fears but the real pros know where to go to get their angst-filled, nit-picking, obsessive fix.

Heck, maybe the early adopters will drift back to the original home of Paddy O'Furniture jokes.

Sphere: Related Content
blog comments powered by Disqus