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2013: The Year of Usenet

Usenet license plate

2013 was the year of Usenet. For me, at least. And here's what I learned.

You might not even remember Usenet. What for my generation was a glimpse of the amazing power of the Internet isn't even known to the new generation of Web 2.0 youngsters: if this article is too long for you, this is the tl;dr conclusion: the Internet is generational, and the new generation isn't better, it's just different.

Usenet allowed you total anonymity, which was its strongest and weakest characteristic. Enforced anonymity allowed anyone to discuss anything, and if one "personality" got ruined, you could create another one and start over. A whole generation associated the Internet with the ability to live a second life under an assumed identity. Once you got used to it, it was hard to imagine collaborating online in any other way.

These days, Usenet is dead, they say, in near unison. It made the list of "Detroits of the Internet" and your average 25 year old Netizen has no idea it ever existed. But when it came time to build a forum for the Dictator's Handbook, I decided to leverage Usenet technology anyway. Its original strengths remain a benefit to anyone interested in discussing tyrannical governments: anonymity, replication across multiple servers so there's no single "website" to be blocked, low bandwidth permitting easy access even from 3G cellphones or dial up, and no single point of ownership.

I first built an INN server with no peering, so posts stayed local. Then I opened it up as a new hierarchy and peered with other servers to let the posts actually distribute across Usenet. Then I subscribed to a for-pay Usenet server and poked around looking for places to advertise the dictator hierarchy.

Usenet is best enjoyed through a provider that applies rigorous spam filters (I use Individual.net). Arguably, anonymous spammers ruined Usenet years ago, shitting in the pool until it was too polluted to visit anymore. Good filters fix the problem, but did so too late to save Usenet as a platform. I found a couple of local sites with a lot of activity by a dedicated core of Usenet fans, but I found many more where the most recent post was ages ago, and consisted of someone asking if the group was alive or dead. And there was tons of Detroit-style wasteland, particularly in the Alt hierarchy, where new groups were created with relative freedom and then abandoned. Then, the distributed nature of Usenet made it impossible to collectively delete those groups.

Usenet enjoyed a brief resurgence distributing binaries - images, video, warez - but even that era faded when the major ISPs stopped carrying Usenet for fear of pedophiliac stuff (and its legal ramifications) or due to dropping use. But even there alternative sites do the job far better: Imgur and Reddit come to mind. Web forums overtook Usenet a decade ago: to the user it was convenient to stay in a browser, and that in turn facilitated images and eventually flash video and the rest. But more importantly, because each forum had an owner they were less prone to Usenet's tragedy of the commons in which the communal sense of the platform led to the equivalent of graffiti and smashed swing-sets in the community park. But web forums suffered many of the same ills, and the spammers learned how to fine-tune scripts to robo-post their dreck all over PHP-run forums as well.

Finally, web forums mostly succumbed to Facebook, which imposed the rule of real names in discussion. And this led to a debate with no clear answer: do real names lead to better quality conversation? I'm not sure it does, and I'm absolutely convinced it's the wrong way to stimulate discussion about dictatorships and autocratic leaders. In fact, the autocrats have learned to mine and benefit from Facebook in ways thought impossible in more naive days. And that led me back to the beginning of internet communication - Usenet - with a renewed appreciation that goes beyond simple nostalgia. Seems there's still a place for it in the world.

So is Usenet a wasteland? Not totally, but it's pretty bleak out there. Too many newsgroups are emaciated shadows of their former selves. Maybe it's my generation, but I find the ability to remain anonymous to be essential. And I love the architecture and philosophical underpinnings of the Usenet platform. But that philosophy exposed an ugly side of humanity, for what it's worth. Lastly, maybe it's just my generation, that finds elegance in text forums distributed in a way you can download the messages and respond over the luxury of a darkened room, a hot coffee, and a keyboard. It's an experience the mobile Internet generation may never understand.

If you've never left the warm, safe enclosure of Facebook and are curious to see what it's all about, come check out the action at the Dictator's Handbook.

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