net.wars: The year September finally ended...

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 28 January 2005

How the Usenet posters of 1994 would be cheering: AOL is to discontinue offering direct Usenet access in February.

Wendy M Grossman

The rumours began popping up in all sorts of Usenet newsgroups about a week ago and were, of course, immediately challenged. The company doesn't seem to have formally issued a press release. But AOLers typing in the keyword "newsgroups" from within the service get a pop-up window advising them to switch to Google.

Jonathan Lambert, director of communications for AOL UK, says, "There was no logical argument for keeping it. It was definitely a small minority who used it."

Funny, it didn't seem like that back in 1994, when AOL's one million users suddenly gained access to what the company referred to as its "Usenet feature".

It was known as "the year September never ended". September, in those days, was the month when all those American college freshmen got their first Internet connection and, bright-eyed and brimming with the enthusiasm of the new, they would troop out onto Usenet in their tens of thousands and effectively wreck the town square for about a month. They would repost Make.Money.Fast. They would recycle the petition to stop the fictitious modem tax. They would repost Dave Barry's column about the exploding whale

"These problems, too," ran a Usenet sig in those days, "will graduate".

But there was always October to look forward to, a time when Usenet would no longer be new to these freshmen, and they would recognise recycled postings for themselves without having to be beaten on by more experienced posters, such as sophomores. But there were so many AOLers, and they didn't all come on stream at once…and October never came.

One of the better Usenet postings of the era explained that a lot of AOLers' antisocial misbehaviour  in fact wasn't their fault. They were software-deprived. Literally, the design of the software they were given to use encouraged them to behave in ways that contravened Usenet's community standards. They didn't quote selectively when replying to messages; they'd repost lengthy screeds with just the words "Me, too" at the bottom. The three letters "AOL" became synonymous with all that is lame and stupid, and anyone posting from an AOL account was automatically treated to the kind of behaviour that I associated with playground bullies until I got online.

Had AOL pulled the feature then, Usenet could have trooped back to the clubhouse for milk and cookies smugly claiming victory over the interlopers.

But it isn't then. It's 2005, and AOL's decision underlines the fact that what used to be the vibrant town square of the Internet is now the place where drunks sleep in the doorways of the empty shop fronts, and the shops that aren't empty are those dollar-or-less places. The giant shopping mall on the edge of town is getting all the business and most of the attention, the kids prefer to party in the music and video clubs that line the new interstate bypass, the town's most interesting people have retreated into gated communities, and everyone else with anything to say has his own radio station and doesn't venture out much.

The advent of AOL is a lot of why Usenet is like that. Up until 1994, you could still find Internet pioneers talking intelligently in newsgroups, and for many subjects the Usenet FAQ was a terrific resource. The advent of AOL raised the noise-to-signal ratio so much that many of those knowledgeable posters moved to mailing lists where the membership could be controlled and the posts moderated. The ones who weren't deterred by AOL got driven out a year or so later when the spammers came in. Most of those folks still do not realise that these days, large parts of Usenet have almost no spam.

But where in 1994 Usenet was the thing people got Internet access for, now AOL it's a cost that increasing numbers of ISPs may view as unnecessary. Richard Palmer, managing director of  Merula, a small Cambridge-based ISP, says probably no more than 1 to 2 percent of its customers use their newsserver. The real expense in providing a newsfeed is the bandwidth and the terabytes-per-day storage space. Also, he says, the customer support: ISPs have no control because there is no central distribution, but customers don't always understand that when one out of 50 postings making up a binary file is missing.

AOL may merely be doing what many other ISPs would like to do; people no longer choose their ISP based on the quality and comprehensiveness of their newsfeed.

"Google is the specialist," says Lambert. I prefer an offline newsreader myself, for speed. But AOL's gone too late, and Usenet is not going to change back the way it was.

But it's still the town square, and if a bomb hit the town that's where people would congregate to talk about how to fix it because Usenet does not have to rely on the Internet to function.

Out of a combination of habit and affection for what the folksinger Bill Staines once called "Lovers and Losers," I pick my way through the flames and inanities there every day. There's something invigorating about being called a "dickhead" six times before breakfast.

Technorati tags:    
"Can we have a dickhead for Ms Grossman?" - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).