Can the onetime home of intelligent online conversation be saved?

By Zack Stentz
Updated March 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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Set the Wayback Machine, Sherman, for 1986! Before ICQ. Before chat rooms. Before the World Wide Web. Back to a time when the hot attraction of the Internet wasn’t MP3 files or cheesecake shots of Gillian Anderson but clunky old text-based Usenet, that nonstop global conversation made up of thousands of bulletin-board topics and just as dispersed and anarchic as its flashy descendant, the Web. Invented in the late-Carter era by North Carolina students as an information-sharing medium for university mainframe users, Usenet was once the Internet’s pulsing nerve center. Its centralized catalog of newsgroups, ranging from alt.creative-cooking to rec.arts.movies.current, was light-years beyond the cumbersome electronic mailing lists and individually run BBSes it replaced. Anyone with the proper newsreader software could log on to the appropriate group, read and post messages, debate, argue, and share information withlike-minded users around the world (Netscape’s and Microsoft’s browsers now have newsreaders built in).

These days, sadly, this onetime Eden looks more like a factory farm. The Internet’s explosive growth has swollen Usenet’s total population to an estimated 17-25 million; in the process, newsgroups that once relied on individual restraint to keep things civil have become overrun by commercial spam, off-topic ramblings, and a class of insanely hostile attention seekers dubbed ”Net tourettes” by sci-fi author David Brin.

The devolution has embittered such Usenet habitues as Lee Goldberg, a novelist and television writer-producer (Diagnosis Murder) who fondly remembers those early years as a time spent ”discussing a great book you just read and then getting an e-mail from the novelist herself.” More recently, after Goldberg had the temerity to post a glowing Entertainment Weekly review of his new novel, Beyond the Beyond, one drive-by flamer responded, ”’Funny’ is not an adjective we’ve heard applied to the opus; ‘pitiful,’ ‘excrescence,’ and ‘incompetent’ are all terms we have seen used, of course.”

Internet movie-gossip maven Harry Knowles (http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com) is another former newsgroup junkie who’s been burned out. ”Usenet was the Internet for me when I first started,” says Knowles. ”I posted articles there for half a year before I finally figured out how to build my own website.” Now, however, the general clutter has driven him away. ”With all the spam and off-topic posts, it just became too difficult to find the material I was interested in,” he says.

In an attempt to re-create that intimate, comradely vibe, Knowles built Usenet-like discussion forums into his own website. He’s hardly alone: Everyone from Yahoo! to Salon magazine now employs similar user-luring tactics, which, in turn, become increasingly attractive havens for Usenetters seeking refuge from endless ”Make $$$ fast” and ”Voyager sux” messages. Meanwhile, specialized Web-based filters like Deja News (http://www.dejanews.com), which let users ignore the spam and search Usenet for individual topics or conversations (”threads”), are growing in popularity. So, too, are moderated Usenet newsgroups, in which messages are screened for appropriateness by one or more hosts before being allowed on the group. Even the old-fashioned mailing list, in which discussions are carried on through group-mailed e-mail messages, has enjoyed renewed popularity. ”I have found myself communicating far more in moderated, daily digests [mailing lists],” says Goldberg. ”The discussions rarely erupt in the flames that run rampant on Usenet.”

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