End of an era tonight, as I have cleared the last remaining newsgroups from my e-mail-and-news program. I regard myself as off USENET for good now, probably never to return. About a half of you may know to what I refer; let me take the other half of you back on a journey into what people used to do before LiveJournal.
I first encountered the Internet upon going to university in the autumn of 1994. At that time, the World Wide Web existed in an early and limited form, but the graphical browser of choice was "Mosaic", which has been regarded as an antiquity for at least five years. Soon afterwards we started to use Netscape Navigator, which was better because it didn't make you wait for the whole page to load before displaying any part of it. (I don't remember this personally - I'm cribbing from Wikipedia here.) People were excited about services, (almost?) completely now consigned to history, called Gopher and Archie. Getting information about the Internet, and about what was happening in the world over the Internet, was difficult. Search engines didn't really exist, though Yahoo! was a directory at that point - probably a hand-edited directory, at that.
Nevertheless, I had read in a very early book about the Internet about the existence of topic-based discussion forums called newsgroups, and I had written the names of some interesting-looking newsgroups and mailing lists down. (I was also very interested in MUDs - Multi-User Dungeons - but I never really took to them in practice, especially not in comparison to my best friend at the time, who eventually became a god on the Zebedee MUD, with which old mono readers may be familiar.)
Newsgroups were, and are, text-based one-to-many communication fora very similar in principle to today's LJ communities and web-based bulletin boards. They have existed since 1979, when originally the data was transferred electronically between Unix servers which would have had nothing to do at the time with the Internet, but they took off over the late 1980s up until the late 1990s, first in American universities and (eventually) through mainstream commercial use of the Internet. Newsgroups are defined by their name and associated charter, which will suggest which topics are appropriate for discussion in that one newsgroup. That said, anyone can post anything to that newsgroup in practice. Moderation procedures exist to disallow the propagation of off-topic posts and work variably well. It's possible to transmit data files (pictures, sounds, movies, software) but generally discouraged except through the clunky and unreliable route of specifically binaries-oriented groups.
There has long been a desire within the human nature to broadcast news or opinion to many people at once. It has been within easy reach of the man on the street for decades through the medium of printed postal fanzines, though duplication methods that are simple, reliable, clean and cheap are relatively recent. Newsgroups, like e-mail mailing lists, eliminated many of the barriers to participation. Of course they threw up plenty of their own, not least access to the technology, but many technically-minded geeks found them second nature. Accordingly, the conversations tended to be populated by technically-minded geeks - which is fine, or even advantageous, for discussions on technical and geeky things.
One reason why newsgroups were largely preferred to mailing lists is the existence of specific newsreader software, which let you very efficiently process a great deal of information in a little time. (Here "process" means "ignore 90% of" in practice: Sturgeon's Law - 90% of everything is crud - famously applies here. (Thank you, spaf.) Even old newsreaders are considerably better-suited to their task, though significantly less attractive-looking, than almost(?) all web-based fora I've seen. News is essentially ephemeral and so doesn't need to be treated with the same gravity and storage that e-mail requires.
The question which then presents itself is why I have shifted my attention from newsgroups to LiveJournal. I liken the space formed by textual content, such as opinion, to a 3-D grid. Consider time to be the axis of depth, subject to be the axis of height and the identity of the poster to be the axis of width. Then whenever you express an opinion, be it through LJ or a newsgroup, you are making your mark in this space - a mark that will be left behind as the axis of time progresses at its steady rate. If you want to observe some opinions, you can either look at a wide slice, where you see everything that has been posted on a particular subject (over the most recent unit of time), or a tall slice, where you see everything that has been posted by a particular poster (over the same unit of time).
They both have their uses; people still want to look for information and discussions on a particular topic, but find that they can get more meaningful, personal interaction with a poster by seeing what they have to say on many different subjects. In short, I am usually more likely to be interested in what someone I respect - i.e., a Friend - has to say on a topic with which I am unfamiliar, than I am to be in someone unfamiliar writing on a topic I like. I say "more likely" because there's certainly a continuum between the two and neither is inherently superior to the other.
The major social problem with reading the opinion-space is avoiding or ignoring content that is of no interest or value to you. Newsgroups did this moderately well with a system of kill-files to eliminate comments from posters you wished to ignore. Kill-files have a less well-known brother, accept-files, where you don't get to see any particular content in a newsgroup except that provided by specific posters of your choice. There were many newsgroups, in later days, where I would deliberately only "tune in" to a small number of posters who had made their reputations with me over a long period of time.
A very significant problem with newsgroups is that of spam - unsolicited bulk posts. Spamming started in 1994, commercial spamming later that year. People fought back against it, but it was a losing battle. Bulk junk on newsgroups predates e-mail spam. (We all know why spam is so named, right?) Spam, trolling and miscellaneous departure of respected, knowledgeable posters all contributed significantly to a fall in the mythical signal-to-noise ratio; when it got too low, or interest flagged, a good sign that it's time to drop the newsgroup. With the world of blogs, it's easy to - and, indeed, you are required to proactively - subscribe to those people whose signal-to-noise ratios you trust. Habitual graphical-meme-not-behind-a-LJ-cut posters? That's noise :-)
Weblogs in general, and LiveJournal in particular, do offer a number of other advantages over newsgroups: easy customisation of appearance, attractive appearance (dezzikitty's new layout is simple but gorgeous!), very easy interaction with the rest of the Web, integration with non-textual forms of data, polls, fun with icons, some sort of security, the list goes on. However, there have often been discussions of whether it might be a good thing to be able to read LJ in your newsreader. There's merit in the concept.
Anyway, the newsgroups I finally archived my saved data from and said goodbye to tonight were:
news.announce.important, uk.net.news.announce, demon.announce, news.announce.newsgroups: four announcement newsgroups. The first has had possibly three or four on-topic posts in the time I've been following it, but that's as expected. demon.announce relates to my ISP, whose dial-up I no longer use, the other two relate to the announcement of new newsgroups.
alt.tv.game-shows: my first, and longest-lasting, home on the Internet. Are any of you in a rare fandom and enjoyed a tremendous flourish of excitement when you weren't completely alone in that fandom? Well, that was me with game shows in 1994; I didn't know that there could be such things as game show fans. As newsgroups go, it was a very good newsgroup, full of entertaining and witty people. It was a thrill to visit the US mostly to go and visit them. A salute to all the a.t.g-s crowd in my Friends list - especially to lambertman, who gave me my invite code, back in the day, and who has had some sort of diary on the Internet for more years than I care to imagine. I don't think the good old RambL! On was quite as old as the Game Show Page, back in the days when there was a game show page singular, but it can't be much less old.
As an aside, not nearly enough fuss was made of the fact that lambertman's Game Show Page turned ten at the start of October. A web page that's been maintained for ten years, and pretty regularly updated for at least seven or eight of them... well, that's an outstanding achivement. Anyone can have a ten-year-old web page; why, I do (well, it must be nine and a quarter). Remember when I was talking about pages viewed with Mosaic? Mine was fairly typical and this strange rant of mine ("[...] You shouldn't need anything more than Lynx to access these pages...") rather dates it. Anyhow, mine is a bad web site that has survived the years, where Chri$'s is a fantastic web site that has survived the years and gone from strength to strength. Content, content, content.
People left alt.tv.game-shows pretty much en masse to a moderated web board simply because of the volume of crap. It's not the same, and we're starting to get more crap (though not nearly as bad crap, certainly) and senses of humour are getting uglier and, well, we're going to go round and round again. I'd rather stick with the people I know and trust, thank you, but there are tons of old a.t.g-sers who I miss and would dearly like to get back in contact with: Aaron Solomon, Stan Ryckman, Alan Mitsugi, Steve Leblang, Jim Ellwanger, David Hammett, Matt Ottinger, Brian Hamburg... (Chris Lemon has a blog, but I don't actually like his sense of humour, so I don't follow it. I'm sure he doesn't follow mine, either.) If Zach Horan had a LJ, I would probably read it. Seriously. (Googling for Zach Horan livejournal revealed this, which amused.)
There's more valediction of alt.tv.game-shows and its fine inhabitants to be done, Game Show Conventions to be relived, GSC-title grudges to be borne, dammit, but not today. I started writing this post four hours ago. (And got heavily, but happily, distracted along the way!)
uk.games.board, rec.games.board: groups about board games in the UK and worldwide. The board game newsgroup started off heavily talking about obscure old Avalon Hill games and board games that I have no interest in (Titan, Axis & Allies, Risk, and so on...) but became far more to my taste as tastes in board games spread across the US. I have fond memories of rec.games.board - far more literate and free from crap than most newsgroups, possibly still worthwhile even today.
rec.games.diplomacy: the classic seven-player board game Diplomacy. I played it twice and hated it, but I like Diplomacy players a great deal. Very good newsgroup, lots of respectworthy posters, high signal-to-noise ratio.
alt.sport.lasertag, alt.sport.lasertag.laserquest, alt.lasertag.zonegods, alt.sport.photon: I was really quite strongly into laser games in 1991-1992 and have maintained an interest in them ever since. alt.sport.lasertag was full of American mainstream smack talk sports culture, but there were some extremely funny, charismatic, downright cool posters in there. I read alt.sport.qzar (QZar, the US trading name for the laser game known in the UK as Quasar - and, oh, heck, there's another 4,000 words to be written there some other day) for a long time which was a giant, ugly morass about my favourite laser game and alt.sport.photon which had a far higher signal-to-noise ratio. Unfortunately the chance of me ever getting to play something even a little like Photon, one of the great granddaddies of laser gaming, is next to zero, but still technically just positive. Look, whole 'nother post.
rec.humor.oracle: exercise in co-operative humour. Had very high peaks. Might still be doing for all I know.
uk.sport.betting: betting on sport in the UK. Loads of adverts and crap, but some excellent analysis and good cameraderie.
uk.transport.air: almost certainly the last new newsgroup I subscribed to. Not very interesting.
demon.service, demon.service.isdn, demon.ip.support.turnpike: internal groups for the ISP I used to use for dial-up and still use for e-mail. demon.service is a bit of a grumpy old bearpit.
Those were the ones which survived to the end, but I wouldn't be giving full value if I didn't mention the long and (usually) happy times I spent with the UK TV newsgroups rec.arts.tv.uk, its successor rec.arts.tv.uk.misc and uk.media.tv.misc.
Heck, let's call this a two-parter and stop here for the night. In the sequel I will talk about the Oxford newsgroups, about the uk.* newsgroup management process, about famous newsgroups I didn't read, about DejaNews and Yahoo! Groups and about the future of communication. I say this so that at least some of the happy reminiscence to be had gets saved for later. Is it acceptable to stop a LJ post half-way through just because I want to go to bed? It's my LJ and I make the rules, so I say that it is, but I shall try not to make a habit of it.
Good night, everybody!