Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster
jiggery_pokery

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Writing about USENET experiences past does feel more self-indulgent than most of my posts, but newsgroups were a large part of my life for many years. My USENET life deserves a funeral, or, at the very least, a cremation...

There were two other very significant influences on my life on USENET: the Oxford University newsgroups and the UK newsgroup management system.

Oxford University had, and presumably still has, its own hierarchy of newsgroups: the names all began with ox., so they were collectively known as ox.*. Famous among these were ox.general, where there was at least some vague sort of intention that discussions should concern the University of Oxford, and ox.talk with no such informal stipulation. The hierarchy's test newsgroup, ox.test, also attracted conversation from time to time, usually at the downmarket end of the spectrum. Why, occasionally, there were even test posts there.

The ox.* groups had, and presumably still have, their own particular clientele, and it's probably fair to say that it's not far from what you might guess: very many extremely precise, intellectual posters. The borderline between precision and pedantry is, as ever, a blurred one. This is not a bad thing, but occasionally it led to an atmosphere that some perceived to be a little strained.

There was also a definite communal sense of humour to the community at large; again, if you're familiar with the comics that Oxford has turned out over the years, you would be disappointed if there weren't one, and you'd be disappointed if it weren't both frequently highly geeky and frequently exceptionally literate.

Now we're going to get to the point where I risk bringing up tensions and frictions from years ago if I don't tread carefully, which none of us could do with. Life's too short, there has already been a great deal of water under the bridge and so forth. There were quite a few people at Oxford with what I perceived to be a communal sense of humour, and this sense of humour was one that I didn't share. Accordingly, I tended to be suspicious of, and uncharitable towards, people I associated with that sense of humour. Let's be blunt here: there were lots of members of one particular society, DougSoc, who I liked, but I considered the society en masse to be full of... well, I don't any of us need me to finish the sentence and risk bringing up ill-feeling again. Should I disrespect a university society, I disrespect many friendships that were made as a result of it.

What can I say here? I was young and it was childish of me. I think "sorry" sounds like a good place to start. Sorry, DougSoc and its members; I was immature, I was prejudiced and I was damn jealous that you were all having so much fun without me.

There goes that particular piece of emotional baggage, hopefully a hatchet buried years after the event. We shall see whether peace of mind or a ruffling of feathers awaits.

So, mmm, yes. There was, and is, a particular clientele among the ox.* groups which, frankly, I never really felt I blended in with. In truth, I think the realistic conclusion to draw is that most of the others really were distinctly more widely-read and distinctly more grown-up than me, so any mismatch was due to shortcomings on my part. I lingered in the ox.* groups for a year or two after graduation, resentful of the university and its newsgroup clientele because I had got myself such a poor academic result, and ended up posting rather a hysterical "YOU ALL SUCK" flame. I'm sure I was a quickly-forgotten footnote in the history of ox.*, but I know I felt that I had made myself persona non grata afterwards.

Incidentally, this isn't very different from what I said in the flame, except that I have now realised and accepted that it's not the community's requirement to necessarily bend over backwards to be welcoming; it's my job to fit in. Admittedly even making such a statement suggests that the community wasn't, or could be not, welcoming, which is definitely a judgement from my perspective; it's probably fair to say that (very?) few people would feel the need to even raise this as an issue. Certainly the ox.* groups were fairly tightly-knit, the friendships spawning a number of meetings - the ox.meets - of which I sadly went to far too few. Posters sometimes referred to themselves as the ox.stars; they may be amused by the Google search result for the term today - specifically, the position in which the ox.net gallery appears, and the nature of the link above it.

As an aside, an ego-tripping game for Oxford students is to try to work out who the contemporaries who are to go on to shape the world are; this works in Oxford's microcosms too, and it seems likely that there will be some highly prominent geeks from my cohort. simon_cozens springs to mind as one of the big names in the perl world, plus I knew Steve Clarke (top techie at a top British ISP) and Jonathan McDowell (runs a small but extremely highly-regarded ISP) at Keble. It's not an exaggeration to say that there's another ISP which couldn't run without zorac, too. (That was just from among my peers; the academics and staff doubtless became legendary in their own fields. I once bumped into Malcolm Beattie on a train and worked out who he has, or what circles he worked in, from the context of overheard conversation.) I do regret that I never became involved with the earth.lings, too, probably as a result of being out of step academically with (specifically, two years above) most of them and having self-inflicted bruises on my stock at the time.

A tip of the hat to ox.colleges.keble, a newsgroup devoted to Keble College, in which beingjdc talked copiously with young ladies from St. Hilda's College, and another to ox.games.nomic, which organised an attempt to play the rule-changing game Nomic on a newsgroup. I think it's fair to point to me "not quite fitting in" there, too, but Nomic is such a consenus-temperamentally-dependent game in any case that perhaps it's no wonder that Nomic games tend to tie themselves up in knots so frequently. The obligatory "Who wants to play Nomic in an LJ community?" campaign starts here (and ends with BlogNomic here - joke borrowed from daweaver) but, again, this is a subject that needs to be spun off into thousands of words, alone, some other day.

Sometimes I am jealous of the geek communities that other universities build up; I always enjoy dr4b's happy tales of going back to Carnegie Mellon and MIT is famous for its geekiness. There's probably no reason why Oxford couldn't have had - or couldn't yet have - its own Mystery Hunt, or play Capture The Stuff With Flags, and both would be fun, but somehow originality counts for a lot as far as authenticity goes. Between the Invariants, RPGSoc, ox.*, the Diplomacy Society and doubtless tons of other initiatives (OUSFG, SciSoc, CompSoc, the sci-fi societies, the broom cupboard society...) Oxford certainly is well-represented as far as geekery goes, but it hasn't produced a (mostly metaphorical) Wonder Of The World to rival MIT's Mystery Hunt, the CMU KGB, the monochrome BBS or even a good MUD. Unless, of course, you know otherwise, and I would be delighted to be informed accordingly. (OUSFG?)

 --

Partly as a result of not wanting to make such a twat of myself on a bigger stage, I tended to keep my head down on uk.net.news.config and uk.net.news.management, the newsgroups concerning the management of the uk.* hierarchy. For three years, I was a member of UKVoting, a volunteer organisation which organised votes within the agreed management procedures of the hierarchy. It seemed to be a way to give something back to one bit of the USENET community, it was somewhere between a power-trip and an ego-boost and I had vague plans that I might go and work for an ISP myself, about the only sort of company for whom this volunteer experience would count as a CV point. (See? OxNomic again!)

Over three years, I think I was involved in taking ten votes. The results of seven of them are listed here, one of the votes was officially cancelled due to malpractice on the proponent's part (sadly nothing glamorous) and at least one of them was as a backup (secondary) votetaker. (Hmm, that only seems to add up to nine.) Votes of note were this remarkable monstrosity about uk.media.tv.sf.babylon5, a newsgroup with a proud history and one which attracted some of the USENETtiest geeks that there were to be found within uk.*, and the first uk.* vote to be counted using Condorcet counting. I take pleasure that much of the rubric still used in Condorcet count announcements six years later is identical to the one I established at the time.

I also proposed three newsgroups: uk.local.teesside and uk.media.newspapers were Fast-Tracked, but neither stood the test of time; uk.games.dead-pool (a newsgroup in which to play The Dead Pool-derived celebrity mortality speculation games) went to a vote but was unsuccessful, not due to objections concerning taste but simply because there wasn't the demonstrated demand for it.

 --

So that is the bulk of my involvement with USENET, a community of communities and a world that can reasonably be compared not just to LiveJournal but to the blogosphere at large. As imc replied to my last post, there are large parts of it that are still working very well, but they're not the parts that I'm so interested in any further. People have pointed out that you can still use Google Groups (...and other sites?) to access USENET via the web, but there hasn't been a web interface yet that comes close to the efficiency of the best dedicated newsreaders. Indeed, the best newsreaders are more convenient than the web interface for (for instance) LiveJournal; perhaps there's a LJ client out there which would be as effective at processing LJ as newsreaders were at processing news. I haven't investigated.

Google Groups acquired the DejaNews USENET archives which date back to 1995, plus selective archives dating back to 1981. There's a lot of good stuff that's appeared on USENET over the years - real primary sources for people interested in contemporary history. All with a highly geeky and technical slant, of course, and 90% of it crud, but plenty of diamonds among the rough. I'm not sure if I ever produced a diamond (frankly, I doubt I got past a pebble!) but you can trace the posts I made from my kebl0110@sable.ox.ac.uk account at Oxford and the posts I made from my chris@dickson.demon.co.uk account here. This archive is fantastic; it takes me from the first post I ever made (blank, due to me not realising you had to leave the filename of the article you were about to post as .article - a good start!) to the last post I ever made (not a classic, but at least with good information, more original text than quoted and a McQ 4*78 .signature file).

Look, this is all trivial and ephemeral stuff, but it's only just as trivial and ephemeral as my LiveJournal involvement. (Arguably less so; there is a strong culture which motivates people to take pride in their USENET posts, where a very short comment dashed off in reply is acceptable.) Google Groups can find 2,500 things I posted between 1994 and 2003 and who knows how many others there were, especially on ox.*, that the archives have not grabbed? Contributing to USENET was a major phase in my life; was, not is, and I can't imagine it will be again in the future.

 --

However, we can try to draw conclusions by comparing different tools for one-to-many communication that I have seen and used over the years. Everyone knows about the mainstream press, and my introduction to it was through pulp comics - the Mickey Magazine up until about age 5 to age 7, then Whizzer & Chips until, probably, about the age of 13 or so. From there I graduated to computer magazines (somewhere around here I have a 1982 issue 1 Sinclair User for our then-borrowed ZX81, but I probably started getting some sort of ZX Spectrum magazine regularly from about 1985 or 1986), hence to play-by-mail games in mid-1987 and printed postal wrestling 'zines from about 1990 or so. (Again, well worth a post of its own some other day.)

Another sideways development is that I started following a couple of 'zines that were distributed on floppy disks for the Commodore Amiga in the early 1990s; the one that had most influence on me was Grapevine by the LSD group. There was some moderately heady stuff in there for a mid-teens adolesecent, plus an interface to take joy from using. You would get a whole general interest magazine with hundreds of articles at one go, and I can still happily remember some of the cheerful chip music tunes that played in the background! Some day I shall investigate emulators and enjoy a happy hour or two reliving this personal connection to the early '90s.

I ended up penning articles for it myself; adopting a scene handle was de rigeur and I picked Lord Lazy XVI. Again there's another article to be spun off here, but you might be interested in a "How hard is your hardware?" jokey self-scoring test article and a rare piece of fiction both of which I wrote aged 16. Neither great, neither too embarrassing, both with some interesting ideas. The last piece I wrote for GV (as it was known!) was also a farewell, saying that I thought there would never be another entity as much fun to be associated with as GV - but I think that I would have been pleased to know that my later involvement with USENET and LiveJournal would prove me wrong.

All this retrospection does bring about the truism that you'll be embarrassed by the things you did when you were younger, and you'll never grow out of this. Certainly there are a few things I regret about my time at Oxford, but mostly very small ones. (Sometimes I play the woulda/coulda/shoulda game about the decision to take a year out between school and university, but there's nothing to be gained from that game.) I'm sure that this pattern isn't too likely to change as time goes by and that there will be stunts in my LiveJournal that I will later go on to regret; still, better than never trying a stunt at all. "I thought it was a good idea at the time", coupled with an acceptance to later admit that you were previously wrong and an effort to ensure you are not wrong in the same way again, has got to be sufficient.

trebro brings up an interesting point about how LiveJournal in time will be seen as as anachronistic as USENET is today, noting that parts of USENET continue to work very well and are the first choice for many users. USENET's problems are primarily social rather than technical and I suspect that these are the sorts of challenges which will be hardest to solve. I'm sure that there will come a point where I want to stop using LiveJournal, just as I've come to stop wanting to use USENET, though I've never thought about an "exit strategy". I'm sure that I'll keep in touch with many friends from previous communication media, but I'm also sure there will be others who I miss; while I'm still in touch with many of the game show folk and many of the Oxford folk, I've completely lost touch with the UKVoting folk. (Should any of you be out there, please say hello!)

Trying to compare different communication media is tricky, but I think at least some of the key requirements are that it should throw up as few barriers to entry as possible (for instance, compare the effort required to start a mailing list through Yahoo! Groups with the effort required to start up a newsgroup) and that people should be able to avoid the impact of it easily if they want to. I also think that most of mankind communicates more easily and effectively through the written word than it does through other emotions; it's quicker and easier both to {read, mark and inwardly digest} and to produce a post in the form of text than it would be a picture or a piece of music.

PhonePosts have advantages over text posts in a small number of situations, but I think they're fairly rare; thinking ahead, should video posting from a mobile phone camera (or a webcam) become available, I'm sure there will be small numbers of instances where the technology proves wonderful and enables in a way that text cannot, but I also suspect that the technology will often be used to very little advantage over what plain text might have offered and at a significant decrease in utility for the viewer. That's not to say that the technology would be unwelcome, but people should use great taste and discretion in deciding whether to use it or not.

The interesting question is when, if ever, text posts will be superceded, and what by. I think it would take some pretty far-off blue-sky tech to do so; I'm thinking some sort of direct brain-to-brain emotion/knowledge transfer, so that people don't need to be articulate in order to convey their message. Of course, articulacy in text, in song or in image will always be valued; while articulacy is relative, I think the "killer app" will be some tool to help the less articulate convey themselves more clearly. Either that, or a really fun set of bells and whistles to play with!
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