Early days on the ‘net: Now what do I do with this thing?

A diagram of some Usenet servers and clients. ...

A diagram of some Usenet servers and clients. The blue, green, and red dots on the servers represent which groups they carry. Arrows between servers indicate that the servers are sharing the articles from the groups. Arrows between computers and servers indicate that the user is subscribed to a certain group, and uploads and downloads articles to and from that server. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I began to play around with my new found global connectivity. I quickly mastered using Pine for email (and became a dedicated Pico user as well. Never could get my head around EMACS).

Fortunately, Panix offered hints as to useful things. I played around with Gopher and became a fan, checked out this new thing called the World Wide Web and quickly dismissed it as going nowhere because it was not as easy to use nor as full of information as Gopherspace or Archie.

And then I discovered Usenet and I was hooked! I immediately subscribed to newsgroups about electronic music, electronic music made using loops, ambient music, beatless ambient music, dark ambient music, MIDI technology, Cubase users, Atari users, anthropology, fractals, comics, surrealism, neuroscience, and on and on and on. There was no shortage of interesting subject matter or of people willing to share information about these topics. If you follow this Usenet search or this one, you’ll see what I was up to back then.

The technically oriented newsgroups ended up being the most useful. I had a massive (for the time) MIDI studio, and anytime I had a problem or needed suggestions as to how to realise a concept, there were loads of generous people offering suggestions and encouragement.

The technology groups were so successful because they had intrinsically well-defined boundaries. The “softer” subjects ranged far and wide, despite everyone’s effort to keep them from going off topic. What you ended up with were discussions that were very broad but not very deep.

If you take a skim through any of the postings that the search links above lead you to, you’ll also notice that things haven’t changed much – the same sorts of trolls, flame wars, territorial pissing, and general unpleasantness that are familiar to anyone who reads comment sections on blogs and newspaper sites. You’ll find a good discussion of this in Jaron Lanier‘s “You Are Not a Gadget.” “Newbies” got the worst of this treatment, and it was absolute carnage when AOL opened up their walled garden and made it possible for their users to access Usenet. It wan’t pretty. Clay Shirky has written a bit about the experience. We’ve come a long way in connecting people, but we haven’t moved an inch in making them be nice to each other.