Eternal September and the broadening of horizons

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I remember the pre-1993 Usenet, where it was as likely that Marvin Minsky would reply to your comment in or that a upper-level exec at IBM would clarify a technical point.



Hush. It was the bad old elitist insufficiently inclusive era that should be forgotten, not be remembered as something good.


The bad, old, insufficiently inclusive era was, from what I recall, available to anyone with lots of time, a bit of money, some effort**, and interest. No one on the internet knew that you might really be a dog.

**: I recall a 3,200 ‘termcap’ document that I had to plow through to figure out how to get my Apple ][e (clone…I was poor, eh) to talk to the university mainframe at 300 baud.


Like most of the history of Internet “inclusiveness” discussions, this basically comes down to a “wider audience” showing up to a subculture, and declaring that the current residents can’t have norms that suit them, because they don’t suit the newcomers.

Try it with a different subculture: “Pride is mainstream now, you faggots need to tone it down.” Doesn’t go over well. But everyone thinks its totally appropriate to point exactly the same demand at gamers, or comic book nerds, or programmers. For many things, the acculturation is valuable beyond simply being the environment the residents are comfortable in via some shared differentiation from the larger society (which is, IMO, usually reason enough to give people space). For example, the barrier on RC aircraft has fallen enough in the last few years that people are buying a fairly capable quad off the Internet and doing stupid shit with it, because they bypass getting acculturated in to the set of norms built by the community to sustain the hobby. I don’t follow it as closely, but I hear similar concerns from backpackers, complaints about an inrush of newcomers who don’t learn the collected wisdom, and thus do dangerous shit that results in closed areas, new restrictions, and bears that think hikers are walking picnic baskets. Because why should anyone have to pick up culture from the people who have built and sustained a hobby? That would be exclusive.

Look at the early history of computing, the gender balance looked basically like other professions at the time (which, in the perspective of society evaluating men’s personal worth as resource providers, historical norms, and gender imbalance in the rates of borderline autistic folk who really take to that kind of detail work, is basically parity). [Note: I’m not claiming it was an egalitarian paradise, many of the prominent women of the era were under-credited for their contributions. I’m thinking especially of people like Fran Allen and Adelle Goldberg. But it wasn’t an outlier field like it is now.] Then a bunch of people showed up for the goldrush, and as always with goldrushes, it was mostly men, because society evaluates them as material providers. They got weird partial-acculturation, where they picked up the bluntness, but not that the bluntness was built on a shared distaste for social aggression [remember what I said about being an environment for and by lots of borderline autistic folks?], and a shared understanding that it’s better that some picky nerd shit-talk your code while you’re looking, than some other picky nerd find the bug and pwn everything with your code in it when you aren’t. And now we have all the ugly with not much of the effective, and the “natives” getting blamed as the “first wave” immigrants shit on the “second wave” immigrants, because no one bothered to think about why the norms are as they are.

Subcultures without distinct shared norms aren’t, they’re just assholes milling around, though they may be still vigorously waving the flag of some long-subsumed identity.

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I remember when the Internet was my friend Gordon bringing me printouts of the world’s oldest computer jokes, which he may have actually gotten by typing words right into a terminal (while I hadn’t even gotten to the Hollerith card stage yet).

Huh. Telling others what to do? Damn newbies.

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You have no idea why people see through this, do you?


I wouldn’t phrase it that way exactly. It would be more accurate to say that the newcomers bring new perspectives to the culture. The culture-as-a-whole accommodates some of those ideas and discards others. The current residents tend to dominate the culture-as-a-whole, so the changes can’t happen without their implicit approval. (Of course, you’ll always see a few die-hard members of the old guard complaining that they liked the old ways better.)

That seems like the right way to do things. The alternative is to say, “This culture is for white heterosexual crabby men (to pick a random example), and you have to adapt to our worldview if you want to be a member.” But what’ll happen is that there won’t be many new members, a lot of the more tolerant old members will drift away, and the culture will just keep getting whiter and straighter and crabbier and maler and older, until it eventually vanishes altogether. Who wants that to happen?


I generally agree, I just take exception to the degree to which newcomers to many communities lately seem to feel that they can dictate changes to the norms or it’s discrimination, particularly when done without any effort to consider why a community may hold its current norms, or the fact that the situation is likely to be the safe, comfortable home for some of the people there, and announcing your intent to change it may reasonably not be well received.

Edit: lost my last line.

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What are you talking about? USENET isn’t… (oh crap)

Never mind. Forget I said anything.



Having been through it (as an engineering student) during the mid 1980s, I don’t think that the experience is truly captured by the “narrow audience -> wider audience” analogy. Something well worth saving was lost when the floodgates opened. From the outsider’s perspective it was a geeks club. From the insider’s, it was an exchange of ideas between people who, in general, had invested an effort into being able to communicate and felt as if they were building something. These people knew what RFCs were about, and worked together - if not to help develop them, then at least to be able to understand and discuss them. Watching the technology and social impact of the internet grow and advance was a collective experience.

I saw the stampede of newcomers into the newsgroups where this was taking place, people who had no clue how Usenet operated and frankly weren’t interested. The level of signal to noise went from near 100% to near zero in what seemed like minutes. Thousands of postings in ALL CAPS for every uncapitalized posting. People demanding the moderator (nearly all Usenet newsgroups were unmoderated at that point), sysop, or other authority to report another user. And gradually increasing amounts of spam.

If there is a place on the Internet where like minded people can meet and collaborate as easily as they did back then, I have yet to find it. Memory is highly subjective, however, and it could be that mine has simply filtered away the unpleasant bits…


It’s about ethics in journalism, right?


They held the norms because it was a bunch of white, male nerds only speaking to their own, by and large. I was there. I ran a UUCP node in the late 80s and was active on Usenet from about '88 through '98 or so. Diversity of opinions? What’s that? Yes, everyone was treated equally as well as long as they conformed to the accepted geek behaviors and modes of discourse.

The evil newcomers you complain about were when large influxes people people who weren’t simply white, male nerds came in, like women or minorities, and actually wanted to be treated with equal respect and have their own conversations as well.


(Sorry. Flashbacks…)


What’s “top posting?”


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Not to the point of the subject, but… why do you have a bar across the top of the screen that hides text? Do you know how annoying it is to page down and then have to go back a couple of lines every time?

It was bad enough when other places did it. You should know better than Huffington Post (who I increasingly skip entirely anyway, because you have to have Facebook to comment, and I won’t).

I’d hesitate to go along with the idea that the influx from AOL was significantly more diverse than the university population which predominated at the time. It was definitely less nerdy though.

I’m pretty sure my grandmother used AOL and still does.