Clueless Usenet Newbie: ''Re: Jesus' Birthday''

I have never posted before, and I hope that I am doing this correctly. This is in response to the questions about the dates of the birth of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. —Dennis G. Jerz, 1993. —Clueless Usenet Newbie: ”Re: Jesus’ Birthday” (alt.folklore.urban)

What a dork I was.

I was… am part of the Eternal September — the wave of newbies that logged on in 1993 and ruined Usenet for good.

Usenet is a large collection of electronic newsgroups, which originated in 1979. Since newsgroups predate the World Wide Web, it’s perhaps misleading to say that a newsgroup is kind of like a threaded discussion forum — but that comparison will do for starters.

According to the Usenet News HowTo (which apparently predates the convention for naming such documents FAQs), “The Usenet is a huge worldwide collection of discussion groups. Each discussion group has a name, e.g. comp.os.linux.announce, and a collection of messages. These messages, usually called articles, are posted by readers like you and me who have access to Usenet servers, and are then stored on the Usenet servers.”

Usenet messages look very much like e-mail, but the author of an e-mail has to know the address of an individual person in order to send it to that person. If you subscribe to an e-mail list, the articles are “pushed” into your in box on somebody else’s schedule. They might be compiled and sent daily or weekly, but they still land in your in-box with all the mail that has been sent to you alone.

The author of a Usenet article sends it to a group (my favorite is, though I mostly lurk there these days). Anyone who wants to see what has been posted lately to fires up a newsreader, and points it at that address.

If you’ve used a discussion forum or a blog, the actions I describe may seem trivial. If your e-mail reader lets you use multiple folders and complex filing and archiving techniques in present-day e-mail readers, it may seem positively boring. But as in the dark days before Google, finding and archiving online information was difficult.

Vannevar Bush, writing in the 1940s, noted that only a generation or two earlier, the average scientist could find and read all the important publications in a particular field. As the amount of knowledge produced increased, however, it became more and more difficult to keep up. Even if you did have the time to read all the relevant words that were written, the stuff that you wanted to read was harder and harder to find, because you had to wade through ever-mounting stacks of stuff that you didn’t want to read. (His solution, the Memex, was ahead of its time.)

Usenet was significant because its users organized themselves (with some help from a mysterious non-existent cabal) into hundreds and thousands of hierarchical channels (e.g. “rec” for “recreation,” “arts” for “the opposite of science” and “int-fiction” for “interactive fiction”), and made at least somewhat serious efforts to confine their conversations to the assigned subject areas.

Unlike a message board, the newsgroup servers would archive only a certain number of messages at a time. If you wanted to keep a message, you had to save a copy of it locally.

E-mail readers were very primitive back when they were used mostly by geeks who didn’t need no steenkin’ icons or menus. Newsgroup postings were plain text — no icons, no graphics, no navigation buttons. This wasn’t some odd retro choice — it was the command-line interface. You typed something to the computer, and it typed back to you. That was how computer interfaces worked (and it was a great improvement over paper tape and punch cards).

So what about the Endless September? At the beginning of every academic year, as a new crop of college students started playing around with their network accounts, Usenet old-timers complained that the communities they had nurtured and maintained according to the rules of netiquette were invaded by clueless newbies who (like me) trampled the flowerbeds, tracked mud into the front parlor, didn’t clear our plates when we were finished eating, laughed at all the wrong times, and didn’t laugh at the right times. We didn’t know when to post a smiley, when to attribute a quotation, and when to STFU.

I cringe when I read what I wrote back then. Why did I post this to a newsgroup devoted to urban folklore? I certainly never expected it to be searchable and clickable years later (after a website called DejaNews published nearly decades of Usenet archives, and Google later bought them out).

Jorn Barger, the legendary netizen who coined the word “weblog,” once told me there ought to be a separate netnews ghetto for “you guys” (e.g. academics).

Note that if you click on these links, you will see the messages in your browser window, neatly laid out with an interface that groups and nests threads, and offers complex search capability. That’s really nothing like the technological context in which Usenet articles were originally created (on a line-editor — a word processor that edits only one line of text at a time) and read (mostly in a linear fashion).

Depending on your news reader’s settings and the activity level of the newsgroup, posts often disappeared from view after a few days. Unless you archived each message as it came into your reader, or someone volunteered to post archives online, older messages were often irretrievable. As a result, authors were expected to excerpt and cite the relevant passages in posts to which they responded.

While only a handful of students regularly read my blog, I’m sure that my own blogging style influences the blogging of my students. This is true of any teacher in any subject, however. I like to see a good debate in class, but when I see students using their blogs to go at each other’s throats, my blood pressure rises.

A few students who have been blogging on their own personal sites for years have noted that they are having a bit of difficulty adjusting to the more formal tone and subject matter that bloggers at SHU tend to adopt. John Spurlock’s students are blogging about sex, and Mike Arnzen blogs such topics as “Famine Fiction’s Fecal Fixation“, and student Kate Cielinski recently renamed her blog “Zombie Hotties and Vampire Vixens.” While the subject matter is hardly parochial, the tone is appropriately academic. One doesn’t see much casual use of the f-word on the academic blogs, for instance, though it may be common in the online diary a student has kept for years on some other personal site.

While I’ll probably never feel comfortable with “f—“, I don’t mind “sucks” or “lousy” — two words that used to conjure up shocking images, but which are now innocuous and nostalgic, respectively.

There are certain conventions of online text that I’ll probably never give up (such as, “Avoid writing ‘Click here!'”), and others that I won’t miss at all when they fade away.

While the basic principles of Usenet netiquette remain useful, changing technology has made some of the specifics pretty much irrelevant (e.g. don’t use a .sig
file longer than your post; carefully edit your replies in order to preserve the chain of nested indented quotations; avoid top-posting). It’s always interesting to me to watch my students testing out strategies to drive traffic to their blogs, or giving each other hints on how to make the most of their blogs. I’m trying to resist the urge to save them from all the bumps in the road they are likely to encounter.

It’s September, and I’m unleashing another crop of bloggers on the world. But some have been blogging already for years, and have developed a culture all their own. They’re going to trample a few of my flowers and track a little dirt on my carpet, but that’s okay, because I don’t live in a museum.

Last night, in an e-mail discussion list for teacher-bloggers, one member lamented that one of her students was using his blog to trash her and her methods — in part because she has asked him to apply certain standards of academic decorum to his academic blog. Those standards rankled him, because it meant that he was being asked to change the writing style he had developed in his personal journal.

The discussion that ensued reminded me that a little more than ten years ago, I was a clueless newbie, fumbling my way towards basic internet literacy. It seems like I blinked, and suddenly I’m working with a group of online teachers on establishing standards — however informal and nebulous — and debating where to draw the line.

I have never done this before, and I hope that I am doing this correctly.

Update, 16 Sep: Frank Carver describes his own experience with Usenet before newbies like me arrived.