Gather around children, an old geezer is about to take a trip down memory lane. Don't grumble; you might learn something interesting and it's quite obvious that you have nothing better to do right now - why else would you be reading even these first few sentences? So sit down and listen up.
Well, yes, that might be asking too much: while I do expect some pretense of polite attention while I drone on, it's fine if you talk quietly or answer email, play games or otherwise distract yourselves during the most boring bits - I'd do the same, and in fact I do, regularly.
Where was I? Oh, yes, I wanted to talk about Usenet Newsgroups and the cranky old denizens of the same. You may not even know what these are, so I invite you to read Wikipedia's exposition on this if you'd prefer that to listening to me. I have every intention of blathering on about this anyway, so if you hate repetition, perhaps you shouldn't read that. I really don't know why I mentioned it.
Anyway, it was not so very long ago in geologic time that Microsoft announced that they were dropping all their old Newsgroup discussion groups.. This didn't mean the end of discussions about Microsoft products, it's just that there will be no more Newsgroup groups, only forums.
"So what?", you ask, and that is a legitimate question which I will ignore nonetheless. Well, maybe not ignore, but I'll meander around as we old geezers always do. You'll get an answer eventually, though maybe not, because I get distracted easily and may get so wrapped up in some detail that I forget to come back to this.
People new to the Internet may not even understand the difference between a forum and a Newsgroup. Indeed, many may never have participated in any Newsgroup discussions at all. If you have, it may have only been thorough Google Groups, and if your only exposure to the Usenet Newsgroups (with a capital N, yes) has been through that, it can be a little hard to tell the difference between those and a discussion forum. They both have people discussing things, arguing, calling each other idiots and so on. What's the difference?
A casual look might cause you to think that a Newsgroup is just a forum with a paucity of features. That's true enough: you can't vote on the usefulness of posts, and won't see many other features that many modern forums boast. But there's more to it than that, and I will get to it if you can find some way to keep yourself awake while I talk.
You see, these groups go way back. They go so far back that they existed at the time that the computers of the then nascent Internet weren't all connected together all the time as they are now. The computers communicated with each other by telephone, sending mail and newsgroup posts through slow telephone modems, often storing up messages and waiting until night for cheaper rates.
Worse, to move a message to get from computer A to computer X, it might have to first go to computer J and then to M and then to Y. These were uucp (Unix to Unix Communication Protocol) 'hops", designed to save telephone charges. It could sometimes take days for some remote systems to get messages intended for them.
I hear you muttering your doubt. I speak truth, whippersnapper, and if you continue to mock me, I shall thump you with my cane.
The software that handled the Newsgroups was NNTP (Network News Transport Protocol). A company or university that wanted its users to have access to these groups would install NNTP on their server. The users in turn would need News Reader software to read and post messages to the group. You can still find News Reader software today and you can still find a few NNTP servers, but almost everybody uses Google Groups instead.
While you were tweeting, you missed something important in that last section: we didn't access the groups using web browsers. We had special software called (generically) "news readers" - rn, trn and many others, all text based or at least text oriented.
Do you remember what I said about the telephones and the hops? This meant that it was perfectly possible, and often even likely, that you could see someone reply to a Newsgroup post before you had seen the post itself. That's because the person replying was closer to the original sender and therefore got to see the original message before you. If they happened to be "well connected", their reply might reach you before the original message did. That could be confusing.
That can't happen on a forum because a forum runs on one server - everybody sees what everybody else sees. But with NNTP, the various and complicated hops meant messages could and often did arrive out of order. There could be minutes, hours or even days before you could see everything.
Everyone who used the Internet in the early days understood that. But as computers started to be more connected all the time and new users found it easier to join in the fun the Internet pioneers were having, those new users often didn't understand the history or the mechanics. Delayed messages became less common, but they still existed.
When an innocent would err in some way that indicated a lack of understanding, the Cranky Old Newsgroup Guys (sometimes called Cranky Old Newsgroup Gurus) would joyfully pile on to educate the newbie. Some would engage in pedantry so painfully plodding that even those of us with sympathy toward their displeasure would cringe and beg that they desist. Others would caustically disparage the newbies intelligence, speculate as to their likely genetic heritage and effectively attempt to create new virtual orifices for the poor neophyte. Many a flame war saw its first sparks when a new arrival made some simple error.
It could be that they would commit the grievous sin of not quoting context. If the message you are replying to might arrive elsewhere later than your reply, you had darn well better include what the other guy said, right? Newbies didn't know that, and suffered for their ignorance.
If they did learn that lesson, they were not yet out of danger. Most would quite naturally type their reply above the quoted text. That's how you usually reply to email, isn't it? Yes, but in the Newsgroups, that was unforgivable. You were supposed to reply UNDER the quoted text and failure to do so would mark you as a pariah and worse. You had committed the sin of top posting, and few could tolerate your insolence.
For more on top/bottom posting, see Usenet is not a web site.
The Cranky Old Newsgroup Guys were even fussy about how you asked your question. If they didn't like the way you framed it, they'd refer you to How To Ask Questions The Smart Way and disdain to answer until you corrected your error.
Some of the distaste for the newbies came from a feeling that they hadn't paid their dues and had no right to use the Internet. You see, in the early days, you had to know a bit about computer software to get connected. It was pretty complicated in the beginning. But by the middle to late 90's, that all changed and it started to become as it is now: turn on your computer and you have the Internet. The Cranky Old Newsgroup Guys were elitist.
I must confess that I was a Cranky Old Newsgroup Guy at times. However, I saw that the tide of Internet history was against me. I saw that the future was at the forums and I turned my back on the Usenet Newsgroups.
Oh, I have been back now and then. Some of the old timers are still there, grumbling about top posting and how Google Groups ruined Usenet. But most have left, often ending their final posts with the same melancholy phrase:
Last one out, please turn off the lights
It's getting darker in Usenet. Microsoft is shutting off its lights and others are sure to follow. But somewhere a Cranky Old Newsgroup Guy will always curse the darkness and mutter about top posting and other sins.
You can read more at Usenet software: a historical perspective, assuming you are still awake and that I have sparked any interest, of course.
Oh, I forgot about "So what?". I knew that would happen. The answer is "Sew buttons", which means, yes, you were right: "So what?" is exactly right. It doesn't matter. The Newsgroups are effectively dead. Google still indexes them - although there were rumors that they stopped - but I imagine that few good answers are found unless you are digging up very old issues.
Yes, I see you are all getting restless. I am done reminiscing for now, you may move along to something more current.
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More Articles by Anthony Lawrence © 2011-10-22 Anthony Lawrence