I was going through my mail archive looking for something completely unrelated when I came across this. It was written for a bunch of whippersnappers on a mailing list at the back end of last year and I'd pretty much forgotten about it. But when I found it again I found myself thinking "Hey, this isn't bad; it deserves a wider audience." So, here you go.
Gather 'round oh my children and let Uncle Piers tell you a story of the days when September only lasted around 50 days. The elder days, before, during and just after The Great Renaming. For I was there.
When I went up to Nottingham I knew nothing about Usenet or the ARPAnet (in fact, in my years at university I never got ARPAnet access, though it was apparently available during my last year there). There was this weird bulletin board system called, if I remember rightly, 'info', which carried mostly local groups, and something called sf-lovers which was a science fiction discussion group and which was far and away the most active.
Then one day in my second term, a second year told me to 'type rn, it's cool'. So I did. And it was (thanks Larry). I read the Frequently Asked Questions lists on net.announce.newusers with a mounting 'wow! this is really cool!' reaction, and off I went to start reading. I didn't actually send my first post to usenet. The 'hundreds, if not thousands of dollars' warning successfully put me off.
Looking back, the only real difference between Usenet then and Usenet now was that there was no commercial spam and the volume was way lower. There were still idiots who'd crosspost to 101 newsgroups, but that was generally ok, so long as they didn't multipost. There were still flaming lusers and splendidly stupid flamewars (generally about Robert Heinlein, at least on net.sf-lovers, later rec.arts.sf-lovers). The mythical, luser free age was already looked back on nostalgically by the Old Farts, but I got the strong feeling that it never really existed. We were (and still are) a cliquey bunch and I'm quite sure that we've always had to deal with people we thought of as assholes.
What has changed since those days? (and, to a lesser extent, since my early days as a demon customer and later as the sysadmin at Frontier). Well, there's been a steady erosion of trust, which has been awful to watch. Back in the day, if a site had access to the 'net you could be reasonably sure that the postmaster at least had a clue, and was probably in a position of some authority over the people who posted from that site. Posting priviledges could be (and sometimes were) removed from abusive users. You could generally rely on people not to abuse the system. Just look at the protocols in use at the time. By
todays standards they seem terribly naive, most of the time they worked by relying on everyone to play nice and not to start lying to machines. And, dammit, for a long time that was all that was needed.
The world changed with Canter and Siegel, and with the Morris Worm. I don't think we realised quite how much C&S's spam changed the world at the time, but looking back, here were people who genuinely didn't care how much they were costing the 'net and who had consciously broken the rules (and in those days they were real rules) about commercial traffic. Trouble is, they could, and probably did, point at all the
By the time that the ISPs started going, the world had changed again. The people who gained access via Delphi, Genie, AOL and others were no longer being granted access by some benevolent sysadmin. They were paying for it directly and they were the masters now. They had their own, provider culture and they expected Usenet to fit how they expected the world to work. Look at early posts from these people, and the reaction to them, and you'll see massive communications breakdowns between two very different world views. There was always going to be trouble.
But, on usenet at least, all that really happened was that the volume of traffic exploded yet again, so we got a whole lot more kooks and a whole lot more spammers. And a few of us went off and started the network that shall not be named, which is still going strong, and we also attempted to start usenet2, which failed dismally.
But I still lament the death of trust. It pains me that there are contemptible little shits out there who are prepared to run dDOS attacks, or who are happy to break into dabox simply because it's there. I hate the fact that I've had to become paranoid. I hate having to run spam filters and I really hate that spam still gets through. I hate the fact that my cix email address gets nothing but spam eight years after it was last used to post something to Usenet, that the GOOD NEWS email virus actually exists now albeit under a different name and I despise Microsoft for unapologetically allowing it to happen. I hate the fact that, if I want to reply to someone on usenet by mail now, the odds are good that if I just hit 'r' and send the message then that message will bounce because of address munging.
All that (and a good deal more if I really start ranting) said, the 'net is still a fantastically useful and, for me at least, life enhancing resource. Tools and places like google, imdb, amazon and its brethren, the kgs go server, okbridge, PernMUSH, London.pm, The scary devil monastery, rhizomatic.net, use.perl.org and all those other places where cool people hang out have enriched my life. A couple of years ago Gill and I went to the 'States for a couple of weeks and had a fantastic time staying with people that I'd only met on the net before. They were, without exception, great people who made our holiday so much more enjoyable. Without the 'net, we'd probably still have had a fine holiday, but I doubt we'd've taken the trouble to visit Seattle, which was fantastic, or to then drive from Seattle to LA (which was just stunning, I love the Oregon coast, and coming into San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge on a gorgeous, clear evening as the sun was setting is definitely something I'm not going to be forgetting in a hurry).
These are resources that should be shared and that everyone should have the opportunity to use. The loss of trust is, I believe a price worth paying, but you can make your own decisions.