Friday, June 17, 2005

An ode to Usenet

One of my favorite quotes from The Princess Bride is when the grandfather says, "When I was your age, television was called books". Well, in my youth, blogs and web discussion forums were called "Usenet". I've often wondered about the balkanizing effect of having various topical discussion scattered across thousands of web sites, rather than "centralized" (in a distributed sort of way) via a news server: a one-stop shop for all discussion forums. In fact, RSS feeds and aggregators are a response to this balkanization, allowing each of us to, in effect, create a virtual news server of just those news streams we're interested in. However, this approach has three problems:
  1. We have to rely on serendipity to find feeds of interest, as opposed to just searching the news server.
  2. Each news source is distributed in a centralized fashion, with the originator bearing all of the bandwidth costs. Usenet is a distributed model. But, then again, each site (ISP, company, university) has to maintain a dedicated server for Usenet news. We'll call this a tradeoff between concentrations of disks for local caching versus concentrations of bandwidth for distribution.
  3. The posting interface is separate from the reading interface. You can't post comments from any RSS aggregator I know of. Not only that, but there are really two reading interfaces, the aggregator and the web site itself, with different user interfaces.
Anyway, this was all brought to mind by the coincidence of the article linked from the title and an email conversation with a colleague about creating some sort of online discussion area for UW faculty separate from UW itself and the obsolescence of Usenet for this purpose.

Well, Usenet lives on, and you can still read and post to newsgroups via Google Groups. They're also supposed to have an archive of Usenet since the beginning of time, but it seems the search is still beta. Here's the earliest post of my own I could find:

Newsgroups: net.emacs
From: sti...@zeus.cs.ucla.edu (Michael D Stiber)
Date: Wed, 16-Jul-86 07:46:31 EDT
Local: Wed,Jul 16 1986 7:46 am
Subject: GNU Emacs on the IBM RT

Does anyone know if GNU Emacs has been ported to the RT yet, or 
if there are plans to?

                     Michael Stiber
                     ARPANET: sti...@ucla-locus.arpa
                     USENET:  ...{ucbvax,ihpn4}!ucla-cs!stiber
I'm pretty sure I posted before then, but it still brings back memories.

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