This week, as with the last several, I've been reading in the Usenet archives hosted by Google Groups. For those not familiar with it, Usenet was created in 1980 as a network of computers that shared data—conversations , code, files—through its topical newsgroups, often described as a precursor to Internet forums. Reading an "article," or posting, in a Usenet newsgroup would be a bit like reading emailed contributions to an open-access, publicly posted e-mailing list. Even in the early years, topics of discussion ranged widely, including computer programming, politics,religion, recipes, science-fiction and, in a strange sort of prescient coup, cat silliness.
Usenet has meant a lot of different things to different people, and even some of the folks who were instrumental in creating it had a hard time defining it. My research interests draw me to discussions of Usenet as a public forum that accompanied and informed its development—through software and patches and as an imagined space—in the 1980s. These discussions were especially fraught in newsgroups that centered women, such as net.women (later renamedsoc.women). Net.women was often held up—by both women and men, supporters and opponents—as exemplifying potential problems with Usenet, which in turn motivated a range of experiments and spin-offs. These "problems" included low signal-to-noise ratio (i.e., lots of off-topic, inaccurate or repetitive content), oversensitivity, trolls, anonymity, flames (vitriolic, inflammatory articles or replies), and nichification.
As the familiarity of some of the above terms might suggest, Usenet has left a lasting mark on the ways computer-mediated communication is conceptualized and designed. It also complicates histories of the Internet that describe a newer, "Web 2.0" defined by social, interactive media and user-generated content. The Google Group archives of Usenet are not complete, but they' re extensive. There's plenty to read there, but interested folks may also want to check outComputer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives (1996), edited by Susan Herring, Communities in Cyberspace (1999), edited by Marc A. Smith & Peter Kollock, or From Usenet to CoWebs (2003), edited by Christopher Lueg & Danyel Fisher.
–Bonnie Washick, Mary I. & David D. Huntington Graduate Student Fellow, political science; 6/11/2015