Monday, August 16, 2010

On the Loss of the Usenet

Let's take a trip back through time, way back to the early days of computer connectivity, back before Facebook, Myspace, blogging, instant messaging, and even back before chat rooms. Bulletins boards, well I think that is going too far back, but somewhere in that gap between bulletin boards and chat rooms there thrived this entity formally called the Usenet (Wikipedia), but also called newsgroups or discussion forums.

It was a simple, text only system, broken into various specializations where people could post questions and then others would post answers, although in the political groups, it was more along the lines of posting a rant only to be countered by an equally strong rant from the other side. It was threaded which made it easier to enter a discussion and addess only 1 post of interest. The heyday for this technology was from the mid-90's until about 2000, although it still exists today. Google still track the Usenet (under the "Groups" link). There was a very good group on polymers but being unmoderated, the Usenet has fallen into a huge trash heap of endless spam and is now largely ignored. (Looking at the archive, postings have fallen from a high of not quite 500/month to less than 10/month, and as you may also notice, I contributed quite a bit to the group over the years.)

The whole point of this post is that the Usenet served a valuble purpose that has not been replaced. Discussion groups do exist, but they are nowhere near as active as the Usenet was, and they seem mostly to be filled with students looking for someone to do their homework for them.

I do miss taking a swing at the questions, and while I do occasionally get such questions from people who stumble upon this blog, they are few and far between. I'm going to try and set up a questions box on the sidebar and see if that can change things. If anybody knows a simple way to do this, I'd be happy to take any shortcuts - "Dang it Jim, I'm a polymer scientist, not an HTML coder!"


孙尉翔 said...

Although the forms of communication changed from BBS to Twitter, discussions of serious and professional topics of particular scientific research fields are always rare. Most researchers tend to or only have time to focus on their own narrow field of study. Only a few people like to learn as much as possible by answering questions out of their own fields. The number of questions asked will increase infinitely and the people willing to answer questions keep going away. Not to mention some offensive events during the discussion.

John said...

Agreed, the discussion was always introductory, although certainly the polymer group was more fortunate than the chemistry group, as many of the chemistry threads were just high schoolers looking for someone to do their homework for them.

Just given that this or similar technologies limits the nature of the interactions. To me, an oral discussion would be best as it can be back-and-forth with rapid turnaround and also the ability to ask questions and clarification immediately.

That is why in my opinion technical conferences still exist and will exist pretty much forever. If you've ever tried webconferencing, you know it falls way short.