I Miss Usenet

For all their flaws, the rec.arts.comics groups (which I last visited over a year ago) were the last time I really felt a part of a comic discussion forum. I keep up with several web fora now, but because they’re moderated (and proudly in an iconoclastic “follow the leader’s rules, no matter how sensible or not” fashion), I always feel as though I’m there on sufferance and had better watch what I say.

It’s not unusual that I’d miss them. After all, I was part of them for almost 20 years. (Gasp!) But I was thinking about them again, after reading Russ Allbery on community. This one made me cry, as I was thinking “Yes! Yes” to points like these:

I’ve strongly disagreed with the idea that Usenet is dying. I still do, I think. I think things ebb and flow and shift around, but up until now I haven’t really thought about how my interaction with Usenet has changed, whether Usenet has died a little for me. But I’m sitting here, trying to capture how I feel about newsgroups and the communities in them, how I feel when I post, what threads I participate in, and… there’s That Hierarchy, there’s a sense of attachment to the technology and to a bunch of technical newsgroups, and there’s some combination of dogged persistence and obligation attached to news.groups. But… friends, connections, common causes, play, passion for a cause… that all used to be there, that’s all in those old messages, and where did that all go? Did I change, did it change, what happened?

… time marches relentlessly on, the entry scrolls off the bottom of friends pages, no one checks back for more comments, and the restless executioner of technologically enforced attention span puts a bullet in the head of another conversation.

I got to know those people on Usenet. And I’m not sure I know how to get to know people on-line any more.

My communities were on Usenet, and I’ve changed, and Usenet has changed, and I’m not sure that I can see them any more, and I’m not sure how I found them in the first place. But something disappeared and I didn’t replace it, and I’m afraid the places where I found it originally are too toxic to find it again.

So why not go back? Because of that last bit. I’m not convinced that the signal-to-noise ratio has improved from the cellar levels that caused me to drift away. Heck, I’m not even sure my current ISP offers Usenet server access, and the Google groups interface is atrocious. And because what I miss isn’t a technology but a group of people who were long gone from a time when there was only one free place online to talk about comics and everyone went there.

I miss it. A lot.

22 Responses to “I Miss Usenet”

  1. Elio M. García, Jr. Says:

    Free Usenet access is difficult to find, but it’s out there. I’ve found http://news.datemas.de/ to be quite reliable.

  2. Ralf Haring Says:

    I just quit checking it about a month ago. It was too much hassle to filter the good from the bad. I also didn’t really have much to say anymore since the discussion is mostly about single issues and I was following most series in collected form.

  3. Michael Grabois Says:

    Wow. He said what I had been thinking, only way better.

    For me, it was the rec.arts.comics.* and sci.space.* groups, I was all over the place, reading and replying. But eventually it just got too much – not the s/n ratio, just too much stuff. So I took a hiatus. I loved being a part of that community (especially the comics ones), it made the shared experience more enjoyable, whether online or in person at conventions.

    I never really went back because I got out of the habit of checking in, and by the time I did, the web-based message boards had really come to life and (a) there was too much to choose from and (b) everyone scattered. That, plus some personal stuff that kept me off line much more than in the past, made it easy to not go back.

  4. kate Says:

    Yeah, I dropped out completely, too. (I was mostly a rac.(m).xbooks person.) And when I try to get back into it again, it’s really difficult– I’m not the same person I was, I don’t care about the same things, the conversations have, for the most part, gone elsewhere, and it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    But I do miss it. The conversations aren’t the same on blogs and message boards.

  5. Eric Gimlin Says:

    Well, I was only around Usenet for a few years; not as long as a lot of people. But I have followed some of the people to to the Web, at least in part because I remember them from usenet.

    Here, Legion Omnicom, Howling Curmegeons, and a few other sites make me feel like I’m getting about 80% of the actual content still. (I also use Google groups to catch RAC.reviews, at least.) I miss the give and take, though. But the signal to noise just got way too high.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Wow, names I remember. Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my nostalgia.

    Ralf, you make a good point, that the groups were very focused on what was current, and it was hard to participate if you weren’t an every-Wednesday-buy-and-read kind of person.

    Eric, yeah, I miss sprawling threads that ran for weeks as the conversation continued. You can’t do that on blogs and journals, because material just scrolls away.

  7. Sebastian Says:

    I still read (and occasionally even post) on Usenet, but it has to share its “screen time” with a lot of webforums, mailing-lists and blogs. I currently read some 2 dozen groups regularly, most notably rec.arts.sf.written (which still manages an impressive 9k posts / month). Usenet as a whole is not dead, but only for some topics. For many others most of the interesting traffic IMHO migrated away from Usenet years ago and my attention had to follow. Comics-wise Usenet by now feels pretty dead to me, even internationally (German, French).

  8. Journalista » Blog Archive » Sept. 27, 2006: The early adopters Says:

    […] Johanna Draper Carlson offers a short but eloquent eulogy for the old rec.arts.comics Usenet groups of years past, as well as a lament for the reasons that compelled her to abandon them. […]

  9. Hal Shipman Says:

    I’m still around in those parts, mainly becuase I’m a creature of habit. I do strongly prefer Usenet as a technology for the threading, filtering/kill-filing and speed and the functional aspects you describe. But with everyone having scattered, the signal to noise ratio has dropped to almost total static. I’ve gone for days without checking and have come close to dropping it entirely.
    There are web fora that I will read, but not participate in, as I’d rather not engage with certain people – ones that I could ignore on Usenet, but the actually have control over the conversation on the web. CWR is, I think, the sole exception and, for that, I give you thanks, Johanna.
    I miss mid-late ’90’s Usenet, too.

  10. George Says:

    I still check in from time to time, but my habits and schedule have changed. When it’s good, Usenet is still very very good; when it’s bad, it’s the worst thing around–but it was always thus, at least throughout my experience there from the early 90s onward. I do miss the relationships I feel I developed there, and often find myself thinking, “whatever happened to?” along with “I’d come back more often if they would”–and many of the folks I see posting her (to say nothing of our great proprietress) are in that “they” category.

    Should we hold a RAC Reunion Week in RAC.misc, putting the word out to just have everyone drop in for at least a “Hey. Good to see you again. What are you reading?”

    I’ll bring the beverages….

  11. Hal Shipman Says:

    ” ‘I’d come back more often if they would’–and many of the folks I see posting her (to say nothing of our great proprietress) are in that ‘they’ category.”

    Yes. By all means, yes.

    Yes. Absolutely.

  12. Cole Moore Odell Says:

    I used to spend quite a bit of time on the DC Universe Usenet in the second half of the 90s when it was more or less the only game in town–seems like a million years ago now. After leaving Usenet I never got interested in any of the subsequent fora–The Engine, etc. Perhaps it’s because I stopped getting my books every Wednesday; when you’re even a week behind, the discussion rapidly moves ahead of you.

    Without neutral ground I find it harder to engage in discussion; with blog comments, you’re always visiting someone else’s house, instead of gathering together on the public square. And most of the time it feels like the blog proprietor is really just trying to land a writing gig with one of the companies whose comics he or she is complaining about/making fun of, so that the discussion becomes just a prop for the writing flourishes (which more often than not manifest as pointless snark.)

  13. Johanna Says:

    Aw, thanks, Hal.

    I LOVE the reunion idea! But when? Because yes, it is about the people who are there.

    Cole, I hope at least you find my snark pointed instead of pointless.

    And yes, the idea of “neutral ground” is key — control through peer expectations instead of someone wielding a hammer.

  14. David Oakes Says:

    A mighty hammer of Snark!

    Count me in for the reunion, too. I’ll bring the dip. So when is RAC.misc’s “birthday” then? (Make it an annual event, totally mess with the server numbers.)

  15. Jonathan Miller Says:

    I haven’t been on Usenet since…1994? I miss the old rac sometimes, but even by ’94, the signal-to-noise ratio was so high, I’d wind up slogging for hours to find stuff I was interested in.

    That being said, yeah, I occasionally miss it too. Which is why I was so excited to find you and the curmudgeons and others on the web. :-)

  16. Jamie Coville Says:

    I also used to read usenet, from 95 to about 2000 or so.

    I wrote this to Warren Ellis regarding usenet:

    I remember those usenet days. I got on the net in 95ish myself and even remember reading your posts.

    I think the main reason WEF was a success was your strong hand in kicking out the trolls and minimizing the typical usenet bullshit.

    Among the things I didn’t miss:

    – No “Who’d Win?!?” Thor vs. Superman threads.
    – No Christian Micheal Viola threating PADs life and repeatedly praising Liefeld’s art as the greatest thing ever.
    – No idiots posting spam, then getting upset when you tell them your not supposed to post spam.
    – No name calling and debating semantics (which many threads devolved to if it went on for more than a week).
    – No Pat O’Neil getting pissed off because you were supposed to talk about Marvel in the Marvel group and not in DC.
    – Non big two superhero books were something more than “misc”
    – No quoting a long post with only a throwaway one line comment at the bottom.
    – No arguing over dorks that regularly did that and wasted everybody’s time. Then followed by a long thread about how much to snip.
    – No arguing over what part of the post your chose to respond to and then chose not to respond to because they “won” that point.
    – No re-writing other peoples posts, putting words into their mouths, building strawmen in order to knock down and win their arguement.
    – No reviews titled “All the things that SUCKED: Batman #486″
    – No people threatening to e-mail your work and/or ISP and get you fired/kicked off the net if they disagreed with your opinions.
    – No OMAR.

  17. Cole Moore Odell Says:

    Johanna, I should have said “present company excepted”.

  18. Johanna Says:

    Thanks, Cole — I was curious because if I was giving the wrong impression (about trying to get comic work), I wanted to know so I could correct things. I can’t improve without honest feedback.

  19. Todd VerBeek Says:

    FX: Another ancient r.a.c.er decloaks

    I think r.a.c.* is analagous in many ways to ye olde broadcast television, compared to the Web’s digital cable. In the heyday of Usenet – which I’d peg at the mid-1990s (though of course tyg would probably cite the mid-1940s {smile}) – r.a.c.* (along CompuServe and with a few other places) was a more-or-less unifying online community about comics, that (despite the static) was worth tuning in. The folks on r.a.c.* turned me on to literally oodles of great comics. Now with 500 specialized comics message boards on the Web, there’s no *THE* place to go anymore, so the Posters Worth Reading are scattered all over the place. Also as *THE* focal point for online comics discussion and info, r.a.c.* was worth contributing to. It *mattered* (or it least it felt like it did).

    It helped that it required some technological aptitude to find and use. Perpetual September became Perpetual Tuesday After Labor Day At 8:00AM (to stretch a metaphor beyond its breaking point). With everybody and his emotionally and intellectually retarded brother getting on the Web, pretty much the only places to carry on an intelligent conversation are those ruled by petty tyrants, who – benevolent though they might sometimes be – are still tyrants. Usenet’s democratic model of open voting and self-appointed net.cops was never ideal and clearly doesn’t scale well, but at least it felt inclusive… as much as a technologically exclusive club could. {wry grin}

    My abandonment of r.a.c.* around the turn of the century was mostly due to upheaval going on in my life at the time. But its declining significance and signal-to-noise ratio were certainly contributing factors. I do prefer Usenet’s technology (using a client custom-built for message threading) to every web-browser-based forum software I’ve seen to date. But like any golden age, there’s no recapturing it, because the net has changed.

    Cue Richard Burton: “Don’t let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment that was known / as rec dot arts dot comics dot….”

    Cheers, Todd

  20. George Says:

    Good Lord, as I live and breathe: it’s Todd VerBeek. One of those about whom I’ve thought, “Whatever happened to…?” Is Grant Enfield hanging about anywhere near CWR, too? Of more recent vintage, whither Michael Pastor?

    Jamie’s remarks about all the things not to miss from the days of Usenet’s prime are useful correctives to all this nostalgia, too.

    Part of the appeal, for me, is the sense that while I knew other people who read and loved and loved talking about comics before I found RAC, I didn’t know so many of them, nor so many so passionate, so intelligent, so fun to interact with. It really was a moment of plugging into a reality I’d previously never know of, one with its own rules and history and culture and virtures and vices–it was a heady feeling. What a brave new world, with such people in it, indeed.

    Now, in addtion to simply hating the web-interfaces (even on sites I love, like this one), the lack of centrality that others have mentioned for any given web forum just bleeds away any sense of having come to the greatest comics cafe of all time that I used to get when visiting RAC.

    But, enough. What would be a good time period for a RACer Reunion on RAC.misc? Any anniversaries coming up?

  21. David Oakes Says:

    There has to be something older, but the earliest “rec.arts.comics” post archived by Google (nee DejaNews?) is from November 26, 1986.

    Quite fittingly, it is by Tom Galloway. From a .arpa domain…

    Oh, the memories…

  22. I Still Miss Usenet » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    […] thought was called “I Miss Usenet” until I realized I already said that six years ago. But Graeme McMillan found a quote by Jason Hendriks that reminded me how much fun I […]




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