I blame Google
When google comes under attack, I’m usually one of the voices in the peanut gallery defending them. That’s because most of the attacks on them, particularly the anti-trust stuff involving regulators, is grossly ill-informed and follows an Agenda that seeks to subvert Google’s central purpose of supplying the best possible search results for the person searching.
Now I’m going to attack. It may be true (as I’ve argued here before) that there’s a certain historic inevitability to the Enclosure of the Commons. But that doesn’t excuse Google’s crucial role, particularly in the demise of the Usenet commons.
The suicide and resurrection of an online community in which I participate has reminded me of that. It started on November 3rd, with an an announcement that a set of discussion boards was to close on Nov 17th. Just two weeks notice: quite a large number of boards and a thriving community. The reason given was problems with old/unmaintainable software (which had indeed left a lot to be desired), but we suspect that the more fundamental reason was that the website (which has, in other areas, a number of paid staff) was losing money.
Why they didn’t try to sell the boards – with community intact – to whomsoever thought they could make a go of it – eludes me. But that’s now water under the bridge. And it may be a long-term blessing, if a highest bidder might’ve been under financial pressure themselves and perhaps trashed the site with intrusive levels of advertising.
Of course, discussion turned to ideas for how it might be replaced. My own preferred option of a decentralised solution – individual blogs with an aggregator to focus the community – was a non-starter on that timescale, even if it could in principle have gained traction in the absence of time pressure. But someone else had a practical solution: they set up an alternative site at a new domain with well-chosen name, and phpbb driving a replacement set of boards. They announced it within hours of the closure notice, and rapidly gained traction. The community has been rapidly migrating to the new site, which now also has tremendous goodwill. Early days, but it seems we have a level of continuity, albeit with archives about to be relegated to what may be found in dusty attics.
So what has this little tale got to do with Google or Usenet? Well, the old boards originated in January 1998. The second half of the ’90s was precisely when lots of websites were making a land-grab for online discussion fora, and a rising non-techie user base would follow the best-advertised route oblivious to inherent limitations like private (often quixotic) control and single points of congestion and failure. As soon as a community moves from the Usenet commons to the private gardens – walled or otherwise – of a website, it becomes vulnerable to all kinds of things, like a rug being pulled.
Google’s role comes in their own land-grab, and in what they did to Dejanews. Actually, come to think of it, the first time I ever heard the name Google was in that context: they were a company that had bought Dejanews. So now the folks who run the fantastic Usenet search engine now also have web search, and … it turns out to be rather good, returning results more-or-less as good as Altavista but without all the clutter and crap that had made Altavista a pain to use. Nice!
But it turned out to be part of a much more sinister agenda. Google Groups started life as a WWW gateway to Usenet: all good. But the waves of new users coming through Google weren’t being told that: they saw web fora, with thriving communities. If memory serves, it was the whole of Usenet (less some of the wilds of alt.*) that had been hijacked in an audacious land grab. Old-timers found ourselves fighting a losing battle against the impression that the whole thing was Google’s territory. Google were far from the only people doing that (and public mailinglists got similar gateways), but they were unique in owning Dejanews.
But Dejanews itself disappeared. Or rather, became just a tab in an integrated Google search frontend. Then the tab wasn’t even labelled “news”, which took on the obvious meaning it still has today. Then the “groups” tab vanished: after all, the content was Google Groups, and that’s just Web content like any other, right? Over the following decade or so, Usenet content simply vanished, increasingly much of it literally so.
The community mindshare had been grabbed, except for old-timers. Search had been lost gradually and the community, like a boiling frog, had failed to react to incremental changes and create an alternative. In the face of such trends, the will to put much effort into other things like newsreader development and combating the rise of spam, also waned. The land grab has happened, the commons are lost, we live in a world of private gardens. Worse still, many including the biggest (Facebook) are walled off against us: access is limited to their registered users! And it’s very largely all Google’s fault.
If I can be arsed I may post a followup to this, proposing a new alternative. It won’t be Usenet: that ship has sailed. It will be based on aggregation and syndication of distributed content, under the control of individuals. Damn, am I fighting the same battle I pooh-poohed Moglen for?