Andrew Mobbs (mobbsy) wrote,
Andrew Mobbs
mobbsy

I'm back from Jersey.

Some of you might have seen that there's been an attempt to create a newsgroup for "journal" type postings on a local linux box that a bunch of people have accounts on (i.e. chiark). This was mostly done because some people don't like web based discussion forums and believe Usenet to be better.

I think they're half-right, for prolonged, detailed discussion and debate amoung multiple participants, usenet is an extremely good technology. However, it's an undeniable fact that it has declined in importance in the face of web forums and blogs. I think you need to look at why, rather than just complaining that things were better in the old days and these new-fangled toy systems just aren't as good.

Usenet's strengths, when it works, are in a well structured format where conversation threads can be followed over weeks or more, branching and potentially following multiple paths amoung multiple participants. A combination of the newsreader software and social convention make reading textual information easy. I still find news much easier and faster to read than web forums.

One of the largest failures of news was the newsgroup creation and propagation model. Newsgroup hierarchies differed on how they allowed new group creation, the ones that worked had structured committees and the attendant politics and inertia. If you wanted a new newsgroup for whatever reason, you couldn't just create it, you had to argue and justify its existence to a group of people who at best wanted to maintain news as a well structured system, at worst were just on petty power trips.

On the one hand you had alt.*, where anybody could create a group, but propagation was dreadful (although going through alt.config could help that, but that had all the problems of the big-8 with fewer advantages). Overall the quality of alt.* was dreadful, there were some good groups, but mostly dross. Finding the good groups in alt.* was every bit as hard as finding good blogs and forum posts today. One relied on word-of-mouth or just stumbling across them.

Another reason Usenet declined was those of us insisting on lowest-common-denominator; text only, 72 columns, etc. The web offered a much richer environment that people wanted, with markup, graphics and hypertext all integral to the medium.

Usenet's primary advantage over earlier BBS systems was it's distributed nature. That's also caused it to become obsolete. The distributed nature means it's too hard to change. As technology moved on and the web hyperlinks overcame the disadvantages of earlier BBSes being stand-alone (pace any Fidonet fans); news looked old, people didn't want to fight political battles just to create a new forum that everybody would have access to.

News was a superbly designed technology of the 1980s, and has remained a superbly designed technology of the 80s. I think current web forum software could learn a lot by looking at the interface for trn or gnus. It's probably true when the detractors say there's been a retrograde step, there has in some ways. RSS, trackback and now OpenID improve things a bit, but there are still some shortcomings. For one, I'd love a trn-style tree-based navigation for forum posts, and (for LJ at least, others are better) better mechanisms for prolonged discussions (e.g. new comment notification for all interested parties, your LJ home page could contain a list of conversations you're interested in, with notification of new posts).
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