There is a Zen adage about how anything one cannot bear to give up is
not owned, but is in fact the owner. What follows relates how I am
owned by one less thing....
About a dozen years ago, when I was still a grad student at Georgia
Tech, we got our first Usenet connection (to allegra, then being run
by Peter Honeyman, I believe). I'd been using a few dial-in BBS
systems for a while, so it wasn't a huge transition for me. I quickly
got "hooked": I can claim to be someone who once read every newsgroup
on Usenet for weeks at a time!
After several months, I realized that it was difficult for a newcomer
to tell what newsgroups were available and what they covered. I made
a pass at putting together some information, combined it with a
similar list compiled by another netter, and began posting it for
others to use. Eventually, the list was joined by other documents
describing net history and information.
In April of 1982 (I believe it was -- I saved no record of the year,
but I know it was April), I began posting those lists regularly,
sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly; the longest break was for 4
months a few years ago when I was recovering from pneumonia and poor
personal time management. (Tellingly, only a few people noticed the
lack of postings, and almost all the mail was "When will they come
out?" rather than "Did something happen?") As time went on, people
began to attach far more significance to the posts than I really
intended. It was flattering for a very short time, and a burden for
most of the rest; there is no telling how much time I have devoted
over the last decade to answering questions, editing the postings, and
debating the role of newsgroup naming, to cite a few topics. I really
tired of being a "semi-definitive" voice.
Starting several years ago, at about the time people started pushing
for group names designed to offend or annoy others, or with a lack of
concern about the possible effects it might have on the net as a whole
(e.g., rec.drugs and comp.protocols.tcp-ip.eniac) I began to question
why I was doing the postings. I have had a growing sense of futility:
people on the net can't possibly find the postings useful, because
most of the advice in them is completely ignored. People don't seem
to think before posting, they are purposely rude, they blatantly
violate copyrights, they crosspost everywhere, use 20 line signature
files, and do basically every other thing the postings (and common
sense and common courtesy) advise not to. Regularly, there are postings
of questions that can be answered by the newusers articles, clearly
indicating that they aren't being read. "Sendsys" bombs and forgeries
abound. People rail about their "rights" without understanding that
every right carries responsibilities that need to be observed too, not
least of which is to respect others' rights as you would have them
respect your own. Reason, etiquette, accountability, and compromise
are strangers in far too many newsgroups these days.
I have finally concluded that my view of how things should be is too
far out-of-step with the users of the Usenet, and that my efforts are
not valued by enough people for me to invest any more of my energy in
the process. I am tired of the effort involved, and the meager --
nay, nonexistent -- return on my volunteer efforts.
This hasn't happened all at once, but it has happened. Rather than
bemoan it, I am acting on it: the set of "periodic postings" posted
earlier this week was my last. After 11 years, I'm hanging it up.
David Lawrence and Mark Moraes have generously (naively?) agreed to
take over the postings, for whatever good they may still do. David
will do the checkgroups, and lists of newsgroups and moderators
(news.lists), and Mark will handle the other informational postings
I'm not predicting the death of the Usenet -- it will continue without
me, with nary a hiccup, and six months from now most users will have
forgotten that I did the postings...those few who even know now, that
is. That is as it should be, I suspect. Nor am I leaving the
Usenet entirely. There are still a half-dozen groups that I read
sometimes (a few moderated and comp.* groups), and I will continue to
read them. That's about it, though. I've gone from reading all the
groups to reading less than ten. Funny, though, the total volume of
what I read has stayed almost constant over the years. :-)
My sincere thanks to everyone who has ever said a "thank you" or
contributed a suggestion for the postings. You few kept me going at
this longer than most sane people would consider wise. Please lend
your support to Mark and David if you believe their efforts are
valuable. Eventually they too will burn out, just as the Usenet has
consumed nearly everyone who has made significant contributions to its
history, but you can help make their burden seem worthwhile in
In closing, I'd like to repost my 3 axioms of Usenet. I originally
posted these in 1987 and 1988. In my opinion as a semi-pro
curmudgeon, I think they've aged well:
"The Usenet is not the real world. The Usenet usually does not even
resemble the real world."
"Attempts to change the real world by altering the structure
of the Usenet is an attempt to work sympathetic magic -- electronic
"Arguing about the significance of newsgroup names and their
relation to the way people really think is equivalent to arguing
whether it is better to read tea leaves or chicken entrails to
divine the future."
"Ability to type on a computer terminal is no guarantee of sanity,
intelligence, or common sense."
"An infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards
could produce something like Usenet."
"They could do a better job of it."
"Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to Usenet."
"In an unmoderated newsgroup, no one can agree on what constitutes
"Nothing guarantees that the 10% isn't crap, too."
Which of course ties in to the recent:
"Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea --
massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a
source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect
it." --spaf (1992)
"Don't sweat it -- it's not real life. It's only ones and zeroes."
-- spaf (1988?)
Gene Spafford, COAST Project Director
Software Engineering Research Center & Dept. of Computer Sciences
Purdue University, W. Lafayette IN 47907-1398
Internet: sp...@cs.purdue.edu phone: (317) 494-7825