Sometimes, I enjoy exploring Usenet. What is Usenet, you ask? It’s the precursor to Reddit and Facebook Groups; before all the different discussion forums and other sorts of many-to-many solutions on the internet, Usenet was how people found community online. It is very much a product of its era; the protocol was first implemented in 1981 and it shows. There is no text formatting. There’s no form of ‘liking’ or ‘upvoting’ or ‘thanking’, and there are no emojis. Usenet requires a dedicated program to access, and most of those applications have an appearance and interface that heavily prioritizes function over form.
I still find it interesting though. A few groups still have a handful of active users; unsurprisingly, most of them center around computing and computer programming. Other more general groups have been long abandoned. They are a ghost town, showing discussions from over a decade ago with spam posts being the only content added ever since. Occasionally, a group will contain a post from some unfortunate soul who asked a question years ago, never to see a reply.
Despite the current state of Usenet, starting a new newsgroup remains a laborious process.
I originally started pondering this blog post because I saw that there was no Windows 11 newsgroup. Ironically, the Windows 7 group remains somewhat active. While subreddits get created multiple times per minute (guess there will always be spammers), the arduous process of creating a new newsgroup seems to go to the other extreme. It appears that the last ‘Big 8’ newsgroup whose creation was approved, was added back in 2021. A handful of other proposals for new groups have been made since then, but all of them were denied before even been put up to a vote. The most recent successful proposal was to make someone a moderator of an existing newsgroup. It was the epitome of a hollow victory; the last post in that group was, in fact, the notice that the group had a new moderator. It’s possible that the moderator may be deleting spam as it arrives, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone worth cleaning up for.
This raised another question: Who’s voting on the creation of newsgroups? The answer: three people. Now, I’m not putting any shade toward Jason, Rayner, or Tristan. On the contrary, most of the proposals that have come in have seen participation by at least two of them, so it’s clear they are directly involved, which is good to see.
That being said, it wasn’t long before I started waxing philosophical. I don’t know how many people still actively use Usenet in a given month. Hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands if we stretch it to include Google Groups’ hybrid platform. Usenet has been almost entirely supplanted by Reddit, Twitter, HackerNews and 4Chan. Each of these services has their own advantages and shortcomings, but the real draw are the people. HackerNews has about 3.5 million monthly visitors. 4Chan has about 22 million. Twitter has tens of millions (depending on whose numbers you believe), and Meta’s Threads platform has reportedly seen 100 million sign-ups. Reddit has hundreds of millions. Even Mastodon has managed to keep about a million monthly users on the platform. Again, it’s hard to get numbers on Usenet usage, but I’d bet my money that even Truth Social’s 500,000 monthly user base far outnumbers those of Usenet.
The folks still using Usenet for discussion are, more likely than not, people who have been using it since the dial-up era. I’d be hard pressed to believe that there are even a dozen college seniors in my entire state who have posted on Usenet consistently. There simply aren’t a new group of people seeking to use the system to communicate, especially when far more popular, far more instantaneous platforms exist.
Herein lies my ultimate question: Of what virtue is it to meticulously label a room full of empty filing cabinets, “in case someone uses them one day”? Of what virtue is keeping a lengthy deliberation and voting procedure in place when the user count is so low, a freshly nominated moderator has an entire newsgroup with nothing to moderate? How will keeping a strict adherence to the charters and hierarchies improve the appeal of a system that has 626 total downloads of the most popular software available for ChromeOS?
Again, I applaud the three board members of the Big 8 who seek to hold out until the end. From the outside, though, it almost strikes me as a warning. It’s easy to find one’s self exerting lots of time and energy into some sort of accomplishment whose relevance dwindles with the progress of time, insisting on structure which becomes increasingly quixotic.
On the other hand, it seems equally myopic to base the value of one’s work upon the size of its audience. If that were the metric of success most worthy of pursuing, this blog probably wouldn’t exist.