Paving Eden

By Shamus
on Feb 22, 2007
Filed under:
Nerd Culture

On Tuesday’s post about the dot-com spectacle, there were a few comments on “paving eden”, the time when the internet stopped being the domain of academics and became the spawning pool of e-business. I also learned about the Eternal September, which is an interesting bit of net-lore that I missed. Then Pixy said:

I was on Usenet as early as ‘85, and for me, the paving of Eden was one of the best things that ever happened.

Since I’ve earned my living working for a .com company for the last 13 years or so, I can’t argue with that at all. Although, I know almost nothing of what the ‘net was like before 1994.

But his comment does bring to mind the following:

In 1992 I had a friend who belonged to a Trek mailing list. He attended college and through whatever clanking machinery they used at the time he was able to access the internet. He would bring me the entire weekly summary of the list traffic as a hardcopy. I LOVED reading it. The people were articulate, thoughtful, and polite. I wanted to join, but I didn’t even know how to get ‘net access at the time. (I’m sure I wouldn’t have called it “net” access, either.) Reading the list was like listening to a group of friends discuss a common interest. It wasn’t even that I was that thrilled about Trek. It’s just that these were smart people and I enjoyed reading what they had to say.

In 1996 or so I remembered the list and decided to see if I could find such a group and join in the discussion. I’m sure you can imagine the results. I was mystified: Every list I joined was filled with condescending idiots, trolls, flamers, and endless armies of professional nitpickers. Unlike the 1992 list, almost everyone was anonymous and wrote under various childish nicknames. I think about half of them were named “admiral something”. I wondered why I couldn’t find that one, original list. Eventually I realized that it was gone. Not just that the list itself was no longer active, but that the environment in which it had thrived had long since ceased to exist. The internet had grown from a small town where everyone knew everyone else into a big city full of angry denizens giving each other the finger.

I actually think the net is much more civilized today than it was a decade ago. For a while the net was ugly, mean, brimming with scams, populated by frightening lunatics, and even the most innocent link could lead to a porn storm of popups. All of that stuff still exists, but it’s been ages since I had to worry about any of it. It’s not that there are less idiots, it’s just that we have better ways of filtering the idiots. In a lot of ways I’ve finally recaptured that “small town” dynamic in that 1992 Trek list via a few favorite blogs and the comments here on Twenty Sided. Things were raw for eight years or so, but eventually everyone got better tools for dealing with the larger population.

So paving Eden seems like a good move to me, it just took a while to learn to drive on it afterwards.

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1414 comments. (Fourteen is the sum of the first three squares.)

From the Archives:

  1. Pixy Misa says:

    We lost our cozy village and gained a universe.

  2. gedece says:

    True, we gained a universe, and it must be remembered that a universe contains both good and evil. Now, instead of accesing the universe, we access a long list of cozy villages and some maelstrom zones.

  3. Sartorius says:

    I would agree that the Net is a lot better than it was ten years ago. There was a span of a few years there, after the decline and eventual collapse of USENET, and before the rise of effective message boards and blogs, where there really were no places for Internet discussion which weren’t clunky or hard to use.

  4. I’ve been on the ‘net since ’91 and I was doing the local BBS scene all the way back to ’89 or thereabouts.

    The secret in ’89 to finding places like that ’92 Trek mailing list hasn’t changed: You’ve got to find the good communities. And Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to communities as surely as it does to everything else.

    In the BBS community of Rochester, MN, for example, back around ’89 and ’90 there was RAMS (which had four phonelines and a chat feature, but also sysops who made sure that people weren’t dicks); there was North Castle (a cozy little community with a FidoNet feed); and then there was the Purloined Illusionist (which was where the relatively elite among the local hackers and crackers hung out; it was occasionally rowdy, but there was certain hacker “intellectualism” about the place).

    And then there were another couple dozen BBSes which were complete cesspools.

    FidoNet was the same way: Hundreds of echoes, but only a few which weren’t international cesspools. Usenet, ditto.

    And mailing lists, ditto. I was a big affionado of mailing lists back in ’92 when I first got on the ‘net. I may have even been a member of that Trek list your friend subscribed to. But what I quickly discovered was that same rule of the 90%: For every decent community out there, there were ten or more cesspools.

    And while there were a couple of really great Trek lists I participated in back then, there were another six that were complete bollocks.

    Things have gotten larger. There are a lot more options today than there were back then. But the basic skill still remains the ability to find the quality among the dreck.

    And this is really no different than the real world.

  5. Carl Cravens says:

    Heh. Mailing lists and Usenet are elegant and easy to use. It’s web-boards that are clunky and hard to use. :)

    The interesting thing about this “paving of Eden” is that community management has become so much more difficult. Heck, we didn’t think about “community management” back late eighties and early ninties. Now days, as a community manager, I’m looking at how to keep the riff-raff down and the knowledgable, thinking posters participating.

    The Internet’s great strength is also its greatest weakness… anybody can publish their thoughts. But not everyone has the wisdom to know when their thoughts are worth publishing. Unfortunately, the lack of wisdom tends to be matched up with lack of something worth saying.

    So the guy with something worth saying is often drowned out in the noise.

    Blogs have helped with that because they’re _not_ egalitarian… you can read a blog to listen to the author and not have to wade through all the inane comments by the unwashed masses. :)

  6. Eltanin says:

    I have the need to once again start in on the same old song and dance:

    “I came here for the DM of the Rings, and I’ve stayed for everything else.”

    Twenty-sided is my equivalent to the Trek list you mentioned, Shamus. It’s a pretty nice community of ‘unwashed masses’ who leave comments here, and the intelligent and thought provoking blogs are always a pleasure to read.

    I had never heard of the Endless September before either, but I found it to be a fascinating glimpse into a social history of which I have been mostly unaware. I subscribed to a few BBSes and whatnot, but I was not invested heavily in an online presence and so missed a lot of the culture. Today I spend far too much time online and it is really rewarding to learn a bit about those cultural roots.

    Thanks everyone!

  7. David King says:

    Moderation in all things.

    …especially for online communities. A good moderator keeps a polite discussion list from turning into a mean, mean flamefest.

    Lack of moderation made usenet a wasteland, but search engines made it green again. Someday, every problem ever faced by man will be described and solved on usenet. Then it will become self aware and destroy all humans.

  8. Telas says:

    I used to live in Durango, Colorado. Great town, but it just kept growing and growing… And then I realized that I was going to have to accept that growth; I couldn’t do a damned thing about it anyway.

    It’s funny; we all want them to shut the door after we get here.

  9. AngiePen says:

    The first online multi-player game I ever played was GemStoneII on GEnie back in the late eighties. It was a text-based fantasy RPG and it was pretty lame by today’s standards, or even by the standards of the early nineties, but I still think fondly and with a bit of sad nostalgia about the community of players.

    For anyone who’s ever played a modern fantasy MMORPG, an example. Each kind of monster genned in only one room. There was a “trigger” room for each monster such that if someone was in that room when the trigger pinged, a monster genned in its gen spot. Occasionally the trigger room was the same as the gen room, in which case hunters got swarmed, but usually it was some other room.

    A really busy evening in GS2 was like twenty-five to twenty-eight people. Thirty had a good chance of crashing the game. Even so, there were often clumps of players hunting monsters, since up at the higher levels you might hunt the same monster for fifty or so levels. So picture four or five or eight people all standing in a room waiting for monsters to appear. There was a sort of circular “line” and everyone knew their place in it. Someone who had ESP “turned on” would run to the trigger room. When a monster popped up, someone in the gen room would yell the monster’s name over ESP so the trigger-person could run back. Everyone whacked on the monster and got experience — half a monster’s worth of experience was given out a bit at a time for doing damage, and the other half went to the person who got the kill. Everyone whaled on it and periodically people would look at the monster. When it was “seriously injured” they’d yell “SI!” and everyone stopped, except for the person whose turn it was to get the kill, who would whale away until it died. That person also got whatever treasure was on that monster. Someone ran to the trigger room and we did it again, with the next person in line ready to get the kill. If someone new came in to hunt that monster, they asked who was at the end of the line and took their place there without griping, and no one there griped about having to share experience and treasure with another person. People took their turns and were polite, and occasionally when someone got a heavier than usual hit and killed the monster out of turn, the apologies were many and abject.

    As little as five years later, such sharing was unthinkable. I certainly don’t want to go back to game technology which made such sharing necessary, but I’d love to go back to a social atmosphere which allowed it to work.

    Angie, waving her cane and yelling at all the rude little brats to get off her lawn

  10. Phlux says:

    People still use usenet? I thought it was only for erotic fiction and spam these days.

  11. Hal says:

    This seems like as good a place as any to mention the Flame Warriors.

    Not mine, but amusing as all get out.

  12. Talitha says:

    Has usenet died? I stopped reading it several years ago. I was getting annoyed by the kiddies who help talking inanities in ‘my’ newsgroups. The signal to noise ratio got too high and I got sick of the flamewars so I started reading livejournal instead. It works pretty much the same way if you think of a lj community as an oddly named newsgroup. And there’s pretty icons to look at.

  13. Telas says:

    Usenet’s not dead; it’s just full of binaries…

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