After a bit over a month using Google Plus (with admittedly decreasing enthusiasm over the course of that time) I have no firm conclusions about what it’s good for, except that it’s incredibly good at reminding me how much I miss Usenet.
I could compare it with the other networks that people consider it “competition” for: it doesn’t replace Facebook – for me anyway - because the whole world isn’t on it, and that means I can’t use it to stay in touch with friends and family. It doesn’t replace Twitter as the the lack of a message length limit means it’s useless for epigrams (which I like) and not much cop for status updates either (which I can live without) – though it does work as “source of interesting links” which in my opinion is the third arm of Twitter utility. And Google will, probably, be disappointed to learn that it doesn’t replace LinkedIn be cause despite the best efforts of the Real Names policy enforcers, it still isn’t quite boring enough. Yet, anyway.
But that’s enough about Google+, what about Usenet?
- The unit of discussion was an article. Not a two-line throwaway comment or a single bit of “me likes this” information. When you read something on Usenet that you felt strongly enough to reply to, you hit ‘r’, you got the scary warning about “hundreds if not thousands of dollars”, and it dumped you in a full screen text editor where you could compose your pearl of wisdom. Sure, so you could alternatively compose your “ME TOO!”, but it wasn’t a teeny text widget which practically demands the latter response: the affordances were there for writing something with meat
- It was decentralised. No capricious site owner could take your comment down because someone might find it offensive, or ban all discussion of certain topics, or refuse to allow you to post links to other places, or even that he was going to pull the plug completely and delete all your words. You might be reading this and thinking Godfrey vs Demon and you’d be entirely correct that it wasn’t completely uncensored in practice – nor, I contend, should it have been – but there was at least a bit more effort involved in getting a post removed than clicking the ‘I am offended by this picture of a breast-feeding woman’ button, and that made potential complainants think a bit more carefully about whether it was worth it
- It had user interfaces that didn’t get in the way. Really. I could sit in front of my computer for hours pressing only the space bar (maybe alternating with the ‘n’ key in less interesting groups) and it would keep the content coming. (And I did. I would blame my degree class on Usenet, if it weren’t that the time I spent fiddling with Linux was in itself sufficient to leave approximately 0 time for studying. But i digress.)
The reasons it’s dead are well-rehearsed, and boil down to this: it couldn’t cope with universal access. It was built back in the days when people had access through their institutions or employers, and for the most part knew they could lose it by acting like jerks - or at least by acting like jerks consistently enough and outrageously enough. Come the personal internet revolution – the Endless September - it had no protection against or meaningful sanctions for spammers and trolls, and so blogs/web forums sucked away most of the people who wanted to just talk, leaving behind people who were by and large too much concerned with the minutiae of meta and much less enthused about the actual posting of content.
But it did do stuff that nobody else has replicated since.
- James Adam on commenting