Gilmore should know: he was one of the alt hierarchy in May 1987, as a reaction to the formal voting and creation procedures of Usenet's so-called Big
Seven hierarchies: rec, comp, talk, misc, soc, sci, and news. The problem, as
Henry Hardy writes in his "History of the Net," was that although a
proposed rec.drugs had passed its vote, the group then known as the "Backbone
Cabal" (because they controlled all the backbone sites on the Net, and so could
control what newsgroups were created and propagated) had refused to create it.
Hardy quotes a message from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) researcher
Brian Reid as to what happened. Reid, who was unhappy at plans to name his
newsgroup rec.food.recipes, Gilmore, and Amdahl employee Gorden Moffett
agreed to create an "alternative" network by linking Gilmore's and Reid's home
computers to Amdahl and circulate the newsgroups so created that way.
By the end of May 1987, alt.test, alt.config, alt.drugs, and alt.gourmand were active,
and Reid, who was in charge of DEC's Usenet feed at the time, added the alt
groups to the list of those DEC carried. When, a year later, soc.sex passed its vote
but was also blocked from creation (by Gene Spafford, according to Reid's note),
Reid created alt.sex and also, feeling it was "artistically necessary," alt.rock-n-roll.
The result is that anyone can set up a newsgroup on any topic, at will (though of
course, no amount of appearances in newsgroup lists can make people actually
post anything even vaguely relevant to the newsgroup's title), and that these
newsgroups can never be killed, only slowly abandoned. There are, as you might
guess, newsgroups that were probably never intended to be used other than to
spread the joke in the title--things like alt.fan.tonya-harding.whack.whack.whack or
(we hope, anyway) alt.sex.bestiality.hamster.duct-tape.
Given that the day-to-day reality of the Net is so bizarre and often so completely
useless (do you really need to spend time picking up a program to reword the
beginning of Genesis to read, "In zee begeenning Gud creeted zee heefee und zee
iert. Bork Bork Bork!"--a process known as encheferation after its inventor, a poster
signing himself the Swedish Chef after the Muppet character?), it may be hard to
understand why its workings are regarded with such reverence by so many. Barlow,
for example, has spoken many times of the "life forms" that are created in the
space between people when they interact. Rheingold writes of the "groupmind" on
the WELL and the way it offers emotional support to members caught up in their
children's hospitalization and almost magically produces an answer to almost any
question you post within hours. Even a more skeptical writer like the New Yorker's
John Seabrook can thoughtfully analyze the effect that filling in the subject line on
an email message has on his thought process and personality. I
don't know if I'm just too New Yorkishly impatient and practical or just haven't taken
enough drugs, but it seems to me a fairly commonplace prediction that if you pull
together large numbers of people using any reasonably flexible means of
communication you are going to find that knowledge is pooled and that
relationships form between the participants.
And yet, a lot of people don't get either what's genuinely new about the Net or what
looks like it's new but isn't. In September 1995, BBC's Radio Five service put out an
edition of its Sunday morning program about computers, The Big Byte, that the
producers enthusiastically claimed was the first radio show ever produced by the
audience (exclamation point on the press release). The array of technical facilities
was indeed impressive: they were set up in the studio to take live questions via
email and IRC. W o w. So at the end of the first segment, the producer looks at his
watch and says, "That ended exactly on time." Folks, the audience did not produce
that show, however many suggestions they sent in by email in the weeks before it
was broadcast. The producer produced that show and got it to time out right. What
that show did was little different from any phone-in show that encourages listeners
to write in and suggest topics. Only the speed and reach were changed; when a
question about German prices for ISDN, a kind of digital telephone service, came
up, a correspondent in Munich emailed in the answer and we were able to read it
o u t .
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