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A Brief History of Usenet: What went wrong?

November 16, 1999

Once upon a time, a group of academics found themselves in possession of a new toy, courtesy of the Department of Defense. It was a communications system designed to survive the thermonuclear was that once many thought was inevitable. Much to everyone's surprise, the totalitarian government in Moscow (whose power we so feared) fell in an almost bloodless coup, to be replaced by a democratic government that is now very often the voice of reason in a West that has forgotten how to listen to it.

But that which was created (to fight the War which never came) had been paid for, and it was going to be used. It was modified for civilian use. One of the modifications was the introduction of a bulletin board system for the discussion, initially, of technical matters. This board was to grow into the Usenet we know today.

At this point, a few history making mistakes were made. The system was set up so that when a followup to a post was made, the entirety of the text of previous post would automatically be included, requiring the user to actively remove it instead of requiring active intervention to keep it in. On systems where text could only be deleted one line at a time (which we still in place in many places are recently as the early 1990s), this could become quite time consuming and many people simply didn't bother. Further, one could add as little to the previous post as one wanted and retain as much of it as one wished, and the system would still allow one to post one's followup. And it was painfully easy to make those followups, so people often did so, very hastily. The end result of this was a profusion of posts that were nothing more than one-liners tacked onto earlier posts, and threads consisting of such posts.

Reading through such threads rapidly became a painfully dull waste of the reader's time, and so many started skipping to the end of the thread (the chain of articles, one following on another) and reading the preceding contributions, by checking the quotes in that most recent article. Unfortunately, another design error appears at this point. Not only, in Usenet, is it possible to cut the material quoted (which is a good thing), but it is possible to rewrite the material in the quotations included in one's text. And so, a new tradition arose. That of lying about what one's opponent had said earlier, in order to win the support of others in a debate. The reluctance of people to wade through the entirety of a thread made this an effective tactic already, and the possibility of fabricating quotes that would not be checked (at first) made such deceptive tactics even more effective.

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