A few months ago, I had to explain the concept of newsgroups to a public-relations representative for MSN. I should have been stunned--back in 1996, having to explain something as basic as Usenet newsgroups would have reduced me to utter apoplexy. But by last October, it just wasn't a big deal.
Newsgroups, the text-only bulletin boards developed by three grad-student researchers in 1980, were once the food court of the online world, the global meeting place that drew people online in the first place. But then the Web came along, the venture capital arrived and the non-multimedia world of Usenet lost the spotlight.
People still talk online, but a lot of these discussions now take place elsewhere, mainly in Web-based discussion forums. (Washingtonpost.com, for instance, recently launched its own message boards.)
Why should anybody care? Consider Usenet's scope, which approaches that of the Web itself: More than 30,000 different groups exist, covering every topic imaginable.
For many Usenet denizens, this low-tech meeting place is an effective resource for person-to-person advice. "My main use of Usenet . . . is consumer research," e-mailed Maria Post Rublee, a doctoral student at George Washington University and a regular in the misc.consumers.frugal-living, dc.dining, rec.food.cooking and rec.birds newsgroups. "What Usenet adds is the real-life 'scoop' that you won't get in books or magazines."
Other groups don't pretend to be useful but still draw a stable, long-lived community. Edward Rice, a consultant in Vienna, described the state of the alt.fan.dave_barry group: "We've had discussions at some length of the annual 'Punkin Chunkin' contests, lengthy digressions into one person's fantasies about bread-toasters, and dealt with some births and at least one death."
What both makes and breaks Usenet is the people using it. For example, in sci.space.history, dozens of amateur historians, NASA veterans and researchers share experiences and recollections and play what-if games. The discussions are informed and literate and often draw in real-world experts: For instance, Curt Newport, who led the expedition that recovered the Liberty Bell 7 space capsule last year, showed up on the newsgroup to discuss his findings.
At the other extreme, dc.general, the Washington area's discussion forum, is too often a cesspool of pointless arguments "cross-posted" from other, unrelated newsgroups. I read this group every few days and often hate myself for doing so.
Many people would rather not wade through this sort of garbage. NetZero, the leading free ISP, with 3 million registered users, doesn't even offer Usenet access. Other providers report that newsgroup use is holding steady or dropping--with one exception.
"Over time, the percentage of subscribers that use Usenet has declined," said Bob McNamara, a spokesman for MindSpring Enterprises. "But the volume of traffic has swollen amazingly."