I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987, a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.
In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.) That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)
The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:
- comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
- news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
- sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
- rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
- soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
- talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
- misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.
I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.
It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution. And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.
I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions. I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.
Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’
Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.