'WebHype' explores Usenet society

By Michael Eilers

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The open forum of the '90s, or the

online equivalent of a talk show?

A source for information and healing, or personal abuse? The last bastion of true democratic process, or the last hideout of the freaks and miscreants that are eroding our society?

That's the nature of the Usenet: an endless record of the laudable highs and detestable lows of human opinion. Taking the form of electronic bulletin boards that are an integral part of the Internet, Usenet groups are the bars and hang-outs along the information highway. Accessible by nearly everyone with an e-mail account, the groups cover tens of thousands of topics, from pet grooming to Chinese politics to molecular biology, as well as the occasional Sean Cassidy fan club.

A Usenet group is a virtual bulletin board upon which you can publicly post a comment, question, or obnoxious retort. Each group is based around a specific topic and may be visited by hundreds or thousands of users from around the world each week, depending on how hot the discussion gets.

Possessing arcane names like "alt.fan.elvis" and "rec.lit.demonology," the title denotes the topic, expressed in an online shorthand. Accessed by programs called "threaded newsreaders," groups can be subscribed to just like a regular newsletter.

For example, with a "GAS" account from the university, I would log in, and at the prompt type "trn." The command "l" (for List) will find related topics, so I type "l simpsons" and get "alt.tv.simpsons" and "alt.fan.simpsons.itchy-scratchy." Simply typing "g" and the name of the group will subscribe me, connecting me directly to thousands of Simpsons fans worldwide. Ah, the magic! The beauty of online community!

The group creation process is very simple: find a few interested people to petition a "moderator" (someone entrusted to maintain a specific Internet site or node) and pow! the group is created. This has resulted in many thousands of groups that cater to surprisingly arcane and refined tastes. If you want, you can discuss everything from care for your pet badger to the latest in polyvinyl fetish wear. Literally, whatever floats your boat is on the Usenet.

The keyword "starwars" produced about a dozen "hits" (successful search results), while the word "fugazi" produced two. "Foot" garnered over a dozen, including "alt.fetish.foot" and "rec.foot.large." Chasing down a lead, I tried "fetish," which resulted in over a dozen hits, ranging from the predictable (alt.personals.fetish) to the truly bizarre (alt.sex.fetish.robots). Trying for some pop culture, I tried "music," which gave me a list of hundreds of groups from "alt.music.enya" to "alt.music.weird-al." The word "game" resulted in over a hundred hits, but the word "homework" gained only one, reinforcing my suspicion that Usenet groups are mainly a form of online entertainment.

I tried out a few related to computers and Macintosh software, one about DOOM, a few music groups, and, on a lark, alt.fan.oj-simpson.

From the outside, these groups seem to be the ultimate democratic forumŸvoices from all over the world, none favored over the other, coming together to discuss a subject with the total freedom that online anonymity provides. From the inside, it's a lot of bickering and crap.

One of the unpleasant side effects of going online is the subsequent release of the id. Every opinion or attitude people are afraid to voice in daylight becomes very easy to spout off about when they are safe at home, protected by anonymity and distance. Partisanship seems to be the rule, and any strongly biased opinion ("I think DOOM is better than Dark Forces, period!") is sure to receive a dozen heated and equally biased replies. If you stick your head into a newsgroup and ask a stupid question, you are likely to get "flamed" right off the infobahn. Sarcasm reigns, and the burning desire to shut out contrary opinions seems to overcome even the most mild-mannered netter.

The technical groups have the potential to be plentiful, inexpensive sources of information, but there is absolutely no guarantee that the person speaking is an expert. If you took a grain of salt with every reply to a question, your arteries might not survive the session. Partisanship is still the rule (the Mac vs. PC debate is endless) and stupid questions will still get you rudely panned.

Actually, the "flaming" can be quite entertaining, if you are not on the receiving end. "Netiquette," or online etiquette, discourages outright foul language (though no one enforces this) and most people on the groups are well educated, resulting in some often witty repartee. One man suggested that the other, who was being obnoxious, should "ingest a hedgehog posterior-first," possibly the most polite rude comment I've seen so far.

Futurists and online gurus such as Michael Negroponte, senior columnist for Wired magazine, get all excited about the online discussion groups, calling them "virtual democracy" and suggesting that societal change will happen online. However, it seems we're still working out the bugs. The talk-show mentality, "I'm right, you're wrong, end of story," appears to have penetrated to the core. I did learn a lot that was useful, including where to find Sugarcubes remixes and how to get those horrible water spots off the fine china, but I had to sift through a lot of chaff to find anything worthwhile. If you have an e-mail account, give a few groups a tryŸbut take my advice, keep most opinions to yourself, or prepare to do battle. Insult Elvis at your own peril.

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