Throughout the history of computer technology, there have been several common themes. Sharing knowledge and information is central, and the method of distribution is text in one form or another. Public discourse has also been a common theme.

The first version of the Internet was set up between institutions (military or education) to share information quickly. As time went on, the number of connected computers grew, and the number of people sharing information grew. It is now where almost anyone can share discourse, even if just a tweet from a cell phone.

I’ve been reflecting on recently how much technology is continually evolving and coming back with a different name.

If I go back to when I got into computers, there were two main forms of group communication. There was more directed communication with email, but when it came to group communication it really came down to two main technologies: usenet groups and internet relay chat. These technologies, now a part of our technological history, evoke a sense of nostalgia and connection to the past.

Usenet groups were email lists that you subscribed to, received updates from, and posted updates to. Some groups were private, but there were also large public discussions on everything from Star Trek (my friend met his partner on a Star Trek Group) to Sports. Groups used threads to discuss topics and the information was often stored on servers for a long time so you could look up past conversations long into the future.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was the first version of community chat boards. Communication was hosted on a server and was almost real-time (depending on your internet connection). You could have real-life conversations with a small or large group.

Over the years, these technologies have died off. There are still some Usenet groups, but their popularity is far from where it used to be. The same is true for IRC. The biggest IRC chat hub, Freenode, was taken over by people who were unfriendly to the community and may have moved.

We have modern products that are effectively the same as Usenet and IRC. Many people use these tools today without understanding their evolution.

Modern Usenet Groups: Forums

An online forum is effectively a Usenet group. Many things fit into this category. Stack Overflow and Reddit are just two of them. If you look at the way each of these is delivered, they start with a topic and then go into details about each item on the topic.

Forum software also exists. There are open-sourced items and products like Zendesk, which support community forums you pay for.

The concept of Usenet lives on, even if the underlying technology is no longer used. My favorite Usenet client was Unison from Panic, which was shut down in 2014 (nearly a decade ago). If anyone from Panic wants to share the source code, I would love to work on making a modern version for today’s world.

Modern IRC: Slack, Discord, Messages

First, there was IRC. Then there was America Online’s Instant Messenger. Then came ICQ, Hipchat, and many others.

While many of them are still used, the biggest incarnations of IRC today are Slack (owned by Salesforce) and Discord. These are online platforms that offer group communication and one-on-one chats. Text Messages and Apple’s iMessage are effectively the same things.

There has been technological growth here, but many things have remained the same from the IRC days. Slack Chatrooms even start with a hash (#), a throwback to how IRC rooms were named. The core of IRC still lives on.

The Cost of Innovation

My contention is that these new technologies effectively contain the same core concepts of Usenet and IRC. Usenet and IRC were incredibly text-heavy, but they were cheaper to host. Many Usenet and IRC groups were free to join and participate in.

The types of things we share have increased as the computer world has grown. We are no longer limited to text; we now have images, sound, and movies. We have also developed colors, sizing, and rules for how things are displayed. Beyond just picking your theme, there are many more customizations now available.

Presentation is also important. Instead of the simple text of Usenet and IRC, pictures that are displayed and then disappear (Snapchat or messages sent in IG) are used.

To address the need for these technological changes, companies have made the models popularized by these underlying technologies palatable by changing their presentation and making them available on the Web. You no longer need special technology (an IRC Client or Usenet Reader) to access the information. All you need is a web browser.

My issue with this is twofold. Firstly, we have made participating in some of these new versions of old technology expensive. You have to pay to set up a product usenet group in the form of a Zendesk. Slack and Discord both have a free option, but if you really want to use them, you have to pay the company. And if you aren’t paying with money, you might be paying with something bigger: your information.

This is the second issue: back in the day, the platform servers ran for Usenet and IRC were open source. If you wanted to dig into the code, you could see how the information was being used and shared. We have yet to learn how Salesforce is using your Slack Data. We have yet to learn how Facebook, Snapchat, or others use the data we share with our friends. The code is closed, proprietary, and owned by these companies. They could use this data to train their LLMs in the background. They could sell this data. They could track you using the location data on the snaps you upload and, using this, predict what marketing might be more effective for you.

Hope for the Future

One of my favorite movies has a quote somewhat like this:

You can never go home again… But maybe you can shop there. – Grosse Point Blank

My point is that we can’t really go back to the technologies of my youth. People have come to expect more, and technology is moving forward. Still, I lament the loss of what I perceived as a more free and open space.