January 22, 1997
Here's a cautionary tale for our times. It is a story about the best of the Internet. It is the story about the worst of the Internet. But most of all it is the story about alt.best.of.internet (ABOI).
This newsgroup hasn't much to brag about these days. Scan it and you'll find a wasteland of useless posts: "Discover the Secret to Younger-Looking Skin!" one promised. "Learn to Play Salsa Music" offered another. Every bozo with a get-rich-quick on-line scheme must have dumped his or her spam here at one time or another.
It wasn't always this bad. Back when the Internet was smaller but a mite friendlier, ABOI was one of its premier public spaces. Participants abided by an offbeat but easily understandable law: Don't post any original comments; instead re-post the best items from other newsgroups, be they comic, unintentionally funny, or thought-provoking.
Most newsgroups vary tremendously in quality, but because of that one basic and more-or-less-agreed-upon rule, ABOI was consistently entertaining. That's what attracted devoted contributors such as Onno Benschop of Perth, Australia. He started reading ABOI back in 1990, when he was looking for material for his weekly radio show about the Internet.
Another regular re-poster, Londoner Jon Abbott, recalls the salad days of the early 90s when there were about a dozen regular contributors. "I think 'community' is a good way of describing it," he writes via E-mail. "We saw amusing posts and shared them with others."
But there is little of a community at alt.best.of.internet now. What went wrong? As the Internet became more heavily trafficked, so did ABOI. But far from being filled with more good material, ABOI got clogged with posts from people who took little time to understand the newsgroup. Benschop recalls one day in 1993 when he "waded through 50 messages, two of which were re-posts, the rest was junk." That ratio worsened.
Of course, there was always a fair number of irrelevant posts, but the old guard began to feel that newer patrons were especially clueless, particularly those from large on-line services such as America Online, which tends not to brief customers on newsgroup etiquette. The newbies posted messages with nothing in them just to see if they could post something on the Internet, and all too often people angrily responded to re-posts they didn't like, unaware-because they hadn't bothered to figure out ABOI-that the posts originally appeared elsewhere.
The newsgroup's very name became a problem-it apparently led many to believe ABOI is no more than some sort of free advertising bulletin board. So onto ABOI went the marketing scams and the advertisements for Web pages.
At first the shell-shocked regulars tried to teach some Netiquette. Benschop wrote a frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) file, explaining the ABOI procedures, and re-posted it often. It was largely unread or ignored, so Malinda McCall penned and posted a Dr. Seuss-inspired version. ("I would not, could not, should not forget to add/ That original posts and follow-ups are bad, bad, bad.").
Other self-appointed guardians of ABOI were more direct. They E-mailed a copy of the FAQ to offenders, some of whom apologized for their gaffes, Benschop recalls, but others took offense: Who do these people think they are? Don't they know you can do anything you want on the Net? Benschop and company were dubbed the "ABOI thought police."
And maybe they did go over the line. One regular contributor, Scott Godin, was particularly ardent in his policing duties. Godin E-mailed offenders a prewritten reproach that was quite thorny. ("Why should we have to babysit you?" it included.) Not surprisingly, he was a magnet for abuse. One Internet surfer flamed Godin back, calling him an "egotistical little twit with delusions of grandeur" and admonishing him to "GET A LIFE." Others started to deliberately post off-topic messages just to tweak the oldsters.
After a while it became difficult to tell the villains from the heroes. After all, there is space for everyone on this newsgroup, and certainly the highest law of the Internet is that no one has the right to censor anyone else. Were the older contributors just snootily insisting on decorum in a place of jubilant anarchy?
In the end it didn't matter. Michael Warner, a Washington-state resident and ABOI contributor since 1991, admits, "Trying to respond to the abuse on a case-by-case basis is shoveling sand against the tide." And slowly, as wave after wave of irrelevant posts kept appearing, ABOI's more conscientious contributors drifted elsewhere. Godin and Warner still stick it out, re-posting whatever goodies they find for an increasingly hypothetical audience, but others have fled to the Web to fulfill their humor needs. "The best place to find things funny about the Net was gone," Benschop laments.
Perhaps there is a lesson in the trashed remains of ABOI, especially for those predicting a grand future for the Internet: However good their intentions, people often end up trampling on the precious things that attract them. Could it be that even in digital worlds we are fated to feel the pangs of paradise lost? ABOI is a grim indicator that the answer is probably yes.--Joab Jackson