Monday, October 6, 2014

The Selfie Generation vs. Usenet

This is a non-graphic selfie, inspired by the introductory story to a series on the Millennial Generation on Morning Edition.  In the story (more of an essay), narrator Selena Simmons-Duffin, a member of the Selfie Generation, claimed : "Millenials aren't simply users of social media.  We invented it."

Rather than going straight to my contradictory claim, let me first assure the 80 million Millennials who outnumber us Boomers that I don't hate them.  (" ... if you're not a Millenial, you kind of hate us.")

But what I really want to suggest is that social media were not invented by the Millenials.

In my own experience, social media, or at least one social medium, was invented in 1980s by a couple of Duke computer geeks, Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott (a couple of Boomers, incidentally), and called Usenet by Ellis.  When they connected Duke to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, they created a social network.  (ARPANET preceded UseNet as the progenitor of the Internet, but I don't think it was exactly social.)

In trying to figure out just when I started using Usenet, I had a little forehead-slapping moment.  I found a reference to the creation of sci.econ.research, which I created, in June of 1993.  Then I remembered taking a computer science course at Duke in spring 1990 (I can date this because I had to take the exam early because I was getting married during exam week) from, here's the forehead slap, Jim Ellis.  It was, incidentally, the most interesting computer course I ever took:  Ellis (who died around 2001) took a Microsoft-based CAD program for designing a computer and ported it to the SUN OS we our class used in the computer lab, with which we could put together virtual computer parts, "wire" them together, write an instruction set, and pass virtual current through.  We effectively built a virtual computer using the same parts as in a real 8088 processor, and we could then write code to generate outcomes.  I think that gave me an insight into computers that served as a solid base for my career in computers and networks.  I can't swear that I was into Usenet by then, but I can't swear I wasn't, either.

But back to social computing.  Usenet was a collection of newsgroups, which function much like bulletin boards or forums.  They were very much like Facebook in that you could share your thoughts with others in a public arena (as opposed to email).

This was the day of command-line-only computing; GUIs were just around the corner, but the only graphics you'd see were ascii art.  One night I was Usenetting about college basketball, a message from one of the other correspondents on the group (, I believe) suddenly appeared on my computer screen.  We carried on a real-time "conversation."  I think this is what the Selfies call texting nowadays.

The biggest difference, other than slickness of the application layer, between then and now is that on UseNet information was categorized at the subject level.  On Facebook at Twitter, the subject is "me."  If you want information at the subject level, you turn to Google or Wikipedia, which aren't really social.

Whereas I contendt the Selfie Generation did not invent social media, they did invent making money off it.

One of my earliest endeavors in computer user support was to attempt to install the new Usenet reader software, trn, the upgrade of the standard rn then current in the standard unix distro.  When I was having trouble getting the code to compile, I dropped an email to Wayne Davison, the programmer who wrote the software, and he guided me through the process.  No charge.  The trn reader was one of the most important innovations of its day, but if you look up Wayne Davison you don't see any reference to him being a billionaire.  I wonder if Mark Zuckerburg would help me with my Facebook photo gallery.  I also got a lot of freeunix help from a Dutchman named Caspar Dik.

I'd like to point out that the Millenium did not start in 2000, the Y2K plague notwithstanding, but it started in 2001, so none of the Millenials were even born in the Millenium.