Are USENET groups irrelevant?

Long before the web, there was Usenet, an internationally distributed discussion system.  Through Usenet, people could discuss topics of interest, with topics  organized in a shallow tree structure.  In the pre-web days, it was exciting to talk to people around the world, back at a time where even having an email address was not to be assumed.  In a world where technical reports were distributed by mail (I remember the excitement when the batch of orange covered reports from the researchers from the University of Maryland arrived, since they sent out their work en masse), the immediacy of Usenet was startling.

Usenet, at the time, had strong self-enforced rules (Usenet has no central server, and no owner):  no commercial postings, no binaries in non-binaries groups (without the web, distributing software was more difficult, though ftp existed for that), no off-topic messages.

In 1993, Mohan Sodhi (then a doctoral student at UCLA) went through the arduous process of creating the newsgroup sci.op-research (see the google archive), which began with the charter:

The Charter:

The main purpose of this group is to act as the umbrella group from which different O.R. interest groups will branch off in the future, as envisioned by the Technology Committee of the ORMS Board.

In the interim, the newsgroup will support the RESEARCH, APPLICATION and TEACHING of operations research through the unmoderated exchange of information through various activities including:

— Posting information about accepted papers
— Asking questions and posting summaries of replies
— Posting Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and other lists such as
-Ajay Shah’s list of Free C/C++ programs for numerical methods
-Arthur Geoffrion’s list of mail reflectors relevant to O.R.
-John Gregory’s FAQ on LP
Those interested in a particular area could bring out regular FAQs answering questions or likely questions from those new to their area.
— Posting information about ARCHIVES (e.g. those at Rutgers, Bilkent)
— Sharing teaching approaches
— Announcement of new textbooks; Discussion on existing textbooks
— New product announcements
— Users’ impressions of commercial software (No advertisements.)
— JOB announcements in universities and industry

The newsgroup became reasonably popular, generating 100-200 messages per month, almost all on topic.  I have read the newsgroup since its beginnings, and posted perhaps 10 times per year on average.

Over time, the strength of the unmoderated, free flowing discussion in newsgroups such as sci.op-research became a drawback.  Popular newsgroups attracted spam and cranks.  “Trolls” came, whose sole goal was to start a flame war with outrageous posts.  Usenet, in short, became a seedy backwater of the internet, with its role taken over by blogs, discussion forums, and other more organized structures on the web.

sci.op-research avoided the worst of this, since we were not big enough to attract much attention.  I had my problems with some of the discussion.  Some was uncivil in my view (“How can you possibly be teaching this if you know so little!”) and some was just annoying (“Can you answer this homework question please” or, worse, “The answer to that obvious homework problem is 6”).  But there was enough information there to make it worthwhile both to read and to post the occasional question, answer, or announcement.

When I redesigned this blog, I included a feed for the sci.op-research (and comp.constraints) newsgroups in the right column, doing my little bit to point people to the discussion (it is a sign of my age that I even know what Usenet is:  I think the under 30 crowd has no idea about it).  But I had to take it down:  the newsgroup is currently getting porn ads, two or three per day, which I would prefer not to be posting (my Dad reads this blog!), along with an incessant set of ads for “instructor’s manuals” for courses.

I think sci.op-research still could play a role:  where else do you go to ask a question of a large groups of people (google suggests a readership of 1123)?  But, outside of a few diehards, it doesn’t seem like much of a community, a feel it very much had in the mid-1990s.  With no central structure to do things like get rid of spam, it seems hard to envision a future for it.  Can it survive, or are we looking at the end of one form of interaction?

11 thoughts on “Are USENET groups irrelevant?”

  1. For over ten years, I produced a weekly email digest of postings from sci.op-research. This was very popular with many readers who preferred it because the spam had been edited out. There were also many folks who just didn’t like the available software for directly reading usenet news groups, or who didn’t have a local news server.

    I think that if INFORMS Online provided a well moderated discussion forum that included cross postings from sci.op-research it would be very well received.

  2. While a moderated discussion forum with a feed from USENET might be useful, 1) it takes volunteer time, and 2) it is one-way: posts on the forum would not appear in sci-opresearch (at least I have not seen that done: correct me if I am wrong). What advantage would this have over an INFORMS moderated forum without messing with sci.op-research?

  3. I think Google Groups or Yahoo’s groups equivalent provide a good alternative to usenet. Usenet’s day has come and gone — I don’t know that it was that good even 10 years ago. I participated in a few groups and the quality of discussion was low.

    And just for the record I’m 26 and know what they are 😉 So don’t feel too bad re: Usenet dating you.

  4. Random thoughts:

    Anything along these lines that keeps on topic and filters spam effectively is going to require some volunteer time. The trick is to spread the effort so that it doesn’t burden any single or few volunteers too much.

    Not hooking to Usenet may keep spam levels down for a while, but only until spam engines find the new forum and figure out how to post. If the group is relatively low traffic anyway, the marginal burden of a gateway would remain pretty small.

    News gateways can be two-way. I don’t think that’s a technically difficult objective. Nobody’s doing it on s.o-r, but that doesn’t mean nobody is doing it.

    To whatever extent s.o-r is a forum with some penetration into the community, the gateway will help reach that audience and help them reach INFORMS forum readers.

    The INFORMS board, committees and office staff will have something to say about whether a forum at INFORMS Online should be public or a member benefit. I wouldn’t care to predict the outcome of that discussion, though.

    Google groups has reflectors for Usenet, including s.o-r. But are there other groups that are relevant to OR?

  5. I believe that Usenet groups are quite outdated and for the most part useless since the advancement of internet technology.

  6. I hate to hear that you have to take down the Usenet feed. It is one of the few online forums for Ops Research discussion. There aren’t many of those around. I’ve thought of creating a web forum myself.

    Yet are we not Operations Research experts? Maybe we could develop a model with an appropriate algorithm that filters out the unnecessary garbage. It will perhaps need to some manual attention but not nearly as much manual as reviewing post-by-post.

  7. I did use Usenet quite a lot, but for the last couple of years I”ve use Google Groups or similar instead. I think Usenet will be gone in another couple of years…

  8. [Disclaimer: I’m among the last die-hard sci.op-research users.] Although it never achieved the volume of, in its early years sci.op-research generated a fair amount of traffic, in part because it was pretty much the only game in town. Now there are quite a few OR-related web forums (not to mention blogs) and maybe some Google or Yahoo groups. The problem is how to find them and which to join. The INFORMS resources page lists some (interestingly, not including the ones to which I subscribe, other than sci.op-research). I suppose the problem is, again, volunteer time — getting people to suggest additions to the list, and maybe help edit/sort it.

  9. Usenet is done for people who are not honnest. I don´t like forum and groups where it´s possible to talk as an anonymous.

  10. Slashdot reports that AT&T will stop providing a Usenet feed to their customers in the near future. That’s unfortunate, as it makes getting Usenet groups quite inconvenient. The Google Groups Web interface is annoying as heck compared with a good newsreader, and while their RSS feed is tolerable for reading, RSS readers aren’t designed for participation in a dialogue.

    I’m going to guess that other ISPs will be following suit soon, if they haven’t already. We are going to need to find other social networking technology to take its place.

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