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 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:
(RESEARCH AND APPLICATION)
— 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?