Developed in 1981 by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, Usenet is a pre-World Wide Web communication medium that allows people to discuss their opinions through message boards, forums, discussion groups, and e-mail lists (Kollock). Prior to this assignment, I was unfamiliar with Usenet and the many components that it had. After observing for the last couple weeks, I’ve learned how fun and informative it is to read and participate on these message boards. Although there is a great exchange of information, there are some problems that are common across all Usenet groups. With this medium, people have the opportunity to create any “character” that they want, which is intriguing to some, but can also be deceiving. The main problems that greatly affected the group that I observed included the inappropriate use of bandwidth (capacity to carry and store information) and the free-rider problem (Kollock). These two re-occurring themes seemed to dominate the message board and really set the tone and behavior of the members that were represented.
As stated before, I have been observing a Usenet group. I decided to observe and subscribe to a group that was dedicated to the New York Knicks. I found this through Google groups and it's called alt.sports.basketball.pro.ny-knicks. Most of the interactions were humorous; this is due to members either mocking each other, Knick players and coach, or George W. Bush. There were also some disputes between people on player’s abilities, trades, and who should coach. I would receive an e-mail when and where people posted messages because I joined their e-mail list. This was very helpful because it kept everything organized by having the link right there, instead of me going to the message board and finding it myself.
There seems to be some dominate people in the Usenet group, including Dan Gater, Doctor Chen, Frank Rizzo and CaptnO. Discussions ranged from trades, players, politics, and even a player’s blog. Dan Gater took on the role of a journalist, posting articles and then asking a question at the end. Although just asking questions and not answering them is something a free-rider would do, I do not believe he is one in this case because some posts he would comment (Kollock). There is also a woman who decided to blog and I know this because of her signature, “Laurel T In the eyes of the political elite, dissent is acceptable... until it becomes effective” (alt.sports.basketball.pro.ny-knicks). It’s quite obvious from her signature that she’s not just here to talk NY Knicks, which ends up being the case. She turned the message content from the reputation of Josh Howard as he disrespected the national anthem by saying how he doesn't celebrate it because he is black, to a political debate about how the national anthem isn't American. She is an example of using bandwidth inappropriately. She completely changed the topic, and when people try to change it back, she again turns the discussion into something else political. By being off-topic, she threatens the organization that the Usenet is being supported by (Kollack). More examples of this include when Dan Gater’s would post a long article, to which people would paste the whole article and then reply, as opposed to just summarizing or just copying the part they wanted to comment on. This made it difficult to tell where the previous post ended and where they’re new post started. It also made it difficult to want to keep looking for people’s responses because there were just so many words.
Another characteristic of the Usenet group was the theme of role-playing. Someone actually pretended to be a player from the NY Knicks, Jamal Crawford. They put it in a blog format, meaning it was almost out of a diary. “He” talked about seeing himself on two magazine covers in the airport, how hard he has been working out, and an update of the guys on the team. At first I honestly thought this person was Jamal Crawford. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Some person, Syfo-Dyas, takes on the role of Jamal and deceives people into thinking that they are actually him. I am sure this person gets a thrill out of it, since he gets a whole different outlook on Usenet and the group. I wish I decided to take on a role, but I made the mistake of using my AOL screen name, which has girl in it, as my nickname in the group. I wanted to tell people how I actually went to basketball camp with two Knick legends, but thought because of my screen name, I would have no credibility. This is where gender comes into play. From the names of people and what I observed, it was definitely a made dominated group and I just didn’t think I would fit in.
Although free riding was a problem, it’s hard to tell who’s free-riding and who’s not. One of the biggest free-riders I would say was me! I gathered information about the Knicks and kept it to myself and I read ongoing discussions for the last couple of weeks and never once commented on them (Kollock). There are 120 subscribers, but I only saw about ten members actually contribute to the discussions. Although there seems to be a lot of free-riders, there also seems to be the problem of spam. For every 3 or 4 topics posted, there would be a spam topic about a nude celebrity or something of that sort. Even with these problems, the group does a good job of keeping on topic and having informative, fun, and thoughtful discussions.
After observing this Usenet group, it’s safe to say that I will continue to look at people’s discussions and maybe join another group. It’s hard to think that people use such an early medium of the Internet to interact with other people and get their opinions across. I became much more familiar and realized how the themes we read in class apply to people’s behavior in these forums. Whether it is intentional, or unintentional, people are always going to be free-riding and abusing bandwidth. For now, however, it’s still a fun, interactive way to talk about what you like and not be afraid to voice your opinion.
Kollock, Peter & Smith, Marc. (1996). Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities. In Susan C Herring (Ed.), Computer-mediated communication: Linguistic, social and cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 109-128).