ASCII by Jason Scott

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ROFLcon USENET Panel —

Heroes of Usenet panel @ ROFLcon

When the organizers of ROFLcon decided to go another round with a multi-day presentation of internet-related memes, celebrities and issues, I had an opportunity to assemble a panel on a subject I thought worth covering. I chose USENET.  Months later, my panel plans came to fruition, and I think came out pretty well.

Naturally, when your subject matter is a network of machines spanning roughly 30 years and constituting many thousands of participants and dozens of movers and shakers, the choices in assembling a good panel are legion and ways it can go south are also legion. Every choice made will be decried by others for not choosing a dozen similar figures, and so on. In my original lineup, I had the following:

My first big problem, and if you know your history, the most ironic one, was that Kibo could not be located.  In the old days, if you said his name in any newsgroup, he’d appear. It was kind of his thing, and part of his legend. That a number of years later, he was unfindable, even with a team of people assisting me, was just a sad irony. So Kibo never happened, although we had hopes up to the day of the event. (This is also why the Kibo is on the chalkboard behind us in the photo.)

Dr. Gene Spafford got sick and couldn’t make it to the event.  Get well soon, Gene!

Richard Sexton had a family emergency and couldn’t make it either.

After a bunch of flailing and last-minute mailings, we ended up adding Tim Pierce to the panel, and Tim has to get thanked for being told of this whole event on a Thursday and showing up on a Saturday.  All told, then, we had Jay, Tim, Larry, Brad, and myself on the panel.

The idea was to have several decades of USENET history on the panel and try to cover things the audience might have missed or not known about. In this way, it was wildly successful – we covered a number of topics that apparently the audience didn’t hear of previously.  We got some laughs, got some fun moments, and nailed out a few good thoughts the audience enjoyed.

I hadn’t known one of the panelists had tried to sue another at one point, or that there was more than a little crankiness about past events still extant. The type of people who enjoy tenseness got something to enjoy, but luckily it didn’t consume things.

Bringing in the creator of the “Green Card Spam” may have seemed odd, but I wanted to bring in an interesting perspective on USENET, and the thoughts that were behind this utilization of USENET in the way that Canter chose to use it.  During the panel I made a big deal of thanking Mr. Canter for coming to the panel, and flying across the country to do so. He didn’t have to, not at all, and he did. For that I am very grateful. In the spirit of ROFLcon, I hope he enjoyed his trip out and found an audience willing to hear his side, even if they didn’t agree with it.

I got dinged in a few places for being a panelist more than a moderator, but that’s because I was a panelist – ROFLcon had me listed as a moderator but I was one of the people trying to bring in the history, so I guess some folks got more of me than they expected.  Oh well!

The largest surprise for me was that in the realm of all this Anonymous vs. Scientology lore and hobbyist protesting that has gone on, basically the entire audience was unaware of the early 1990s Scientology Usenet Fight.  Totally unaware.  We did our best to backfill the history, but if you really didn’t know about the first time Scientology took on the internet, I’d at least read this article.

ROFLcon recorded the panel, and I hope to see the resulting footage and resulting output sometime in the coming weeks/months, and will alert you all when it’s available.

An hour and a half of almost randomly assembled panelists discussing decades of events could never, in a million years, scratch the surface of this fascinating and deep history. If you have an interest in looking at the history of USENET and want some pointers, here’s some for you:

Categorised as: computer history

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  1. Frankie says:

    A shame that the first 3 couldn’t make it, Usenet legends all, but having Canter sit next to JFurr is pure comedy gold.

  2. xinit says:

    It would have been great if kibo was able to be there… I’m sure I’m not the only one that would have found it hysterical had you stood up there and said something like

    “Sadly, we were unable to track down one person; James Perry, or as some of you may know him better… Kibo”

    Door opens … “Hello? Did someone call me?

    Way more amusing than a room full of used up memes.

    Interesting to get Canter on there too… would be interesting to see the panel if they put up video.

  3. Owen says:

    Hey Jason, you and the panelists did a great job. Thanks! Surprised it was a last minute assembly– would have believed that the panel was comprised exactly as intended. The tension between Jay and Canter was priceless and as satisfying as Kibo’s ironic absence.

  4. JSG says:

    Kibo didn’t answer when you emailed the webmaster account on his site?

  5. […] Kibo could not be located. […]

  6. Aaron Davies says:

    did you mention looking for kibo on here earlier? i might have been able to help, i think i’m only two or three friend-of-friend Bacon links away from him.

  7. T. Derscheid says:

    What, no Doctress Neutopia?

    • Jason Scott says:

      People can fill this comment thread with all sorts of random names and go “but why not…?” and they’d all be right and they’d all be not accomplishing much.

      May I suggest some motivated individuals consider having a “USENETcon” somewhere and inviting all the people who made USENET great?

  8. […] ROFLcon looked to the past to better understand the Internet memes it celebrates. Guests included Usenet moderators, FidoNet creator Tom Jennings, and Mahir, whose “I Kiss You” website dates back to […]

  9. JSG says:

    Usenet history ended in the early 2000s – there’s still people there, myself included, but its essentially on autopilot due to horrible mismanagement. It would be a good topic for some historical research, since usenet was still very influental to the net at large until the web 1.0 bubble burst.

  10. […] The web has its seeds sown deep in these now-clunky interfaces, but I don’t think it does a great job of paying homage to its past. Innovation is great — the web would be nothing without it — but I find it regrettable that we barrel forward without preserving our forebears in the collective memory. Is the only legacy in uncredited functionality? Is a short memory the price of innovation? (Related: I wish I had gone to ROFLcon II earlier this month if only to have attended Jason Scott’s “Heroes of Usenet” panel.) […]

  11. […] 2010, Scott returned to ROFLCon and was part of a panel on the history and heroes of the Usenet. His panel consisted of celebrities both lauded and loathed, from Brad Templeton, former chairman […]

  12. Tim says:

    Kibo goes missing for years at a time, it is nothing to be concerned about. I last heard from him around Christmas day last year when he posted his yearly “Christmas Spot Story”. There would be too much rubbish going to his webmaster email these days.

  13. […] kind of retrospective panel thing at conferences. I always kind of thought you’d have to be Usenet-old to qualify for doing that kind of conference panel. Though, I guess as an old Tim & Diana episode established, it’s always good to have a bit […]