I was cleaning out a directory tonight (this is what I do these days when I’m tense or angry, I go and clean out my hard drive) and I came across the original version of Russ Allbery’s magnificent rant about… I’m not sure what it’s about, actually.
Superficially it’s about Usenet, my first true love on the net, but if you dig a bit deeper, read a bit between the lines, it gets at some of the core issues around the Internet and inter-networking generally — how the network itself, while interesting and fun to play with, is entirely secondary to the goal of allowing people to connect with each other; the value of the relationships forged on the network; the exclusivity of some of those relationships; the ability of this phenomenal tool to bring people together, and what happens when it is under threat from people who don’t understand that.
The post is ten years old this month. It feels, in its broad images, like it could have been written yesterday. It dates only because the technology and the specific source of the problem has changed; the essence, its core, is as true as it ever was.
Now nearing the end of my second decade on the Internet (and its predecessors), I see this more clearly now than I ever did. Spam, trolls, denials-of-service, flooding — all of this is, in some way, an attack on the infrastructure itself. Yet although no one cries when a router screams because its table is overloaded, a great many people cry when jerks invade their bboard or flood their favorite blog. We don’t care about the physical reality of the Internet — most of us probably never did, and wouldn’t know a router from a switch if it bit us in the face. We care about the space in our heads, the collective space we all made, the space that was special to us and meaningful, the space that got chewed up when some vandal came roaring through.
I used to argue about spam as though it were some kind of stolen resource. It is, in the purest sense of the term, but I didn’t get sad because my mail client had to spend a few more seconds processing mail. What saddens me about the e-mail spam problem is that I’ve had to implement filters, wall off entire countries, and disable even the most basic diagnostic messages because I can’t deal with the volume of junk flowing back to me. The platonic ideal of e-mail, to my mind, no longer works — and while there’s a technical side to this, I’m not really upset that no one with an e-mail address that ends in .hk or .tw can send me mail. I’m upset that no person with an e-mail address ending in .hk or .tw can reach me anymore. It’s sad that we’ve reached this point, yet I don’t know how a reasonable person can do anything else. This was, ultimately, one of Russ’s points. “The difference, to me, between those things that Usenet is for and those things that Usenet is not for, is one of manner and quantity. Not one of content. I do not want to see any person excluded from Usenet, even if they believe that Usenet should be used for machine-generated spew. I just want to stop the spew, because if it goes unchecked it will drown out and destroy the beauty of what Usenet is.”
Perhaps I am not explaining this well; perhaps I am rambling. It’s late and I’m up past my bedtime. But I am thinking about the things that I love, and have loved, and how they make me feel, and I think back to the arguments we used to have about the nature of the network, and I keep thinking that we were all missing the point — that maybe we’re all still missing the point. The point is the contact. The point is the connection — the ability to reach out and find someone to make you feel less lonely. I think we sometimes forget how precious and special that is, and how sad we are when other people ruin it for us.
Talking about the problem in that sense — in terms of the effect it has on people trying to reach each other — somehow feels more honest than worrying about computational cycles and mail server load. Russ’s rant was shocking because he put into words what many of us felt but could not explain; we couldn’t defend the emotional damage we felt when a part of Usenet (or the network generally) broke because of someone else’s malfeasance. But he could, and he could focus that hurt and anger like a laser beam on a very specific example, which gave his rant a shocking degree of power. It’s not the anger that amazes me, ten years later — I remember being plenty angry on Usenet. What amazes me is the passion.
I wish I could write such an empassioned defence of the Internet.