Usenet to Reddit: have forums evolved?

Man in yellow Iowa t-shirt smiling and using laptop while having a beer

Have online forums evolved for the better? Sinéad McClure gives her take on the internet discussion board.

In the dial-up days, ‘alt.’ (followed by a period) unlocked a slew of interesting topics. This was Usenet, a worldwide discussion network distributed through computers—conceived 40 years ago this year.

Usenet originated as simple bulletin boards to deliver news items through linked computers. These boards grew into unique forums for group discussion, which happened in a global setting. My first foray onto the internet—through a very unstable dial-up connection—led me to newsgroups. This was circa 1994, and since then internet forums have evolved very slowly in comparison to the technology that made them.

This was a simple platform to be attracted to, pre-broadband. You picked a topic you were interested in, an expert in, or just liked pontificating about. Anonymity was important, as we didn't really know what we were dealing with—trust waned. Usernames were monikers for size, age and/or favourite author. BigTolkien57 knew everything about the Silmarillion, before we even read it. Moderators kept us in line. This was the first place since childhood that the word "troll" became daily parlance. Some posters were held in high esteem for their obvious knowledge, others were wide-eyed newbies—most of us lay somewhere in the middle. Newsgroups were fascinating, frustrating, and addictive and they had nothing to do with the news.

Discussion boards have changed very little in their technology. But the environment in which a topic, thread or post now sits has altered dramatically. Anonymity is harder to hold on to—some abandon this to be more transparent. It's difficult to be anonymous when trying to build an online profile as a lobbyist.

Separating an individual perspective from groupthink has become more challenging. Trolls have become keyboard warriors and vice versa. News items, whether fake or real, spark most discussions. What were once forums for debate and critical analysis can now descend at any time into places to vent, start circular arguments, or to launch campaigns. These are places where ‘Godwin's Law’ has been broken many times, and will continue to be. After all, regardless of the technological strides that outrun internet forums, it's in our nature to stop and talk.

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