Why Usenet Was Usenet (It's the Culture)

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

A discussion on What Happened to Usenet? arrived at:

>>> socially, the system did not (has not) scale(d).
>>not exactly. It has not been the number of users that killed usnet in
>>Steven's opinion (may I be your advocate?) but the way it got there.
>>If it was slower it could handle the grow (*).
>this is, imo, splitting hairs.

Once again, the devil is in the details. If you want to throw around terms like "scaling" then you have to be precise. You could conceivably say the the acculturation process didn't scale, and as a result Usenet lost the cultural mores that made it work. But Usenet itself (both the technology and the culture) probably would have scaled quite well.

>I think that social systems have a "limit" on size for effective
>communication/community. Romans "invented" the legion -- and other
>"groupings" -- which has stood the test of time.
>Sociological/psychological research shows that one of the factors
>that causes "people" to not report seeing someone being mugged/raped
>(or trying to stop said crime) is "crowding" -- ie, large numbers =
>anonyminity (?sp)

Typically you start with dyadic communication (two people), then triadic (three), then small group communication, which ranges up to about 11-15, then up to mass movements (thousands of people). Communications studies don't go much into sizes between small group and mass movement, but I have my own theories there. Personal experience with small corporations going through serious growth spurts shows me that the communication dynamics change when the company goes from 11-15 to 50-60, and again from 50-60 to 150. Anthropologists (so I've heard) find that tribal societies tend to split when the tribe grows past 150 members.

A lot of the reasons for changes in communication dynamics come from simple numbers and geometric progressions. As Brooks points out in The Mythical Man-Month, when you double the size of a team, you don't necessarily get twice as much work done, because each member of the team now has twice as many people to communicate with. Particulars of a groups culture and makeup can affect this positively or negatively.

In small groups everybody pretty much knows everybody else's mind, and even then there's usually a core trio (or less often quartet) composed of strong relationships, that the rest of the group orbits around. When the group size grows to 50-60, you tend to still have a small group that provides most of the social binding and brings coherence to the group. Even though it's impossible for everybody to know everybody, there's still a small group that knows everybody, and that everybody knows.

Structure (usually ad-hoc) starts to become essential as the group size grows up to 150 or so. At this size the social overhead is unmanagable by single people, and has to be reduced by introducing structure. In any organization, you have a fragile balance of trust and structure. The more trust you have, the less structure you need. But as trust becomes more difficult to maintain, structure looms large as the alternative.

Why do tribal societies tend to split at the 150 member size? I wonder what it is that anthropologists hang that "tribal" label on? Is it a cultural nuance or is it simply empirical (i.e. the circular "non-tribal societies are able to maintain cohesion in larger group sizes")? I'd suspect the difference is a combination of cultural differences that allow a larger society to maintain cohesion, along with acceptance of a certain amount of structure in daily lives. Maybe it's the culture that binds the structure to the society?

Where am I going with this? I don't know, but it was fun getting here, wasn't it?

>>And the problem again was education. While the former users were
>>educated by constraints the later weren't but the quotient
>>former/later was too small to transfer this education from former to
>why were early users "educated by constraints"?
>what do you mean?

This gets back to the culture/structure thing; I guess I'd make a claim that you can't consider a society's culture as disjunct from its structure, and that Usenet's culture was in part dictated by the structure which was imposed by the technological constraints. When those constraints disappeared, and at the same time the existing culture was diluted by a massive influx of unacculturated new members, well, there goes Usenet.

>>But we are loosing some of the constraints there were on the net(**).
>>We have more bandwidth, htlm emails, flash, JavaScript etc... but
>>very few people are conscious how they should be used and some of
>>them are just being misused to turn the web in a sort of TV for
>i'm not sure how this relates to usenet/newsgroups - a text-only medium.

I'm not sure entirely where he's heading with this either, although he could be suggesting that the sudden torrent of new communication technologies didn't allow time for any evolution of natural culture/structure, and that as a result the net's development is taking longer than it should.

See original (unformatted) article


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