Saturday, May 27, 2006

Great tech ideas gone sour

PCWorld has listed its picks for the 25 worst tech products of all time. It's pretty good reading--if slightly painful for some of us who were there.

What's most acutely embarrassing for me is not how many of these things I actually had (#2, #4, and #8, if you really have to know), but the much larger list of the things I didn't have but still thought were actually pretty cool at the time. Shame prevents me from naming those.

One crime they didn't mention, in detailing the many offenses of #1 (AOL), was that AOL was responsible for ruining some of the best Usenet discussion groups going in the mid-1990s. Their marketing strategy was to find hundreds of thousands--millions--of net newbies (was the term coined to describe AOL users?), and tell them, basically, "The Usenet is a place where you can go say whatever you want about whatever the topic is. Here are some links. Go for it." So these alt. discussion groups, many of which had run civil and highly evolved discussions for a decade, were suddenly overrun by people who had no understanding of the culture they were barging into--people whose idea of cultural participation, it appears, was yelling back at the screen during "Rocky Horror."

I remember, in particular, one stuffed burp who nearly destroyed the discussion group, by then well-known as one of the best--and most civil--discussion groups going on the Usenet, by continuing to post inane comments about "Scully's puffy nipples." It sounds a little silly now, but at the time, in the monoculture that many of the best Usenet groups had managed to become through years of selective breeding, this little dumbass had roughly the same effect as the potato blight had on mid-nineteenth century Ireland. It reached a point where "serious" discussants with email addresses were chased away in disgrace simply because Usenet regulars assumed the worst about them.

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