Before the Eternal September of Virtual Reality
I watched a worldwide community die. Not just one. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. As the National Science Foundation Network transitioned into the public Internet, everything changed.
Up until the mid-1990s, Usenet Newsgroups were the place to go for lively conversations and well reasoned debate on any number of topics. Social issues, technology, cooking, auto repair, you name it. The topic was already there, and people were ready to talk about it.
What we may not have realized at the time was that there was a secret sauce which made it all come together. It wasn’t the servers or the NNTP protocol which transported the messages across the globe. First and foremost, it was the people: the informed participants who were passionate and well-informed about whatever topic they had come to discuss.
While we all certainly didn’t agree on whatever topics we discussed, we generally all got along. The second factor in the success of Usenet Newsgroup were the social norms which let us discuss our differences and (in most cases) move the conversation forward, without bad behavior getting out of control.
The Wikipedia article for the concept of Eternal September latches onto the social aspect of what happens when a small online community is suddenly invaded by a “seemingly endless intake of new users”. The existing culture lacks the capacity to integrate all the new users.
Eric Raymond’s geek classic, The Jargon File, notes that the September that never ended “triggered an inexorable decline in the quality of discussions on newsgroups”. Like trying to holding a rational debate in the comments of a YouTube video, at some point, it just isn’t worth it anymore.
Perhaps it seems elitist to look at the existing community and to say what we have is better. There is no question that today’s Internet is far superior than the NSFNet of the early 1990s. But the value of our core group was destroyed in that process. The VR community of tomorrow will unquestionably be superior to what we have today.
While we still have a core group of people who are informed and passionate about virtual reality, I wanted to take this moment and hope that this great community would acknowledge what we have. We should look at ourselves and appreciate what we have, today.
Tomorrow will be different.
Update March 29th, 2015: This was better received than I had hoped. The next article in the series: “The Wolves of Virtual Reality’s Eternal September“.