September 2005 was an important month in the history of the internet. It's when Facebook opened up its platform to high schoolers, and I remember registering an account the very first day I possibly could. I also quickly realized that the few people I knew who were already in college very specifically did not want to be my friend.
I was an interloper—a high school senior trying very hard to pretend as though I was already in college. I was getting something that I wasn't supposed to have, and I felt like everyone hated me for it. I very strongly considered deleting my account.
Now imagine what happened when, in September 1993, America Online granted its users access to a much more exclusive community.
"September 1993 will go down in net history as the September that never ended," Dave Fischer wrote on the world's most popular social network at the time. That post spawned the idea of the "Eternal September," a phenomenon that happens when an internet community is forced to deal with a neverending influx of new people.
For the first two decades of its existence, Usenet was the most important thing on the internet, a proto-World Wide Web where people figured out just what we'd use our computers for. People discussed technology and sports and whatever else. It's where the world's first digital flame wars started and it's where we get the word "spam."
But Usenet was generally for nerds, early adopters, and the rich. In the early days, you needed a fair bit of technical knowledge and, most importantly, an internet connection just to get on. During much of the year, just a handful of new people would get access because few people were terribly anxious to get on the internet in the late 80s.
"The problem was minimized through intimidation"
The exception every year came in September, when a new class of freshmen entered college and invariably gained access to the internet and Usenet through their classes. September was a bad time for the old timers on Usenet. Like many other online communities, it had its own in-jokes and slang (the first recorded instance of "lol" is from Usenet). The noobs cluttered their newsgroups, didn't know etiquette, and were generally annoying to seasoned users.
"New users were encouraged to read posts and get used to the social environment for a week or two before posting anything," Fischer told me. "People that didn't follow that advice and ran afoul of the accepted 'netiquette' were flamed into submission."
And then, in September 1993, America Online gave Usenet access to hundreds of thousands—and eventually millions—of its customers. The community was crushed under the sheer number of new users, Fischer said: "A collectivist type anarchy can't handle a massive influx of new members who aren't on the same ideological page."
Today, Fischer is a video artist who lives in Rhode Island. He's not on Usenet anymore, but he remembers September 1993 quite well.
"My memories of early 90s Usenet are of a vibrant, enlightened world of serious discourse. But I was a confused arrogant geek in my early 20s, so that's mostly heavy rose-tinting and confirmation bias," Fischer said. "When you're deeply immersed in an elitist clique, it often feels like you're in an open welcoming community. From your perspective, everything's great."
"People look back on it like it was some kind of CyberAthens," he added.
It wasn't, of course.
"It's better to have everyone involved, even if a lot of them are idiots"
"The problem was minimized through intimidation. The introduction new students got to Usenet was that it was a Big! Important! Serious! thing, and if you just waded in carelessly, you would make a fool of yourself," he said.
The internet is massive now, but the same techniques used to keep students from speaking their minds on Usenet are still used today. There's a vicious backlash against women and minorities who ask for a seat at the table that is The Internet. GamerGate, the Reddit reaction to former CEO Ellen Pao, and the general harassment that women on social media receive every day show that it's very much still September on the internet.
In smaller communities and on social media, women who speak their mind are harassed, threatened, and generally made to feel unwelcome. Changes made to make a community like Reddit feel more inclusive are disparaged as attacks on free speech.
In a blog post earlier this year, Zoe Quinn, the game designer who became the original target of GamerGate, noted that her experience is not unique.
"Feed into this machine an outspoken marginalized person with some degree of success or visibility, along with someone with a vendetta against that person, and what you get out is years of abuse and harassment directed at the marginalized individual along with galvanization & growth of communities who participate in that harassment and abuse," she wrote.
Rather than have a protectionist attitude toward our online communities, it's about time we get over it and let everyone participate. Adding people to a new community, no matter who they are, is going to cause waves—it's best to just embrace it.
"[Quinn's essay] made me feel kind of stupid for complaining about such trivial shit back in the early 90s. It's a complex world, and the problems lie with humanity, not the net," Fischer said. "It's better to have everyone involved, even if a lot of them are idiots."
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