To the list of tech stuff that I’ve been around to see both the beginning and the end of (VHS, Concorde, the Space Shuttle…), I can add something that’s a bit more personal: kink on Usenet; specifically, the Usenet group soc.sexuality.spanking (SSS), and its predecessor alt.sex.spanking (ASS). I hope I’m wrong about seeing the end, but it’s hard to summon up a great deal of optimism.
My first sight of ASS, in the early ’90s, was magical but sporadic, through a string-and-sealing-wax web-interface to Usenet running on a server in the Czech Republic — my only ‘net access at the time being through my work, a place with liberal attitudes and an early installation of Mosaic. I posted a little, under a hastily-chosen pseudonym, but there were gaps. Reliable access came later, with my move to a university system, and I ended up being part of the group that huddled together in long and emotional negotiation of the formal proposal for the creation of SSS — whose place as the very first sexually-oriented group in any of the “big-8″ Usenet hierarchies made it a political issue far wider than its own remit.
And then, off-and-on (but mostly on) for the last 14 years, I’ve been one of the moderators of SSS, the last few as its technical bod, responsible for keeping everything working smoothly. Add to that thousands of postings over the years, including original fiction posted there first of all; the creation of friendships, including a long-term relationship; annual short-story contests; the loss of friendships to untimely death; and spam, and trolls, and many, many ferocious arguments.
But now, for reasons too many to enumerate, Usenet is being slowly forgotten, and my own ability to give it time and energy has more or less gone. A couple of days ago I posted my intention to resign from the job, and that post itself has echoed in a bit of a void, which tells its own story.
For a while I had pipe-dreamish plans to build a nifty web-interface to the group that would help pervs new to the ‘net both to find the group — “Can you give me the web address of the group?” being an understandable but frustrating and impossible-to-answer question that we frequently encountered — and to interact with it in a way that wasn’t so far from their experience of web == ‘net. But even if I had the time for that sort of work, it’s likely too late. Even with a spiffy new front-end, Usenet can’t really compete for the attention of users used to Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and Fetlife and on and on.
All of this seems a shame, since the bones of Usenet are still extremely strong. It’s a bomb-proof, self-owned system, more or less as impossible to shut down as the ‘net itself. Those features aren’t any less important now than they were when Usenet was something like the only game in town for global discussion. Being dropped by some large ISPs — notably AOL, though at the time an AOL in decline — wounded Usenet a little, but it has the ability of Python’s Black Knight to not care much about losing a limb.
I do still have some pipe dreams. I can imagine a social media system which used Usenet as its distribution layer — SSS for textual content, ABPES (or somesuch) for image content — hidden below an application layer that could run on thousands of servers across the world, packaging together text and image content into a rich user experience that made use of Usenet’s strengths while accepting that its geeky weaknesses are a serious barrier to new users these days. It would be owned by no-one, just as Usenet is owned by no-one, with distributed management of independent, non-commercial nodes.
In the end, I think I probably stuck around on Usenet for too long. Notwithstanding the fact that finding replacement moderators was flagged as a problem even a decade ago, causing my reluctance to leave, for at least a few years my input to the group has been token and joyless, and perhaps even drained my ability to experience the kink as a source of plain fun. Turning one’s sexual self into an administrative drone will do that. But I’m nonetheless glad that I had the opportunity to help in the building of what was genuinely a community — social media before anyone had thought to call it that.
Now, though, I’m trying to re-learn that enjoying kink isn’t something to do once the spammers have been dealt with, or in-between flame wars, and that it’s not an indulgence — at least, not a bad indulgence — to see kink as pure personal expression, rather than something that’s primarily a worthy community-building imperative.
Just have to get rid of this damn job.