"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Geekquake, or, I Hear America Whining


Two years after the brilliant DejaNews was transformed into the swap 'n' stop portal Deja, the lamentations haven't ceased. Now a succession of layoffs (long ago prefigured by wacky alliance-forging and a desperate privacy sellout or two) suggest Deja's misplacement of most of its Usenet archive was just the beginning of a long digital nightmare. The community of DejaNews hawks, not content to see the problem as one of competence when a grand saga of corporate intrigue will do, are hounding the company to restore its pre-1999 archives; and in this one instance, the geeks' acute (if ever-present) sense of injury may be worth our attention.

Come join us at the Mediabistro mixer, as exiles from Deja's old New York staff engage in the only economic activity that has survived intact throughout the great web wipeout — bellyaching about your e-employer. It's no easy task to finger one bad egg from among the communal dirty dozen or so. Spy magazine co-founder and Disney's Gasoline Alley-cat, Deja CEO Tom Phillips, is an easy target, but most of the laid-off New Yorkers blame the failure of Deja on those dadblamed DejaNews techies in Austin, who, hostile to the product ratings shell tacked onto their shrine, dragged their feet and all but sabotaged the new Deja.

We're betting the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Those MSN and Ziff veterans hired by Phillips thought they'd found a plan for extracting value from the all-Usenet asset, while honoring the old Yahoo! Internet Life tenets that Usenet was a scary place where innocents could be stalked and flamed by Unix-using rapists.

The nougat inside all those other shells was the shell-master himself, DejaNews founder and chairman Steve Madere, yet another disenfranchised OS/2 programmer who said nuts to IBM and went on to cook up the fairly unexciting but extremely useful idea of accessing Usenet through a web browser. This gave way, in the cornucopian high-tech harvest, to the stupendous utility of archiving every single Usenet post for subsequent search-and-recall at will. Like a magic wand, DejaNews transformed Usenet just when "tech support" had dissolved into mailto: oblivion. Suddenly there was a living ultra-FAQ for hardware and software questions, a nebbish's ultimate leverage. Invisibly and almost effortlessly, you could seek and get answers from inside a damp, moldy, rat-filled warehouse filled with a billion answers to a million questions.

At the same time, the advent of DejaNews stoked the psychoses of balmy usenuts already insensate with dreams of mind control. With electronic immortality conferred upon your every arbitrary mind fart and insipid sig file, could world domination be far behind? Or failing that, post-mortal apotheosis, perpetual argumentative one-upmanship, or even just bragging rights — why, someday you could dandle your grandson in your lap and tell him what you had for breakfast the day you burned the butt-hairs off that defaming revisionist.

But rather than extending and embracing the DejaNews brand, the new Deja left its zealous audience members with the feeling of having woken up, Day of the Triffids-like, and found themselves unable to see their beloved Usenet prattle for the fleaspeck type, product ratings, partnership ads, and freshly-minted "communities" (single-member singles clubs, illness support groups, scam getaways). For a geek community that lives in constant, nameless terror of corporate domination, the new, improved Deja proved as welcome as Lupus.

Underlying the backlash was the fear that the Deja design changes would somehow result in less than full-frontal BBS wanking. Even now, the milquetoast, Xanax-y sound of branded message boards owes a debt in reassuring patriarchal soma to at least one shadow-marketing tool of the closed online bulletin-board services — the fear that if you weren't paying two bucks an hour to CIS you could somehow lose your life if your modem short-circuited and/or the numbers in your headers added up to 666. This flight from freedom has been carried onto "virtual web communities." Since Usenet offers an uncut (and thus, by some lights, preferable) grade of vituperation, your would-be community builder would just as soon you not believe there is another better, cheaper neighborhood, offering all the demented cultural history and Joseph Estrada conspiracy theories you can stomach. Indeed, Usenet has provided the necessary object lesson of a scary street scene, since communities are really defined by whom they exclude. You could call them different kinds of architectures: One is a sort of powder-room confessional, another hosts lunchroom gossip. Usenet is the great outdoors, street theatre, agora, gutter opera. On Usenet your community is as likely to be done in by foul-mouthed hooligans as it is to become the main forum for worldwide stone skipping.

What is most sad in this story is that, although Deja made no real effort to tame its Usenet beast, the idea that it might was enough to make the company a target of geeks. The lesson here may be something about the fragility of trust. Or maybe it's just that, while you might make a lot of money on Usenet (then again you might not) it's hard to make it from Usenet. It's kind of like trying to harness the power of copulation to run your toaster. The motive force of electrons aroused through passions either tumescent or emotional doesn't easily convert into bucks.

This being a Usenet discussion, it's time to invoke the Führer, and turn our attention to those whose orders were being followed. Phillips might seem ripe to take the blame, but ask yourself, would you have done any differently? Imagine the presentation made by the marketing geniuses sometime back in 1998. Think of the 8 1/2-by-11 cardboard folios placed at each cushy conference room seat. Look up toward the front of the darkened room at the PowerPoint slides depicting hordes of Usenet sheep being led through pens. Some of those sheep will wander off to be shorn of their furry buyer's ratings on tires, CD players, and tranquilizers, which will then be woven and offered to the smarter, lazier but really cooler New Yorker subscribers, who unlike those damnably thrifty geeks have a demographic as opposed to an arrest record. Though naturally, explains the marketing man, a substantial percentage of the fools taken in by the ad campaigns will return to be clipped, the base is the Usenet junkies who can be relied on to return again and again.

And if they don't, he should have added, maybe Epinions will buy out what's left.


courtesy of Hulk Snead


pictures Terry Colon