Thursday, October 12, 2006

Keep going about the Google thing.

Why don't I like Google?

Because they seem to be giving the impression they not only own the whole internet, but also (and more teeth-grindingly irritating to me) give the distinctly incorrect impression that they own Usenet.

Putting a cover sheet on War And Peace with your name on it isn't exactly lying that you wrote it . . . it's just a cover sheet, isn't it? It's the same inside as it always was. Making Google's search engine a cover sheet for the entire internet was equally harmless. Except that for millions of people who have never seen any other cover sheet as they open their browser, it really gives the impression that Google wrote the book, not just the index. It gets my goat.

Usenet has an even longer tradition. It's not part of the internet, though I'm not going to bore you with its history. (You can of course . . . ha ha ha . . . look up its history using Google's fine search tool.) Usually one accesses Usenet with a newsreader. You read other people's posts from a window that displays them in a hierarchy, and you send posts to Usenet groups via the newsreading software in a manner just like email. There are tens of thousands of text-only groups and thousands of binary groups with rips, pictures and of course vast quantities of porn and spam.

Google decided to make Usenet accessible through the internet, and put a newsreader-type interface on its front page, called "Google Groups". It was a poor newsreader, not compliant with the standards of Usenet, which meant that people accessing Usenet through Google were forever making mistakes in presentation and quoting style. Since Google did not automatically point new people to the news.announce.newusers group, people did not know basic posting etiquette, or even that there was such a thing. It caused quite a bit of bad feeling.

And – notice – "Google Groups"? As though the groups belonged to Google. Arg.

But that's not the worst thing Google did.

Usenet posts are by nature transient. You are having a conversation with many, perhaps hundreds, of people, and the conversations are "threaded" which is to say that the message you reply to appears above yours, and replies to your posts go below in a format that is fairly easily understandable. Or at least understandable when you use a proper newsreader and your posts are being answered the same day you send them. Most Usenet posts are like coffee-break conversation, in writing. Someone says something, you react to it, the subject changes, you react to that and then break is over. Sometimes the next day, if you recall the remark at all, you might think, "Did I say that? That's not what I really think!" But it was in response to a specific comment by someone else, not a Manifesto, and anyway, everyone's already forgotten the conversation.

On Usenet, if you said something profound, or if the conversation dug up some meaningful info, the group would often produce a FAQ, or an FAQ as they call it over here, a Frequently Asked Questions file. Someone would take charge of re-posting it regularly to keep the meaningful comments in circulation. The ephemeral conversations swam in circles beside the FAQs, like penguins around ice-floes.

But many years ago, someone decided that it would be fun to archive every single post to Usenet, just because they could. That archive was called DejaNews. Most people never heard of it and it was just a vague shadowy James Bond villain in the background of Usenet life. Then Google bought DejaNews. Then Google put a web interface on Usenet and called it Google Groups.

The result is that posts that people thought were transient coffee-break conversation pieces in 1993 (or any other subsequent years) are now available again through Google Groups. The threading is broken, or at least incomplete, and so it's difficult to reconstruct who the hell the person was replying to, but the remark is still there.

I got smart and started using pseudonyms once I learned about DejaNews, but I just looked and I found a couple of incomprehensible posts with my name on them that I can't remember writing from '93 and '94. I've never owned any antirrhinums or any Kenwood equipment, so they may not be me, but anyway I can safely say:

1. If I did post them, I've changed my mind
2. I was drunk, your honor
3. The guy up-thread egged me on and I was just lying to wind him up

I find this searchability sinister. I didn't know I was being recorded. Most people on Usenet didn't. Seeing posts you probably didn't intend to be your last word on the subject, written 13 years ago, available for people to reply to today, is a misapplication of Usenet. I would prefer it to go away, so I could have a non-anonymous conversation in peace with my friends again.

But it won't, so I'm just going to seethe at Google instead.

Marginally useful note: If you don't want to have to defend to the death, in 30 years time, some intolerant remark you made out of frustration because some poster was annoying you one night, look into the X-No-Archive: Yes header. In theory, this tells honest companies not to archive your Usenet post. Dishonest companies, the sort who might sell your posts to a private detective, or to your boss, or to your health insurance company, mind you, may or may not honor it. At least it'll keep casuals from looking you up.

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