User-contributed content, Chapter 1

In the past, we’ve been critical of user-contributed content, particularly at E-commerce sites. For A List Apart, we wrote that Amazon-style user reviews boiled down to “Alanis sucks!” or “Alanis rules!”

It was our impression that most people’s opinions, as posted on Amazonesque fora, aren’t all that interesting. One reason? They’re not experts. There’s a reason why professional critics have high-profile slots in the conventional media. By and large, they do in fact know what they’re talking about.

We have, however, found a few genres of user-contributed content that actually work. We’ll get to those later in this ongoing series. But let’s start with an antique collaboration technology.

Usenet news

First, a (Usenet) newsflash. One of the duopolist providers of free Usenet news, Remarq, was swallowed this week by some conglomerate or other and promptly lobbed off an arm: “[Whatever this conglomerate is] will no longer provide free, Web-based access to newsgroups at”

The conventional wisdom about Usenet is that it is overrun with spam and/or porn. Generally, it is. Some newsgroups, however, aren’t, though they’re hard to find. Usenet is rather unsexy and carries the scent of death, so not many netters are in a big rush to root around the dumpster to find what few diamonds there are.

Further, Usenet newsreaders are nowhere near as widely used as browsers. Netscape typically can read news, but at most 20% of people online use it. Explorer offloads newsreading to Outlook, an E-mail program (a) that not everyone uses and (b) that, through its notorious, uncorrected programming defects, is single-handedly responsible for egregious virus attacks. Quite simply, if you hit a newsgroup link on a Web page, you have no reason to assume it will work.

It gets worse. Usenet carriage by ISPs is far from universal, because the flow of data is huge, costing real money in bandwidth and server space. AOL and CompuServe offer Usenet, so the lower and upper echelons are unaffected. Apparently it is the broad midrange of Usenet readers who rely on local ISPs that is affected.

Of course, there’s still Dejanews, which buried its formerly-high-profile, raison d’être Usenet holdings twenty or thirty fidgety, grasping-at-straws redesigns ago. It is possible that free access to Usenet may be on its deathbed: The Remarq page recommends signing up for a “free 30-day trial” with some site or other.

Usenet has a storied past. So do LP records, which, like Usenet, desperately cling to a dwindling set of alleged superiorities. How does one save Usenet?


Jon Udell may have an answer. Rather along the lines of Christian heavy metal, Udell describes how a debased medium can be “saved,” in this case by using the underlying protocol, NNTP, to positive ends.

Whether or not the Usenet reorganizes along these lines, it’s crucial to separate the idea of shared discussion space from its implementation as the Usenet. The Usenet’s model of collaboration – and its existing, proven tools and technologies – can be redeployed on public sites, extranets, and intranets. NNTP conferencing can be a better kind of mailing list, one that supports the kinds of collaboration that the Web has so far failed to deliver.

It’s a very unsexy approach. Your typical Web site would prefer to buy a Web-based discussion board, which we’ll talk about in the coming days. But since NNTP is built into many server packages or can be downloaded for free, why reinvent the wheel?

One place we see NNTP deployed intelligently: Microsoft. Yes, them, or at least their support newsgroups. Perhaps this is an atypical example, since the topic is itself computer technology. But it seems to work.

So far, this discussion has dealt with the content carriage mechanism rather than the content the mechanism carries. Trust us, we’ll be getting to that shortly, and you can expect some ears to be singed.

Posted on 2000-08-18