t byfield on 15 Feb 2001 04:59:18 -0000

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Re: <nettime> Usenet archives sold?

geert@xs4all.nl (Thu 02/15/01 at 12:17 PM +1100):

> The Usenet archives thread is raising interesting questions and I think we
> should further list these questions rather than getting into a big
> capitalism debate. As far as I can see the issue of Google *owning* Usenet
> archives should have been discussed much earlier, when Dejanews started
> archiving Usenet for commercial purposes. This debate is not about the right
> of this or that company to make money, but about the question if they should
> do that with other people's writing, without asking permission.

a critique from the standpoint of the commodity, which fetishizes
the author and his (yeah, his) rights. salted with some misunder-
standing, i think, about american and european cosntructions of
what those rights are: exploitation, on the one hand, and moral
right on the other. neither fares very well in the face of commu-
nications structured by protocols; they fare even worse when the
communications shift from one protocol to another, which is what
the dejanews archives did.

it *was* debated quite extensively when dejanews started archiving
usenet, but the debates were academic, as they say, because no one 
could stop them--from doing what exactly? from accepting a newsfeed 
(a) without expiring the articles, and (b) feeding it to an NNTP->
HTML gateway. this first distinction, no expiry, was simply a func-
tion of NNTP servers, a means of minimizing storage because disks
were expensive. the second, the gateway, was quite insightful: the
manipulability of web display made linear archives nonlinear. that
mini-convergence came as a shock. in a way, i suppose it was an ur-
'repurposing,' a necessary stage in the production of the category
'content': the transformation of a mass of transient communications 
into a semi-permanent historical record. of course, that had hap-
pened countless time before--but never to an entire genre. i'm not
sure i'd call usenet a genre now, but it was one then, i think.

the widespread reaction at the time was horror that all those posts
had not in fact gone away. so imagine what would have happened, had
dejanews compiled cumulative lists of every usenet post attributed
to an email address over the past few years then sent a request for 
permission to publicly archive them all... *paroxysms* of paranoia.

nevermind that the vast majority of those messages include material 
that's quoted with attribution, sometimes three, four, five levels 
deep--with the occasional copyright violation tossed in, quoted, re-
dacted, as well as the forgeries, etc. to suggest that it would have
been possible to request fine-grained permissions for such a topolo-
gically intertextual nightmare completely misses the point of what 
usenet is and how it works. it wasn't culturally, institutionally,
or even technically possible to subject usenet to the norms of paper-
based publishing.

and it misses as well usenet's place within the larger framework of 
protocols and interfaces. email was presumptively 'private,' whereas 
the web and gopher were 'public.' usenet inhabited a curious middle 
ground, similar in a way to IRC, of publicly accessible but (it was
assumed) transient conversations; unlike IRC, though, its ability to
function relied on a formalized hierarchy, which itself was sustained 
by procedures for starting new groups. (there are other differences,
of course--sync and async characteristics, for example). 

the social and institutional basis of usenet was very much of a piece 
with its 'content', too: authorship of any given element was secondary 
to the flow of conversation. this logic is reflected in its distribu-
tion system, which is quite unlike that of any other protocol (although 
caching systems to optimize web traffic have started to recapitulate 
the usenet model).


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