The (d)Evolution of Online Communities: A Case Study

by Charles Miller on July 29, 2003

I was reading Clay Shirky's article about online communities, and it reminded me of this story. Along with my previous article about AOL weblogs, this story serves as background to the point I will eventually be trying to make about Javablogs.

Once upon a time, probably around 1994/5, there was a little-known newsgroup called alt.sysadmin.recovery. It was populated by a group of truly vicious (and knowledgeable) system administrators, with seemingly enough time on their hands to be very amusingly bitter. The newsgroup was intelligent and funny, finding the absurd, and often painful humour in the life of sysadmins having to deal with broken hardware, crufty software and clueless users. After a while they were responsible for a significant proportion of the content of, until reposting between the two groups was specifically forbidden in the former's FAQ.

It is prohibited to re-post alt.sysadmin.recovery messages to Most ASR denizens have nothing against that group itself, but sometimes in the past we have averaged a few messages a day there. This has drawn the lusers here like moths to a candle—more unpleasant for the moths than for the candle, but we don't care about the moths. We strongly recommend that you put "X-No-Ahbou: yes" in your headers.

The reposts were causing the little-known newsgroup to get a lot of attention. Everybody wants to associate with, and become a part of something that is funny and successful, and this inevitably lowers the overall quality of the place being inundated with newcomers. Eventually, a Usenet moderation hack was employed to prevent the totally clueless from posting, but it was generally held that the classic era of the group was over.

Around this time, there were a few posts to ASR, saying that while the newsgroup was (in their eyes) dead, there was this neat place on the web that hosted interesting discussions, and seemed to contain a lot of the pith, interesting personalities and technical knowledge that had gone from the newsgroup.

That place was a little-known website called... Slashdot

Previously: Version Numbers and You

Next: Online Wisdom from the Buddha