Reinventing Things Worse

Have you ever noticed that sometimes “the next big thing” is a reinvention of the current thing, but worse?

Newsgroups have been around since the dawn of the Internet. They are a well-understood mechanism for distributing threaded discussions in a decentralised way around the world. You can choose a client which suits you, and have a consistent interface to many different groups on different topics.

However, a few years ago, web forums started becoming popular. Because they didn’t require another installed client or an open port on a firewall (ridiculous firewall port policies are a rant I’ll save for another day), people started using them instead of newsgroups even though you didn’t have consistency of interface across boards, you had to create accounts everywhere, the search was worse and so on.

Now, I read n.p.m.seamonkey and see the following:

As a reminder we will eventually phase out posts to this newsgroup in
favor of the developer blog:

Please be sure to check there for the latest news!

A blog is even worse than a web forum – there’s not even any threading, just a simple linear discussion, and the search usually isn’t as good. Additionally, only those who know the password can post, which is far less egalitarian. If that becomes our primary development announcement mechanism, the power to speak gets concentrated in the hands of a few. Developers are perfectly capable of using NNTP – our project even makes an NNTP client! If you want to access a message on the web, you can use Google Groups or Gmane. So why do we continually reinvent our communications mechanisms worse than before?

21 thoughts on “Reinventing Things Worse

  1. well, I don’t really know why many people do not use NNTP. But personally, I just got tired of the spam, and moz’s implementation of NNTP did not work too well with loads of messages (mostly spam) back when I was still using it. I’ve never quite like other NNTP clients (know any good cross platform free(dom) GUI NNTP clients?). At the same time, I’ve stayed clear of web forums, they tend to have worst issues (in my opinion) than moz’s NNTP client. Google Groups is nice, I use it sometimes. I’ll start using NNTP again if there’s a good client someone can recommend :-), to start I’ll probably try NNTP in thunderbird to see how much things have (or have not) improved :-P.

  2. Gerv,

    I agree 300%!

    Web forums just don’t have the continuity that Usenet does.

    I agree with basic about the Usenet spam, but there lies an opportunity to have the Mozilla SPAM filtering step in and make NNTP a better place to visit.

    There’s only TWO more missing NNTP features that Mozilla needs to make Usenet enjoyable:

    1) proper handling of crosspostings (eg, if I mark it read in one group, it’s marked read in anyother group it was posted to)

    2) Killfiles. They were the first ‘personal spam’ fiters! Browsing the Usenet without a killfile can be very frustrating.

  3. Well, first up, NNTP is not a technology a lot of new people are used to, or should be forced to use. I’m not a fan of NNTP personally, and I’ve only followed npm.seamonkey intermittently at best, as did many others. Signal to noise was pretty bad (I certainly didn’t read npm.seamonkey, nor did a lot of others, which is where the discussion started), which is why we concluded that newsgroups had lost their value.

    Frankly, egalitarian is not really useful for the type of announcements we’re talking about here. We want low-volume, high quality, that we can syndicate to feed readers/mail clients/web aggregators.

    In any case, the results speak largely for themselves, since everyone seems to be aware of branching etc, far more so than the previous year around the project. It used to be that “when are we freezing/branching?” was answered by four or five people, and even bz and other monster hackers weren’t aware. Now, that confusion seems gone, so the kneejerk reaction is “the blog is better.”

  4. Mike: I don’t understand what you mean by “NNTP is not a technology new people are used to”. That’s the point of Thunderbird’s unity of interface – if you understand email, you understand newsgroups. There’s _more_ learning in a single web-based BB than there is in figuring out Thunderbird’s news interface.

    As for signal to noise, the spam problem is now nearly non-existent (and will be even better when the new hierarchy comes). If you don’t want to read what everyone thinks of each announcement, just read the top-level posts. If you are a developer, signal-to-noise is bad in a small number of groups like .general, but that’s because it’s been taken over for user support because we haven’t rearranged the hierarchy yet.

  5. Mike, there is nothing wrong in using the blog for these announcements. But there is something wrong in abandoning the newsgroup for these announcements.

    – They are simply better suited for discussions about these announcements.
    – They are regularly read by key developers like dbaron, brendan, bz, roc, etc.
    – The SPAM problem is negligible, if you use a decent news server with a good anti-spam policy (like I do).
    – Decent newsreaders (like Thunderbird) enable users to suppress messages they don’t want to read or to do the opposite and score their posts up
    – With Google Groups you have a good archiving solution with decent full-text-search capabilities, which far outweigh the normal Google web capabilities.

  6. In all honesty NNTP isn’t used all that much any more by most people. It’s been mostly replaced by web forums, not due to any technical issues but simply because you can read web forums in a browser. That’s one thing that seems to be pretty common to most of these technologies — some may work outside the browser, but the ones that work inside the browser (or are tweaked to work there) are truly king. How else can you explain the popularity of webmail (especially the ones that aren’t accessible by mail clients)? We’re seeing the same thing happen with RSS and Atom now. They started among a geekier audience, but now with Safari, Firefox, and eventually IE7 bringing them into the browser I’m sure we’ll be seeing greater and greater pickup.

    As for migrating announcements to a blog, I mostly think it’s for the better. However, I do wish there were a way to be able to ask questions about announcements; you could do that in newsgroups, but if all the posts are going to be with commenting closed it’s not possible. For example, a recent post gives a list of people allowed to give approval for branch patches but doesn’t clarify the situation for patches already approved that weren’t checked in before the branch. Are they still valid? What about approvals from people not mentioned in the list? The answers to the questions aren’t clear, and with no real feedback mechanism they’re likely to go unanswered. Perhaps a mail alias like developer-questions@m.o where questions can be asked is needed, so that there’s some way to know when an announcement just isn’t quite clear on some points.

  7. Gerv,

    AFAIK, the intention is for developer news and announcements to be posted to the DevNews weblog so that they can be made available in RSS format and integrated into a variety of communication channels. The eventual goal is to include links to newsgroup (or web forum) threads for discussion, hopefully (finally) integrating things so that there’s an easy-to-find place to:
    1) get news & announcements,
    2) talk about them.

    I can even imagine a RSS->NNTP bridge that automatically crossposts the weblog content, but someone would have to set that up.

    IMO this is a good move, because it puts the announcement data in an easy-to-integrate format which will provide new and interesting ways for that data to be spread throughout the various community sites without the error-prone manual duplication that was previously used.

  8. I agree with Mike, I think having a blog is a better way of posting these kinds of announcements. I also think we should encourage more developers to post more news. For example, devnews could be used to post not only planning-related posts, but also to announce e.g. new CSS features implemented in Gecko (relevant mainly to web developers and XUL writers), major changes landing in XX module (relevant to people hacking that module), changes to extension infrastructure (relevant to extension authors) etc. A lot of that has only been posted on individual developers’ personal weblogs before–which is hard to track–or not at all. Although we’re not using the capability yet, WordPress also allows for categorizing posts, which will let readers subscribe to feeds that include posts relevant to them. In WordPress, posts can be marked as belonging to multiple categories, and iirc you can subscribe to a feed that is the union of several categories.

    Of course discussion topics should be posted to newsgroups, not to an announcements weblog.

  9. I’m trying hard to resist the urge to tie this move by the seamonkey devs to the longstanding bug 62228, the needed newsgroup reorganization. Gerv, could you add a comment there (and/or perhaps to its sister 215294) on its current status?

  10. “In any case, the results speak largely for themselves, since everyone seems to be aware of branching etc, far more so than the previous year around the project”

    That doesn’t particular indicate that a blog is better than a newsgroup post, it just indicates that anything is better than nothing at all.

    “Of course discussion topics should be posted to newsgroups”

    So as long as none of the developer announcements initiate any discussion, this is good.

    However, given that pretty much all of the core developers have moved away the newsgroups, the newsgroups reorganisation seems pretty much irrelevant at this point – it’s just going to shuffle some of the user support posts around.

  11. I agree 100% with Gervase. The “success” of web forums has always stunned me and I’ve been looking for explanations for years as to why this happened. Maybe usenet was too difficult for the horde of new internet users that arrived in the mid nineties? Maybe having to learn how to use a browser was just about what people could handle. I believe there is a big difference between what is *possible* using tecnology and what is actually *used*: NNTP was too complicated for the new users, and when they had grasped the basics and started looking for more interactive and participative means of comunications (i.e. when they had become advanced enough to understand that the internet wasn’t just a billion channel tv set), usenet *was* (is?) in a pretty bad shape. Spam everywhere and very few people posting. So, to get to usefull information/interesting people, people turned to web forums.
    There was also a time, around ’98-’01 when there were a lot of money to be found by getting traffic to websites – or at least website managers thought so – so a distributed, decentralized, no-ads system like usenet was just bothersome.
    So, I concluded, usenet died (I consider it more or less dead) because:
    – too many tech unsavvy users arrived in a bunch
    – non incentive from tech managers to tell people about NNTP
    – people that used NNTP slowly had to migrate to webforums, creating a downward spiral of usenet where nobody posted because nobdy posted because…

    This explanation doesn’t take into account the qualities of the tecnologies at all and that makes it quite convincing (to me) and maybe a bit sad at the same time: good tech is *not* enough, not even on the internet.

    (addition: for ISP’s the usenet is not a very well-seen service as it consumes hughe amounts of bandwidth without clients using it much. This is quite secondary as to the decline of usenet though…)

    My two cents,

  12. I agree with gerv that the newsgroups are a very important discussion technology; that doesn’t mean that the blog is a bad system: it just needs proper mirroring.

    As long as it is possible for me to receive direct notification (preferably by email) from devnews posts, and then to continue any wider discussion in a newsgroup, I am all for the highly moderated style of devnews. I know that all these things are planned. The point of devnews is that it be low-traffic and very targeted and moderated: it is information you really need to know. Additional discussion of this information is better done in an open newsgroup which is not moderated.

  13. Gerv is right, in that right now it would be a bad idea to abandon the newsgroup posting.

    I also agree that moving to a “moderated” blog is a better solution in the end, so “newer” people have a place to look for Official news, (without needing to know which posters to the newsgroup they can trust as “Official News Bearers” etc. (If I didnt know better I would think shaver or Asa’s posts in some cases, were some punk; or a random person stating a rumor as fact, as some sort of announcement).

    Until such time as proper mirroring scheme(s) are in place, and proper “response protocol’s” are in place for the devblog->newsgroup messaging, I for one would urge those posting to the devblog to post also to the newsgroup (even if the post is simply a link, is still better than no post at all). I would also ask anyone posting to the NNTP server to also post to the devnews blog if the post is “official” and in-fact news.

    I also look forward to the NG re-org. To help allieviate some of these inert NNTP issues.

  14. I have to agree that web-based discussion boards are very much like newsgroups, except reinvented worse. Livejournal discussion threads are a perfect example of why web-based boards are worse than newsgroups; every time I check in, I have to wade through dozens or hundreds of “posts” that I’ve already seen in the hope that I can find something new.

    I find it ironic that a Mozilla developer is complaining about discussions abandoning NNTP newsgroups for web-based discussion, considering that Netscape’s dreadful newsreader implementation probably did more than anything else in history to deprecate newsgroups in favor of web-based discussion boards.

  15. I was a fan of usenet.

    I would still be using usenet if my isp had not dropped it’s newsfeeds. Google Groups is a very poor substitute.

    My client of choice was Netscape 4.01 and had no problems with it whatsoever.

    In my mind, forums and blogs should be mirrors of usenet articles and not the other way around. Usenet is *much* more democratic than a balkanized bunch of blogs where everyone holds *their* content on *their* sites so they can monetize using ads all over the place. Just another form of spam.

    Please support usenet before it dies.

  16. Hello,
    Just wanted to pop in here, since I’m new to usenet, and searching for the prefect client.

    When I was younger (10-14 = 1990-1994), I used BBS’s, and networks like fido.
    Around 1993, my groups of friends found things like compuserve, prodigy, and later AOL. through AOL it went directly to the internet and web based stuff, this was what we where taught in computer classes in high school. Now older brothers of people I knew got into unix, usenet and other stuff that my generation was not really keen to, until now. Now, I’d have to say the the people younger then I are even less educated about nntp, because they have p2p networks and web forums to play with. It’s really a network history education gap. This is why more users of usenet are older generation X’ers and not millennial.. Once the millennial generation discovers the amazing possibilities of usenet, you can expect a ten fold jump in the amount of users in a short period of time. It just need to be marketed properly.

    my 2 cents..