Computers and Software

History on Usenet: The People's Forum

Mark Pitcavage, January 1996

Most historians who participate in online discussions about history do so through the H-Net listservs, but an alternative forum exists in the shape of Usenet newsgroups. Usenet is a collection of thousands of online discussion groups about subjects ranging from Astrology to Zen, including a handful of history-related topics.

Access to Usenet depends upon your computer and online connection. Many World Wide Web browsers, such as the popular Netscape, allow you to read newsgroups, but dedicated newsreader programs are more sophisticated and helpful. The most popular of such programs for Windows are News Xpress (ftp://ftp.microserve.net/pub/msdos/winsock/nx10b4-p.zip) and Free Agent (ftp://ftp.forteinc.com/pub/forte/free_agent/fagent10.zip), which use Winsock connec tions. You may have to contact your computing services provider to determine the best way to connect. Newsreaders allow you to subscribe to and drop out from newsgroups, compose replies while online or offline, archive messages, and perform a variety of other tasks. A simple Unix newsreader like "rn" is barely functional.

Usenet history newsgroups include soc.history, soc.history.moderated, soc.history.living, soc.history.science, soc.history.medieval, soc.history.war.misc, soc.history.war.vietnam, soc.history.war.world-war-ii, soc.history.war.us-civil-war, and alt.war.civil.usa. New groups are created through a quirky process of discussion and debate, adhering to Usenet conventions. There is a good chance that a group on American colonial or revolutionary history will see daylight in the near future.

The key to surviving and enjoying Usenet newsgroups is to understand their nature. Unlike H-Net, where membership tends to be limited to academics or fellow travelers, virtually anyone with a modem and an opinion can (and will) contribute to Usenet topics. The popular nature of Usenet newsgroups not only determines their nature—for instance, the dominance of military history groups—but also their content. Every level of education and sophistication is present. Academics, students, buffs, genealogists, amateur and popular historians (and cranks) engage in an intellectual free-for-all that can be remarkably sophisticated or frustratingly childish—and sometimes both—within the space of minutes. In soc.history.war.misc, for instance, abstract arguments about the causes of war might take place amid puerile debates as to who was a greater general, Alexander or Napoleon.

Two basic categories of newsgroups exist: moderated and unmoderated. In the former, posts are sent to moderators who scan the messages to insure that they contain no personal attacks and are appropriate for the subject at hand. Unmoderated newsgroups automatically post any message sent to them (including, unfortunately, advertisements, pyramid schemes, and other miscellaneous items). Moderated newsgroups tend to resemble H-Net lists more than do the unmoderated groups, but they share some of the same disadvantages: delays in message transmission and an occasional blandness. The difference between, for instance, the unmoderated alt.war.civil.usa and the moderated soc.history.war.us-civil-war is striking. The former is considerably more spontaneous—and interesting—but has the unfortunate tendency to erupt all too often in North-South "flamewars" (slang for personal attacks or vehement arguments). Still, even moderated newsgroups generally have a "spark" often missing from H-Net lists, where for a variety of reasons, including an overabundance of professional caution, many conversations tend to be very restrained.

In addition to their spontaneity, the main advantage of Usenet newsgroups is their ability to put academics in touch with laypeople beyond the college classroom whose conceptions of and uses for history might differ considerably from those of the history professor. Such exchanges of ideas and opinions are not only healthy but entertaining—entertainment being another (and not necessarily the least important) advantage of participating in Usenet groups.

—Mark Pitcavage, a recent Ph.D. from Ohio State University, works at the Ohio Board of Regents. When not skimming through cyberspace, he is writing a book on the decline of antebellum militias in the United States. He can be reached via e-mail at mpitcava@magnus.acs.ohio-state.edu.