Ever since the early days of the Internet which, by the way, predates the invention of the browser by at least a decade, there has been a form of social networking. In the mid to late 1980s and on into the 1990s, that was Usenet. Usenet was a collection of so-called "newsgroups" which weren't so much news as discussion boards.
Now, many sites have discussion boards. They are now ubiquitous throughout the Web. However, Usenet brought them under one umbrella. You would get a newsreader, which was a client-side software tool (text-based, much like working with vi or emacs) and then you'd pick a few newsgroups you were into. Many of them used naming schemes that classified it. Thus "rec" would refer to recreation and might include sports as well as TV shows.
For example, when I first became aware of newsgroups, sometime in the late 1980s, Star Trek: The Next Generation had just started. Needless to say, due to the number of nerds on at Usenet, a far higher percentage then than now, there were plenty of ST:TNG fans (ST:TNG is an acronym for the show). You'd have at least half a dozen reviewers. Names like Vidiot, Michael Rawdon, Atsushi Kanamori, and, of course, Tim Lynch were the authority figures, folks that wrote about each episode, dissected what they liked and didn't like.
And much as geekdom was not simply isolated to computers and Star Trek, there was also a huge fascination with sex. Usenet groups, legitimate ones anyway, went through this approval process. I believe some guy at Purdue approved each group and there were hundreds of such groups. However, there were also groups that some wanted without approval, and they all fell in the "alt" groups, the most famous of which was, alt.sex.
For a long while, alt.sex was a pretty fascinating newsgroup. People would freely ask questions, discuss their own personal experiences. Alternate lifestyles were fascinating. I recall a guy who was married in an open relationship. Both he and his wife would sleep with other men and women, in 2-somes and 3-somes. Their view outside the normal spectrum showed a world few were familiar with.
Due to the relative anonymity of the Internet, several phenomenon that exist to this day showed up. Most common were "flame wars". A flame was an incendiary post meant to take a highly opinionated position and often to criticize someone severely. These arguments were more emotional than persuasive and people easily became incensed by contrary viewpoints.
Why did this happen? Ask yourself who read these newsgroups? Typically, bored geeky guys that were passionate about a particular subject, say, Star Trek. Once you get hundreds of such people, it's not hard to have at least one person have a view that is contrary to the views of many. Atsushi Kanamori, for example, enjoyed Star Trek a great deal, but he found most episodes of TNG to be tripe. He argued why he thought it was that way, but it seemed 2 of every 3 reviews were negative. Fans of the show argued with him about the awesome-ness of the show, but since he reasoned his argument out in a review, he was often better prepared to retort.
And that was a civil discussion.
I used to be involved in a tennis newsgroup. During the height of Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, Seles got stabbed and took nearly 2 years off from the tour. Ardent Seles fans, who were all male, demanded Steffi return all the trophies that she won saying they were tainted because Seles was not there to challenge her for them. To be fair, Seles probably would have won her share of trophies during that period, but in a way, it's no different than if Seles had been injured and returned slowly to the tour.
The point is, even a newsgroup as potentially boring as tennis, was still filled with passionate people with passionate arguments.
What was interesting about this tennis newsgroup, and honestly, a whole host of other newsgroups, some devoted to fairly erudite topics such as artificial intelligence or arcane subjects in math, was its ability to attract passionate people who loved a particular subject matter together with other people of similar interests.
I used to love following tennis, but it was really hard prior to the Internet. If you watched tennis in the day, you could only get coverage for matches between the French Open and the US Open. This typically included some of the US tournaments (then played on clay). It was rare to see even the early hardcourt season played in Miami and Indian Wells even though those matches had been played for years. The Philadelphia Indoors was a major indoor tournament that was rarely covered on TV. Forget the entire European clay court circuit which was barely reported on.
In those days, it was amazing just to get tennis results. Most local papers didn't bother with tennis scores. At the time, the best place to get tennis scores was USA Today. USA Today may have been called "McNewspaper" for its generally cheery and somewhat controversy-free news reporting, but it also had a sports section that covered sports nationwide and internationally.
Believe me, even tennis scores don't begin to adequately cover what happens in tennis, but in those days, if you were into tennis, then tennis scores were better than nothing. You could, in principle, try to track an individual player week to week and see how they did. All you would have is scores since live coverage was out of the question.
The newsgroup, in those days, was primarily devoted to the pro game. Sure, there was the occasional discussion of how to play tennis, but Usenet's medium was primarily text. In the early 1990s, there was no YouTube. The best you could hope for was to post photos, and even back then, digital cameras were rare, and there was no convenient way to produce slow motion video from which to take digital stills.
Tennis instruction wouldn't take off again til about 2007. By then, YouTube had existed a few years, and people were producing high quality tennis audio and video and able to acquire slow motion video of the pros and begin to dissect their shots. Up until then, information about how to play tennis seemed like a deeply held secret among certain tennis coaches and that information was not widely disseminated, not even in the "Dummies" books that were starting to abound.
Anonymity creates a strange social dynamic. On the one hand, people will say critical things in front of others and not fear any repercussion. I used to participate in a college newsgroup about issues affecting colleges. One person was adamant in his hatred of affirmative action claiming it was reverse discrimination. The African Americans (at the time) tended to ignore what he said so there was rarely intelligent discussion. Liberals just assumed affirmative action was right and conservatives assumed it was wrong, and there wasn't much discussion, just heated arguments.
Thus, behind the veil of anonymity, people behave in ways that are outside the norm. On the flip side, anonymity sometimes lead to people being a lot more honest. For example, suppose a person was having an affair, or they were gay, or a whole host of things that would be seen unfavorably if their friends new (they were sexaholics, etc). They could get to a newsgroup and discuss it in relative anonymity being a lot more open knowing they could leave at any time.
Of course, the flip side also held true. If people couldn't see you, then perhaps you could pretend to be someone you're not. If you were 50, you might pretend to be 20, and so forth. All sorts of social behavior that has evolved over time to let us interact mostly peacefully begin to deteriorate when bad behavior doesn't have to be reined in. That beautiful girl? Ask her to remove her clothes? That "ugly" person? Criticize them for being a lardo.
It's perhaps no surprise that many of the behaviors that spontaneously evolved during that time continue to this day. People still flame. People still pretend to be other people. People still are passionate about topics and find others that are similarly passionate. Sociologists may one day look at this period, near to the cusp of a new millennium, and wonder how the nature of the Internet and anonymity lead to the burgeoning of the earliest form of social networking, and how people began to view notions such as honesty and privacy in surprisingly different ways.
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