From USENET to Facebook: The Second Time as Farce


Facebook repeats the pattern of USENET, this time as farce. As a no-holds-barred Wild West sort of social network, USENET was filled with everything we rightly complain about today. It was easy to troll and be abusive; all too many participants did it for fun. Most groups were eventually flooded by spam, long before spam became a problem for email. Much of that spam distributed pornography or pirated software (“warez”). You could certainly find newsgroups in which to express your inner neo-Nazi or white supremacist self. Fake news? We had that; we had malicious answers to technical questions that would get new users to trash their systems. And yes, there were bots; that technology isn’t as new as we’d like to think.

But there was a big divide on USENET between moderated and unmoderated newsgroups. Posts to moderated newsgroups had to be approved by a human moderator before they were pushed to the rest of the network. Moderated groups were much less prone to abuse. They weren’t immune, certainly, but moderated groups remained virtual places where discussion was mostly civilized, and where you could get questions answered. Unmoderated newsgroups were always spam-filled and frequently abusive, and the alt.* newsgroups, which could be created by anyone, for any reason, matched anything we have now for bad behavior.

So, the first thing we should learn from USENET is the importance of moderation. Fully human moderation at Facebook scale is impossible. With seven billion pieces of content shared per day, even a million moderators would have to scan seven thousand posts each: roughly 4 seconds per post. But we don’t need to rely on human moderation. After USENET’s decline, research showed that it was possible to classify users as newbies, helpers, leaders, trolls, or flamers, purely by their communications patterns—with only minimal help from the content. 

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