- Eternal October and the End of Cyberspace
According to its best-known history, drafted in the mid-1990s, USENET’s governing structure was open, and it opened new doors to direct democracy.1 I do not think it is controversial to claim that excitement is no more, just as the freedom to craft theories and expectations of new kinds of “community,” ignoring centuries of trial and error in the matter,2 is all but gone. By the end of the 1990s, USENET was overrun with spam, and by the mid-2000s, it was widely reported as “dead.” But in USENET mythology, its fall occurs earlier, in September 1993, in an “Eternal September.”
Prior to 1993, the month of September marked a wave of new university students, connected through their campus. Eternal September was caused by a flood of users who gained USENET access as part of a new America Online (AOL) offering and, unlike previous USENET freshman cohorts, they could not be resocialized.3
These relatively small drafts of newbies could be assimilated within a few months. But in September 1993, AOL users became able to post to Usenet, nearly overwhelming the old-timers’ capacity to acculturate them; to those who nostalgically recall the period before, this triggered an inexorable decline in the quality of discussions on newsgroups.4
This assimilation and acculturation was described as a matter of observing network etiquette. “Netiquette,” as it was called, was much like the etiquette of court ceremony or professional ritual in that it was inextricably bound to place.
In other words, the newbies could not be forced to accept what we now understand as a central tenet of cyberlibertarianism: that cyberspace, too, was a place, separate from the world, and thus free. For it all to work, all the visionaries needed was for everyone to recognize a small set of self-evident truths. In Barlow’s words, in his 1996 cyberlibertarian manifesto The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, it was “a global social space,” a “civilization of the mind,” a “world.”5 Not only was cyberspace a real place, but it was more than the world. In cyberspace, liberty and culture could proceed past the natural limits set by physicality—governments, industries, and our very bodies. In cyberspace, our bodies might be beaten and subject to laws no better than pig iron, but that was the price of materiality, a cost that, finally, revolutionaries would pay no more.
But in cyberspace there was no revolutionary state at hand to enforce the new edicts. Just as the cyberlibertarians saw cyberspace as more than real, I read the Eternal September counterrevolutionaries treating it as less. They could flame and troll with a fearlessness that was harder to get away with under the material coercion of the state, or the physical consequences of talking when you were supposed to be listening. Without the oddly providential cyberlibertarian vision to give a reason for good behavior, cyberspace looked a lot more like the history of civilization than it did an unencumbered new chapter. But the basic claim of placeness–later translated into a metaphoric quality of the Internet as a place to go and be—survived in our language and metaphors.
William Gibson coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1984 book Neuromancer, a year after the early Internet began to assimilate local networks and online systems that might have formed their own, separate pockets of online.6 Cyberspace meant a single global place, both in Neuromancer and in the visions of the pioneers behind the new Internet. Gibson’s work was set in the future, when whole populations were online. Returning to the canonical work on USENET, it predicted that if ubiquitous network access was achieved, “‘all Hell will break loose’ in the most positive of ways imaginable.”7 But what does it mean for cyberspace as place when more of the world inhabits it?
Eternal September arrived three years after Godwin’s Law, which in 1990 first stated that as an online discussion increases in size, “the probability of a [bad-faith] comparison involving Hitler approaches one.” Godwin’s Law hints at how Gibson’s cyberspace could not come to be, and...