Recently, I started to again have an old nightmare that I thought I had gotten rid of once and for all.
In the nightmare, I sit down at my computer to look for information or an answer to a problem, perhaps a solution to an application error or installation procedures or even personal help such as advice on home-brewing beer or a tip to get through a thorny level in a video game.
To get this help, I turn to the resource that for more than 10 years has always given me these answers more quickly, concisely and accurately than Web site searches—namely, a search engine of Usenet newsgroups.
But in this nightmare, there is no Usenet search engine or it isnt complete or its been turned into a commercial monster that combines Usenet postings with lame fan groups.
For most of the late 1990s, searching Usenet was a dream, with many very good search options such as DejaNews (which later became Deja.com), AltaVista and Remarq available to help me access the knowledge of geeks, academics and obsessive hobbyists worldwide.
But these options began to consolidate until 2000, when Deja.com basically acquired all competitors, then began to mess around with the Usenet archive, adding shopper Opinion features and cutting the archive to just one year.
This was the beginning of the Usenet search nightmare, but it also was a kind of wake-up call for many who realized that this valuable resource and historical treasure of the Internet boom was subject to corporate whims. A petition was circulated online that addressed the concerns of the people (namely, all of us who posted to Usenet) who had made Deja.coms archive possible.
In the petition, the issue was probably put best by hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson, who said: "This archive is a public resource which has slipped into private hands. It must be kept available for the public benefit."
The Usenet archives would stay in flux for about another year, until it was acquired by Google. And after a few early slip-ups, Google started to do the right things, and, eventually, its Google Groups became a good Usenet search tool.
And since Google seemed like a good company that tended to try to, as Google co-founder Sergey Brin would regularly say, "not be evil," many of us heavy Usenet researchers stopped worrying.
But we should have realized that nothing had really changed and that the valuable Usenet archive was still in corporate hands. And now Google is a publicly traded company and subject to pressures that may not take into account whats best for Usenet users.
Then came the recent betas of the next version of Google Groups, which may be released by the time you read this. And the nightmares started to come back.
Thats because some of the things Google is doing with the Usenet archive bear more than a passing resemblance to things Deja.com did in the darkest days.
First, Google has increased the profile of Google Groups, which are created on and hosted by Google. Sometimes when using the beta, I wasnt sure if results were from Usenet or a Google group.
Secondly, Google has weakened advanced searches in several ways, the worst being the removal of the option to search only within specific date ranges.
Making even less sense is the removal of direct links to a search result. In the new version, if you want to send information to someone from a Usenet search, youll need to cut and paste the information into an e-mail, rather than send them the link and let them go directly to it in Google (where Google will also get the potential advertising benefits).
Lets hope that, as when it first acquired the Usenet archive, Google corrects these missteps and that Google Groups will remain a robust option for Usenet searching.
But lets also use this opportunity to petition that this resource be given to its proper owner, namely the public that creates it. It is much too valuable to be at the mercy of corporate whims and should be in the hands of a university, The Library of Congress or the Internet Archive. If that happens, we all will be able to search—and sleep—more easily.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.