Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet by Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben
First Monday
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The story of Netizens is an important one. In conducting research five years ago online to determine people's uses of the global computer communications network, I became aware that there was a new social institution, an electronic commons, developing. It was exciting to explore this new social institution. Others online shared this excitement. I discovered from those who wrote me that the people I was writing about were citizens of the Net, or Netizens.

I started using local bulletin board systems in Michigan in 1985. After seven years of participation on both local hobbyist-run computer bulletin-board systems and the global Usenet, I began to research Usenet and the Internet. I found these online discussions to be mentally invigorating and welcoming of thoughtful comments, questions and discussion. People were friendly and considerate of others and their questions. This was a new environment for me. Little thoughtful conversation was encouraged in my high school. Since my daily life did not provide places and people to talk with about real issues and real world topics, I wondered why the online experience encouraged such discussions and consideration of others. Where did such a culture spring from, and how did it arise? During my sophomore year of college in 1992, I was curious to explore and better understand this new online world.

As part of course work at Columbia University, I explored these questions. One professor encouraged me to use Usenet and the Internet as places to conduct research. My research was real participation in the online community, exploring how and why these communications forums functioned. I posed questions on Usenet, mailing lists, and freenets. Along with my questions, I would attach some worthwhile preliminary research. People respected my questions and found the preliminary research helpful. The entire process was one of mutual respect and sharing of research and ideas, fostering a sense of community and participation. I found that on the Net people willingly help each other and work together to define and address issues important to them. These are often important issues that the conventional media would never cover.

My initial research concerned the origins and development of the global discussion forum Usenet. For my second paper, I wanted to explore the larger Net, what it was, and its significance. This is when my research uncovered the remaining details that helped me recognize the emergence of Netizens. There are people online who actively contribute to the development of the Net. These people understand the value of collective work and the communal aspects of public communications. These are the people who discuss and debate topics in a constructive manner, who e-mail answers to people and provide help to newcomers, who maintain FAQ files and other public information repositories, who maintain mailing lists, and so on.These are the people who discuss the nature and role of this new communications medium. These are the people who as citizens of the Net I realized were Netizens. However, these are not all people. Netizens are not just anyone who comes online. Netizens are especially not people who come online for individual gain or profit.They are not people who come to the Net thinking it is a service. Rather, they are the people who understand it takes effort and action on each and everyone's part to make the Net a regenerative and vibrant community and resource. Netizens are people who decide to devote time and effort into making the Net, this new part of our world, a better place. Lurkers are not Netizens, and vanity home pages are not the work of Netizens. While lurking or trivial home pages do not harm the Net, they do not contribute either.

The term Netizen has spread widely since it was first coined. The genesis comes from net culture based on the original newsgroup naming conventions. Network wide Usenet newsgroups included net.general for general discussion, net.auto for discussion of autos, net.bugs for discussion of unix bug reports, and so on. People who used Usenet would prefix terms related to the online world with the word net, similar to the newsgroup terminology. So there would be references to net.gods, net.cops or net.citizens. My research demonstrated that there were people active as members of the network, which the words net citizen do not precisely represent. The word citizen suggests a geographic or national definition of social membership. The word Netizen reflects the new non-geographically based social membership. So I contracted net.citizen to Netizen.

Two general uses of the term Netizen have developed. The first is a broad use to refer to anyone who uses the Net, for whatever purpose. Thus, the term netizen has been prefixed in some uses with the adjectives good or bad. The second use is closer to my understanding. This definition is used to describe people who care about Usenet and the bigger Net and work towards building the cooperative and collective nature which benefits the larger world. These are people who work towards developing the Net. In this second case, Netizen represents positive activity, and no adjective need be used. Both uses have spread from the online community, appearing in newspapers, magazines, television, books and other off-line media. As more and more people join the online community and contribute towards the nurturing of the Net and towards the development of a great shared social wealth, the ideas and values of Netizenship spread. But with the increasing commercialization and privatization of the Net, Netizenship is being challenged. During such a period, it is valuable to look back at the pioneering vision and action that made the Net possible and examine the lessons they provide. That is what we have tried to do in these chapters.

Michael Hauben
New York and Beppu
November 1995
netizens@computer.org

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