Suddenly, Nostalgia

I was supposed to be writing in the novel this morning, but in the aftermath of Doug Lathrop passing away I found myself wandering through some of the archives of the alt.society.generation-x newsgroup and getting a little depressed and nostalgiac in a way that I don’t frequently get. I’m not a notably nostalgic person, in part because I don’t feel the best part of my life is in the past, but it definitely hit me this morning, and I had to spend a little bit of time figuring out why.

The closest I can come to it is that asg-x is the one thing in my past that is really in the past. My high school and college, for example, are still there and still have people running through them — they are living entities, and even though my time in them gets increasingly further away in the rearview mirror, I know each new group of people who have the experience of going there has some consanguinity of experience with me. Not exactly my experience, but we’re still connected by the same common thread.

asg-x, on the other hand, is tied into a very specific time — from 1993, when it was created, to about 1999 — during which the USENET was still a common place for people exploring the Internet to find and read and use. USENET’s moment is over; there are people who still use it, but they’re the people who’ve been using it. It’s hard to find now and it’s not bringing in new people. And asg-x, the newsgroup, is definitively dead — there’s nothing new there now but spam posts, either containing dance music lists or political rants.

There’s a finite group of people who experienced what asg-x was, when asg-x was something at all. There’s a finite group of people for whom asg-x was a community, and for whom it was their community, with all the little tics and quirks, positive and negative, that a community has. We’re all that there will ever be, basically. Doug’s passing is a reminder that this small and finite community is in the process of shrinking, inexorably, through the simple passage of time. There’s going to be a point, hopefully several decades from now, when the last person who ever attended a “tingle” will pass from the planet, and then that will be it. The end of the asg-x community.

To be clear, it’s a small thing, and a community that was significant mainly for the people who were in it. But even so, within that community, friendships were made, people fell in love (and some of them even got married and had children), laughs were had, arguments were posited, gatherings planned, memories created and milestones celebrated. It was real and it happened, and now its moment is gone and to a very real extent nothing will ever be quite like it again. There’s no way of getting back there. There’s no there there anymore.

And that’s fine. Some things are finite — well, in the long-term sense of things everything is finite, it’s just some things are finite faster – and asg-x is one of those things. I’m not going to wish it were suddenly 1996 all over again and everyone was back on USENET, with a flood of new newsgroups of their own (although I can just imagine what alt.society.THANKS.OBAMA would look like). I’m all right with asg-x having its time, and that time being over.

But now I understand why people are nostalgic. It’s your brain trying to express a moment, and recognizing that the only people who would ever truly get what you’re trying to express were the ones who were there, and they already know.

36 thoughts on “Suddenly, Nostalgia

  1. My last grandparent finally moved out of the small town both sides of my family were from this last month, and now none of my close family are there anymore. It’s not mine anymore. There are no homes to visit. It’s almost a desperate feeling, this unrecoverable past that is so knit into my being. Nostalgia can be surprisingly visceral.

  2. To add insult to injury, the Google ad that popped up in the video was about prostate cancer.

    Also, I like Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name.

  3. I was part of AFR – alt.fairs.renaissance, and we had the same experience of getting to know each other as real people. even if mostly only online. The ALT area had a reputation of being skeevy and filled with trolls and other nastiness, but we formed a community, and crowded out the trolls (and taught newcomers not to feed the trolls). Trying to explain the community in USENET to people who came along after is an exercise in futility.

  4. I discovered Usenet at the height of my hardcore jujitsu phase and made some wonderful lifelong friends via rec. martial.arts. Now we’re all Facebook friends, which is an entirely different vibe. :) It was definitely a special time in my life, though.

  5. Many asgxers still hang out on Facebook or whatever — but of course it’s not the same. I miss it too. So rarely do we have the type of conversations we had there.

  6. And now I’m looking up the One Hit Wonderland episode on Closing Time. I’m not complaining, mind, because they’re great enough that I can overlook the stupid gimmick of the host using intentionally poor lighting as his schtick.

    [blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/AYOQumkC.x?p=1 width=”720″ height=”433″]

  7. Working a variation on this theme, I was a member of a few Amateur Press Associations in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They were definitely of a time, especially before the introduction of the Internet as a faster and more ubiquitous method of communication. For several reasons, that time has passed… but I still have the copies of them and can see a day where I’d reread them to savor that time.

  8. I’ve been in a lot of online communities over the years, including ones on usenet. All online communities have features in common, and all of them include friendships made, loves won and lost, arguments and laughter, gatherings, and so on. But every single one is unique because the specific group of people participating in them are unique. I look at it as, all good things eventually come to an end, and it’s good to recognize when the end has come and how to move on.

  9. I was on Usenet through most of the 90s, but my time on there petered out around the early 2000s. My ‘hang-out’ was alt.callahans, a group inspired by the “Callahan’s Bar” books of Spider Robinson. I’ve recently been back on Usenet to see what’s still there – alt.callahans is still alive and relatively spam-free, but almost all the other newsgroups I uses to read regularly have almost all succumbed to the ravages of time.

    But it’s not just Usenet. I was a regular over at Slashdot in the early to mid 2000s, and got involved in a community that grew up around the user journals that Slashdot offered everyone who registered. A lot of the banter was about the abuses of the moderation system by users and admins, and pointing out particularly noteworthy trolling incidents – but we also ended up swapping stories about our lives, loves, tragedies and triumphs. The Circle, as it was dubbed, eventually migrated away from Slashdot due to the increasing bugginess of the site. For a time, the majority of us hung out over at a blogging platform called Multiply (now defunct). Nowadays, there’s a subset of the Circle over on Reddit, with a few outposts on Facebook and G+.

  10. I feel the same way about The Greatest Generation. My dad passed away May 13th at age 87. He served at the very end of the war, which brought out for me very strongly that those people are going away. They’re the last of them; no one will ever know what they went through quite the way they knew it.

  11. World of Warcraft raiding guilds were/are like this. Some of them have been around 10 years now. When WoW finally closes up shop, there are going to be a couple of million people going through withdrawal.

  12. Peter Cibulskis you’re so right, but it’s happened over and over again in on-line social groups since the dawn of the internet. People invest so much of themselves into these relationships. What I always found compelling about USENET was that, more often than not, these relationships were entirely made of words.

  13. I recently fell down a mildly nostalgic rabbit hole thinking about the old online journalling community. I never kept one myself, but I read a whole lot of them (that’s how I got to Whatever, actually) and hung around some of the related boards. Almost all of them are gone now. Of the two dozen journals that were in my regular rotation circa 2001, exactly one is still active on a regular basis: this one. Even diarist.net is gone. Kind of sad.

  14. Thanks for this, John; I’ve been struggling to put a finger on this exact issue myself here lately. While I was a lot more active in more “practical” groups, most of which have migrated to other pastures these days, I have this feeling over alt.peeves, which was a wonderfully eclectic mixture of mild misanthropes, some of them with some fantastic writing skills. Including, now that I think of it, my first exposure to a young recovering programmer and pharmacist named Charlie Stross.

  15. I find this post rather spooky — today is my 66th birthday; I sit here alone with a dying cat (feline peritonitis) thinking about how everything goes away and after awhile there is no trace left of how things were.

    And I still hate it that Elvis Presley died on my birthday, but then, I share a birthday with Charles Bukowski… yup, I’m doomed, no doubt about it.

  16. Well, Rec.Arts.SF.Written. was where I hung out, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    My All Time Number 1 post was, alas, someone’s else’s. Some idiot complained that CJ Cherryh couldn’t write military SF because she was a) female and b) was so clueless that she’d abolished NCOs.

    The reply came back at something close to light speed::

    “Tell that to Sergeant Bet Yeager”

    The icing on the cake was that Bet was a Marine, hence my awedom…

  17. I hung out in alt.fan.cecil-adams, too, and alt.folklore.urban. A few of the people on AFCA seem to have found each other on Facebook. Snopes seems to have made AFU unnecessary. Some of the producers of Mythbusters were in there at the beginning.

  18. asg-x was a very special place that’s hard to describe to people who never used USENET. Frequently I think about Leslie, Peter, and Amanda, and now I’ll be thinking about Doug. Thank you, John, for writing this very moving essay.

  19. I also miss USENET. And BBSes, especially multi-chat with multi-player non-graphic games. But really what I miss are the other people and that time in my life.

    Perhaps future Tingles are in order?

  20. No particular nostalgia of my own to contribute as I’m one of those dreadful people who just always feels that IRL is realer so what I really miss are things of which I have only a souvenir here and there. So instead let me pop a peculiar question — do fiction writers of the fantastical do enough with nostalgia for times and things long gone that never were? Seems to me that when we write an 85 year old in 2098, something must have happened in, say, 2036 that in 2098 she misses the hell out of and can’t explain very well to her 30 year old grandnephew.

  21. I first remember having this feeling years after both my grandparents had died and the beach house they had in NJ, where we visited every summer when I was little and then every week when we moved nearby and my grandparents made it their primary residence…it had been sold and torn down even before my grandparents passed, but I remember clearly laying awake one night and the thought hit me that I can’t go back to that house, no one can and the time and space it occupied are all memory. I cried them and it is still a melancholy thing to ponder but I have also made that house into a mental happy place, concentrating on remembering every detail of every room and time spent there, and it is comforting now too. Asg-x is one of those places now and Doug was such a central figure in it that they are all wrapped together in my mind and heart. We can’t go back there but I am so happy and grateful that so many of us are still traveling forward together.

  22. This is scary since I have been on a regular on alt.fan.cecil-adams for roughly 15 years (have been on usenet for about 24). And then find two others here.Small mad world indeed. It was a lot of fun and some very interesting comments and arguments. Sadly like most other groups it is dying. I’m just about to cancel my shell account but want to say goodbye. A lot of good people and good times.

  23. Thanks for this thoughtful, shared sentiment. I was cut from usenet and asg-x by moving to rural Japan in ’97, but someone I met at a tingle kept me updated on the group until she moved there as well. Returning years later, Usenet was pretty much gone.

    Sometimes now we reminisce about asg-x and share pictures of our son on Facebook with asg-xers who share pictures of their kids, too, and links, issues, ideas and news like this weekend’s. Very glad to have that shared history.

  24. In my more full-of-myself moments, I compare us to the Algonquin Round Table (which also, had a good run and a lot of partying and conversation but did not last forever).

    There are about 60 of us on Facebook still, with a post or two every month (a lot more this weekend for understandable reasons) and the odd small get-together. I was honored to go to the marriage of two members earlier this year. So that good part still happens.

    And yes, I too had a moment of Zen a few years back when I realized that you were *that* John Scalzi.

    Says Piglet!

  25. M. A.–Happy birthday to you. I get what you’re saying about how it all goes away. I turn 60 next week and yesterday came across an old (probably really early 80s) address book so it meant I spent some time wandering along lines of thought about who’s gone and ‘o yeah–Teri lived there for awhile, didn’t she?’.
    Today is also my parent’s 61st anniversary and while I’m not there for the get-together (just family coming over for dinner–no party or anything) I’ve had this feeling of free-floating anxiety all day. And then this post.
    John’s last paragraph says it all.

  26. It was at asg-x where I learned to make cogent arguments and to never make a “statement of fact” without evidence to back me up. Invaluable lessons. I showed up there thanks to Doug, but I stayed around thanks to the funny & intelligent people who populated the newsgroup. It really was a marvelous product of its time.

  27. I had Delphi, which was a text-based internet service provider pre-AOL. Delphi got me through a pretty tough time in life, and this really resonates with me. That ending paragraph is perfect.

  28. Thanks for that, John. We weren’t able to make it to any tingles, but we’ve met lots of ASGXers at other points over the years. I think I was most envious of the Atlanta tingle with you guys in the audience of the CNN show.

    We were in San Diego last year but couldn’t sync up schedules with Doug, and that’s my loss.

  29. I also was a person hanging out in alt.callahans for a while, mostly when I was in College, which was a good six year block of time due to a little too much time spent on the internet and a little too little time spent studying. (It worked out eventually.)

    Sadly, I don’t really remember a lot of that time – my memory’s not great for names, although I’m still in touch with Steve Savitzky via his livejournal. There’s a Callahans g+ group, but it’s pretty dead.

  30. I dropped off Usenet after my university accounts phased out their rn newsreader support and/or NNTP feeds. But I’m glad to hear alt.callahans is still going. That was a special place for me in the 1990s as well, and not just because I met my spouse there. But there are other special places now, and it’s nice to see old names show up in new places. (I’m not surprised that I’ve seen a fair number of Callahanians show up here, and in places like Making Light.)

  31. John,

    Thank you very much for your posts on Doug and a.s.g-x.

    Doug was the one person on a.s.g-x who I’d managed to stay in closest touch with over 18 years, from 1994 to 2012 (when I finally moved away from SoCal). I knew about his intermittent medical issues and had advance copies of his novels. But I had no idea he had actually managed to sell a novel! Right before his 50th birthday and his death. Gah.

  32. “[N]obody stays in the garden of Eden. Jacques’ garden was not the same as Giovanni’s, of course. Jacques’ garden was involved with football players and Giovanni’s was involved with maidens — but that seems to have made little difference. Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.”

    –James Baldwin, _Giovanni’s Room_, 1956

  33. The first virtual hangout that meant something to me was a book-related message board on AOL back in the late 90′s called the Book Nook. I don’t remember exactly how you got to it, now — never thought of taking screenshots or anything back then. We had t-shirts made at one point, which pictured a mountain made of books to be read and I attended a meetup with a few local folks that hung out there. The Book Nook was a good place to “be” the year I was in grad. school and living in a new city.

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