On a platform such as Usenet, in the absence of government regulation individuals are allowed to say anything they please. This can range from self-advertisements and hate speech to simply trying to be a productive member of a discussion. When left to their own devices, it was up to these communities to develop methods to ensure that individuals could have an enjoyable experience in their communities, or at least try to.
One area that piqued my interest was the relationship between the development of Usenet and the idea of spoiling movies. In today’s world, it is almost impossible to make it more than a few days without the newest blockbuster being spoiled, but when the world first became more interconnected through Usenet, this phenomenon was novel. Until Usenet and other forums became commonplace, the only real ways to source information were word of mouth or from official news sources such as papers and television. So, when it became possible for people from anywhere to immediately spread information without any rules it opened the door for people to unintentionally, or maliciously, ruin what used to be well-kept secrets for prospective viewers.
When thinking about pop culture in the ’90s and early 2000s, nothing came to mind quicker than Star Wars. In particular, the discussion forum I chose, alt.fan.starwars, was created in the year 2000, so the first movie released during its existence was Attack of the Clones in 2002. When searching posts from the days immediately following the movie’s release date, May 16th, it was clear that users were making a clear attempt to regulate speech for the sake of their fellow Usenet members’ enjoyment.
This Usenet group was regulated in two main ways, first by the title and genre, and secondly by the method that users titled their posts. In a general sense, using “starwars” as the name for the group limits the discussion topics by trying to limit them to the Star Wars universe, but at the same time it allows for a variety of topics other similar threads did not. Because the Star Wars universe is a combination of short stories, comics, movies, and nowadays TV shows, there were a variety of groups dedicated to only one medium, but this thread in particular leaves the door open to any Star Wars content.
The most interesting part of the user’s self-regulation, however, was the development of their system of alerting readers how much information about the movie each post contained via the subject line. Knowing that a lot of their enjoyment of a movie is based on the surprises it holds, users immediately realized that spending time on Usenet forums with people who had already seen the movie could ruin it, so they began to use keywords in their subject lines to attempt to restrict speech within that specific thread. The two most common phrases used were “Spoilers” and “No Spoilers” which at a basic level restricts what topics people can use in that thread. In threads labeled “Spoilers”, users often talked about key plot points, questions they had about details in the movie, and speculations and interpretations of what happened. This was possible as everyone who opened these threads had either accepted that they would have the surprise taken from them, or they had already seen the movie. In a similar fashion, threads labeled “No Spoilers” often discussed non-plot-related things like cinematography or speculation about what the movie might hold. Beyond these general terms, many threads are also labeled more specifically with things such as “poss spoilers”, “minor spoilers” and “GREAT GREAT spoilers”. Through a majority of the users adopting these titling conventions, it allowed users to identify exactly what types of content they wanted to interact with to preserve their viewing experience.
However, even with most users abiding by these rules, some accidentally included spoilers in the title line which didn’t allow readers the chance to ignore them, and people always had the free will to post content knowing that it would ruin others’ experience. But, in general, this Usenet group managed to stay focused on the topic of Star Wars while abiding by these titling conventions for a few main reasons. One of which was that users held mutual respect and understood that a bad culture could potentially ruin future movie experiences for them. Viewers who were lucky enough to see the movie I discussed here on its release day held the power to spoil it for others, but it is likely that they would not always be so fortunate and would be at risk of having future movies ruined. So, in an attempt to create a culture that abided by the rules, members tried to adhere to the naming conventions as best as possible. And, when this didn’t work as intended many often had open conversations about how to improve the system to better regulate. As seen in the image above, often users would feel that even with the system of labeling posts, there were still too many spoilers, but raising these questions led to open discussion. Some users suggested staying off of Usenet entirely until they had seen the movie, whereas others suggested only looking at posts specifically labeled “No Spoiler” instead of anything not explicitly labeled “Spoiler”.
The calls of the users to improve this system and their willingness to hold others accountable for violating it represent an impressive form of self-regulation. While there were no moderators that could remove non-conforming posts, the community of Star Wars fans found it mutually beneficial to maintain a strict system of labeling. These self-imposed regulations limited the content available in any specific thread, while still allowing people to freely consume as much content as they seemed fit. This allowed for a great sense of freedom as users could do as they please and post about their interests at will while maintaining other users’ free will to not see the information they didn’t want to. The effectiveness of this forum is based on mutual trust amongst users to follow the agreed-upon conventions in the absence of true power, and as seen through the widespread adoption of these customs, these protocols were successful.
Lucas, G., & Hales, J. (2002, May 16). Star wars: Episode II – attack of the clones. Rotten Tomatoes. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/star_wars_episode_ii_attack_of_the_clones
“alt.fan.starwars.mbox.zip.” Internet archive: View archive. (n.d.). https://ia800701.us.archive.org/view_archive.php?archive=%2F3%2Fitems%2Fusenet-alt%2Falt.fan.starwars.mbox.zip. Accessed October 6th, 2023.