Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 17, 2010

A Message From the Majordomo

For the first time in many, many years, I received a message from The Majordomo. Here it is in part:
>>>> This is a multi-part message in MIME format.
**** Command ‘this’ not recognized.

The reason that I had not heard from The Majordomo was because it has been something like 15 years since I subscribed to a LISTSERV. And if you don’t know what a LISTSERV is, then I must take you back, back through the mists of time to a day before there was a World Wide Web or before most of us who used computers for work had graphical interfaces like Microsoft Windows or color on our computer screens … (swirling sound effects)

Now, children, listen as I tell a tale of a day — this is the mid-1980s — when your computer would do only one thing at one time: no multitasking. There were no pictures or images or graphics on your screen: it displayed only text and characters. Computers were still emerging from the scientific and laboratory uses to which they had been applied. In fact, for several years, I did not use a “personal computer” at all for my writing; I had a dedicated “word processor,” a description of which I’ll save for another day perhaps when it’s raining and we’re all bored and sitting around telling stories about the Good ol’ Days — I’ll just say that there are moments when I am taking the name of Gates in vain that I wish I still had that good ol’ word processor instead of this incredible assemblage of gobbledygook that Microsoft calls a user interface.

As computers did catch on at companies, and as they began to hook into more and more sophisticated networks, the notion of using these as tools for communicating caught on rapidly. There were, however, none of the sophisticated e-mail applications of today (we still called it “electronic mail). There was, however, The Internet, which had been around for a long time, in relative terms of computer life, that is. If you KNEW someone’s Internet Protocol address, you could send them an electronic message. There was, however, no way to send mail to groups of people without typing in the individual addresses. In 1986, LISTSERV emerged as the first application for doing that. I’ll spare you the details, but HERE is one description.

There were lots of serious business-related reasons for being able to manage e-mail accounts, but LISTSERV also did a fascinating thing: it created a vast number of special-interest communities who suddenly could share information about their common interests. There were uncounted numbers of LISTSERV groups on every conceivable topic of computing, science, research, academic studies and so forth. PLUS, more fun stuff, like the LISTSERV I just re-subscribed to almost 25 years after I first joined it: harmonica players! (I also belonged to a bass guitar LISTSERV, a couple about video and multimedia, and some others.)

You only have to think about this for a couple of seconds before you recognize what these groups are: they’re a presage of the tens of millions of Web sites and, now, social networking, which emerged following the launch of the WWW in the early 90s.

While the forerunner of America Online and some other services were launching at about the same time, there was a subscription fee, and, thanks to its origins as a federally funded research effort, The Internet was free (if you had online access of some kind at work or elsewhere).

Back then, it was pretty darned cool. You could choose to get an e-mail from your LISTSERV group every time a member posted a message, or you could get a daily digest. In those days, since the volume of e-mail was miniscule compared with today’s torrent of blather, you might elect the former. All of this was done not in the computing world we’re familiar with today, with buttons and widgets and icons to click on, but by typing in specific character-based commands, like this one, used to unsubscribe to a LISTSERV:>. LISTSERV still uses a lot of this old-fashioned programming language, though most of it is now managed through Web sites.

I read an article recently that reminded me of this forgotten world. It never occurred to me that the old LISTSERVs were still out there. Well, they are. And, yes, the good ol’ HARP-L forum is still ticking away. I subscribed both to it and to a LISTSERV I found for people interested in the work of Thomas Pynchon (PYNCHON-L). I made an error typing in my subscription request to the Pynchon list, and that’s when I got the message from The Majordomo, which is the generic name assigned in the LISTSERV application to the administration of the site.

What’s it like now, all these years after having progressed to AOL, then to Lotus Notes, and to Facebook and Twitter? One thing is universally similar: it’s a waterfall of information. There is stuff EVERY DAY from the harmonica list. And these cats are DEEP into harpdom. There are long, days-long threads about altering the reeds of your harp to play special in special Dorian modes or to accommodate the demands of playing in weird jazz tunings. Heck, NO ONE writes me every day except people at work. Listservs originated in a world in which email was not a torrent, or a flood, or even a steady stream: it was a trickle.

It could be considered pitiable to feel nostalgia for old technology. Technology eats its old, or leaves them behind for the wolves to gather in. One DOES wonder what else might be lurking out there on the ‘Net, surviving in cold, remote cabins and caves.

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