Back in j-school, news directors and editors and professors extolled the virtues of the R.P. That’s journo-lingo for “Real person.” Not celebrities. Not network talking heads. Not news anchors. Not beat writers with agendas. Real people. People like you. And your next door neighbor.
The reason for that is pretty simple. Journalists don’t trust R.P.s, at least not in my experience, but the masses do. At least they trust R.P.s more than they trust slimy journalists. Not all R.P.s are trustworthy, but if you have to take odds, a higher percentage of R.P.s are trustworthy than journalists. So it goes. As a former journalist, I will have to say one thing about the almighty R.P.: Frequently the R.P. has seen or considered things that talking heads haven’t. Plus R.P.s tend to be more honest, because they don’t feel as much need to protect a public image. So they’re more likely to shoot straight with you.
And that’s why I think this is the coolest thing I’ve seen in a really long time. Google somehow got its mitts on some 20 years’ worth of Usenet messages. None of the news stories I saw on it said how they got this stuff, which is what I want to know. I’d love to know how complete it is.
But you’d probably love to know what Usenet is. Usenet is the ultimate public bulletin board system. Yes, most of its bandwidth is dedicated to the swapping of illegal copies of software and porn, but there’s a lot of chatter going on too, about every subject imaginable, plus all manner of subjects you never dared imagine.
The signal-to-noise ratio is really low. But that’s where Google comes in. You can search on a subject with a few keywords, sort by date, and find out what people were saying about an event when it happened.
You can’t find out what real people were saying about the Challenger explosion in 1986. Well, you can ask people who were alive in 1986, but memories fade over time. You’ll find information at the library, but it’s filtered. But you can search Usenet and read people’s emotion dumps, raw, unedited, unfiltered, and uncensored. Granted, the Usenet community was limited in 1986, but any subset of the population is better than what you’ll find at the library.
For kicks, I did a search on Yuri Andropov, sorted by date, and then punched through to the end. What I found at the end were references to the Soviets downing a Korean airliner in 1983. I remember my dad talking about it at the dinner table, flaunting it as just one more example of Soviet evil. I found a long-forgotten joke (“Why did Yuri Andropov shoot down a Korean Airliner? To impress Jodi Foster.” Ten points if you get that.) and emotions running high. Really high. Yeah, the Cold War was nearly over, but no one would have guessed it then. We’ve forgotten that at one time, Yuri Andropov was the most hated man in America.
Where’d I get the name Yuri Andropov? No, my memory’s not that good. I did a vague search, found clues, and then got specific. That’s how.
Maybe I’m the only one who’s excited about this, because I love history and I know a lot of people don’t.