The first banned blog and blogs for freedom


The EFF is holding a on our 15th anniversary inviting people to describe things that made them decide to fight for freedom.

That seemed like a good time for me to add some details to one of my early stories, about the banning of my moderated newsgroup rec.humor.funny. I've told the the RHF ban story before and even the story of how it led to the creation of ClariNet and I'll be adding more details in my upcoming history of ClariNet later this year.

Today, at 18 years old (Aug 7, 1987) rec.humor.funny and the site qualify as one of the oldest blogs in existence, if not the oldest. The first blog as far as I can tell was the moderated newsgroup mod.ber, created by Brian Redmond in 1984. Mod.ber is long gone, so something else is the oldest blog. Blog, short for weblog, means a personaly created serialized publication on the web. The web, though many people have forgotten it, is and was defined by Tim Berners-Lee as including not just HTTP and HTML but the other procols such as USENET, FTP, Gopher and Telnet that existed before HTTP. So the rare USENET groups that were moderated for content were the first blogs, and some remain today, and this is thus the story of the first banned blog.

(Other suggested candidates for oldest blog include RISKS digest, Telecom Digest and Human-Nets, though they were more discussion boards than blogs.)

I had always been a defender of free speech to that point, but nothing brings it home like being banned yourself. It's also remarkable to me how many threads of my life run through that banning. These include business threads (the creation of ClariNet) and even personal ones (it's how I met John McCarthy, who introduced me to a past girlfriend a decade later.) I wasn't unknown before but the events did a lot to boost my visibility.

Being censored was a remarkably emotional experience. It didn't help that it was on the front pages of the newspaper every day and that the best (if most frustrating ) thing to do was to keep silent and let the press coverage blow over. It did teach me the truth of the aphorism that censorship doesn't protect people from exposure to violent ideas because censorship is violence.

The EFF didn't exist during this period. Had it existed, it would proably have come to my aid. But many others did, which was heartening. And I learned a bit more about how useful satire is as a tool in these battles. Having fought in the online trenches, I was ready to support it when (in another strange coincidence) my friend of 10 years earlier, Mitch Kapor, led the drive to create it. And later, of course, I have become very proud to be involved in it.

Blog-a-thon tag:


1) If you're counting moderated lists/groups as blogs, then
I believe that both the RISKS Digest and the Telecom Digest
predate RHF by about five years, and both are still going

2) Some quotes from your account of the "The Rec.humor.funny
Ban" are intriguing:

"I gave D'Amato a nice interview on the matter, since she
pretended to be sympathetic to my view when she called me.
(I've learned since then...)"

"They did a page 2 story on it which wasn't all that kind to
Richmond. I can only assume that he realized the press was a
dangerous tool."

"Since then I have never had anything but sympathy for those
people whom Mike Wallace says, in a dour and critical voice,
'refused to talk to 60 minutes.'"

"Avoid talking to the press, even if you are innocent, unless
you really know what you are doing."

I'd be interested in reading in more detail about the lessons
you've learned about dealing with the press. I can guess what
some of them may be, but it would be good to hear from someone
who's had actual experience.

I know of course about Risks and Telecom (you'll find my postings in both of them going far back.) The lines are subtle. What distinguishes a "blog" is argued about a lot. A personal voice is a big part of it. The earliest HTML-blogs, much like mod.ber, were just the blogger's collection of interesting web links of the day. Some were more the author's own writing. Both forms are going strong.

Telecom digest had a personal voice to it with Patrick making a number of added-on comments, but it was still, at its core, like Risks, a discussion mailing list, with a moderator. Posts that were on topic were not rejected because they weren't good enough in the moderator's opinion. Risks had a lesser personal voice, and perhaps had a touch of editing for quality, I would have to ask Peter about that.

What made RHF unusual for moderated groups was I rejected 98% of what I looked at to make the group. Most moderated groups rejected just a few percent for quality at most, mostly the moderators rejected duplicates, off-topics and calmed the occasional flamewar. They were moderators, not editors.

But it is subtle. I think mod.ber's claim is less subtle, it meets all the tests. It was the "boing boing" of 1984. There may be some earlier mailing lists I don't know of that were personal journals or personally edited selections, I would want to hear about them.

As for Richmond, the article wasn't kind to him, but remember, it was literally associating me with the Nazis, so I still wouldn't perceive the result as very balanced.

As for the press, there are all sorts of press out there, most are good hearted, and the business press are mostly there to work with you. But in all cases the best advice remains to figure out ahead what your message is, and say mostly that. Almost every press interview I've done has resulted in half an hour of conversation being diluted down to just 1 to 3 lines the reporter felt useful.

A further media lesson which I drew from Brad's experience, as a third-party observer at the time, was that media feeds on "new" news: after the initial article was published, the University reacted. That created another news story the next day. And if I recall correctly, their press release about their policy on the question came a day or two later. New development, new story. If you want to either give a story legs or let it go by quickly, feed the beast accordingly.

I don't recall how many stories there ultimately were over the period of a few weeks in the RHF instance, but small, new developments which were trickling out kept it front and centre for much longer than it could have been sustained had the initial complaint simply been allowed (by the University) to blow over, or had timing allowed more facts to be compressed into fewer (yet still timely) articles.

It's a simple principle, yet as newswatchers we're continually rediscovering it: we wonder that some important story hasn't received more coverage, yet those stories "always in the news" lead off with "New developments tonight in the case of ..."

Add new comment