Review of Netizens

Michael Hauben and Ronda Hauben
IEEE Computer Society Press

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

April 14, 1998

As a medium, the Internet is like nothing human history has seen before. Because of its unique nature, people are able to interact with information and each other in new and exciting ways that will alter the way we live. Netizens, subtitled On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, recounts the history of the Internet as a communications medium from the vision that eventually became the ARPANET to Usenet.

Although there is no indication of this on the jacket, this is not a single continuous work. The chapters referenced in the table of contents are not really chapters, but different essays that have been assembled to form this work. This is, of course, a perfectly acceptable thing to do, but as is the case in collections like this, there ends up being considerable repetition between essays, especially those found in the early parts of the book.

The book is divided into four parts. The first, "The Present", is primarily an explanation of what Usenet is, what constitutes a Netizen, and how Usenet came to be. I say "primarily" because, as these subject descriptions indicate, there is significant coverage of the past as well.

As a matter of fact, I'm not at all sure what exactly distinguishes several of the essays in part 1 with those in part 2, which is titled "The Past". I guess that this may refer to the more distant past, since this section contains essays discussing the history of the ARPANET, computer time sharing, and the birth of interactive computing. Of course, several essays here cover topics, such as the early days of Usenet, which are similar to what was dealt with in part 1. This also indicates some of the repetition especially prevalent in these two sections.

Part 3 is titled "And the Future?" where the topic is ostensibly where this new medium is going. I'm honestly not sure quite what a cross section of postings in nyc.general has to do with this, which is the topic of one of the essays in this section, but certainly essays on using the Internet as part of the political process and how the Internet may influence currently predominant news media are on topic.

The last section, part 4, is sort of a grab bag of topics, titled "Contributions Toward Developing a Theoretical Framework." In these essays the authors examine what they see as possibilities in the Net through the eyes of such historical luminaries as John Stuart Mill and David Hume.

Despite its 1997 publication date, these essays are not very current. They were all written between the beginning of 1992 and the end of 1995. Therefore, there's a lot to today's Internet that isn't covered here. Email and Usenet are considered to be the two most exciting mechanisms by which one might use the Internet. The World Wide Web is barely mentioned, which isn't surprising since it didn't see an explosion in its impact until the very end of this period, but the impact of this portion of the Internet has been so great that any examination of the future of the Internet is immediately obsolete if the Web is not mentioned.

Additionally, I'm a little dismayed by the almost utopian regard for Internetworking technology and culture that the authors display. While I believe that the Net as a new medium holds strong possibilities for the general improvement of the human condition, I cannot possibly think that the future is nearly as rosy as is described here. For example, although I'm very fond of Usenet as a medium, I find the notion that it may be the medium that saves democracy difficult to take seriously. I'd recommend that anyone who is this optimistic read David Shenk's Data Smog for very compelling argument why a more restrained viewpoint is warranted.

Further, I found the writing style of these essays to be a bit ponderous, and despite a deep interest in the subject matter at hand, it was hard for me to keep my attention on the words in front of me. If one wants to read a history of the Internet and Usenet, I'd recommend Peter Salus' Casting the Net in preference to Netizens.

On the significant plus side, Netizens does aggregate a lot of primary source information that isn't covered in nearly this detail elsewhere. For the researcher, it's probably worth looking through for this reason, although I can't recommend it for those who don't need something so heavily detailed.


Netizens succeeds as a aggregator of primary sources on the early history of the Internet and Usenet. By any other measure, I can't really recommend it. I believe that the majority of the information that might be of interest to most people is better recounted in other places. Netizens isn't very current, and the outlook is far too utopian for my comfort level. Nonetheless, someone wanting to understand the history of the Internet from every angle will probably want to have this book.