This morning, my friend Tamás dropped this tweet into the #internet channel of the XOXO Slack, a place where we talk about weird and good internet.
Never one to turn down an inconsequential quest, I did a deep-dive through Google’s fragmented late-1990s Usenet archives to see if I could piece it together. What caused such a specific group to be created?
It ended up being an interesting microcosm exploring three approaches to community moderation: hands-off moderation, majority rule, and strong moderation.
The original charter for the alt.binaries.images.underwater newsgroup was extremely wholesome:
The theme or Topic of this newsgroup shall be images portraying “an underwater scene.” Only photographs, paintings, and graphics whose primary subject is shown in an underwater setting are “on topic” in alt.binaries.images.underwater. Its title’s broadness is deliberate, and indicates inclusion of a varied range of UW themes and imagery. Some examples: shipwrecks, non-human sea life (i.e. fish & coral), swimmers & divers (scuba, snorkelers, free-divers, mermaids, pearl-divers, “hard-hat” divers). The setting may be an ocean, river, lake, or swimming pool… as long as the picture’s primary subject is seen underwater, the image is on-topic.
The setting may be an ocean, river, lake, or swimming pool… as long as the picture’s primary subject is seen underwater, the image is on-topic.
Certain “surface scenes” shall be considered acceptable *if* the image’s subject is seen *semi-submerged* (meaning more in-the-water than out of it. Some examples: a surface view of a semi-submerged shipwreck, or divers/snorkelers floating beside their boat or a buoy.
It was designed to be G-rated and family-friendly, placed outside the alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.* hierarchy, and with no mentions of sex, nudity, or fetishes. Its creator chose to use “images” in the name instead of “pictures,” to distance from alt.binaries.pictures.* and because he felt it “conveys a classier feel.”
Pornography was never explicitly forbidden, and artistic nudity was explicitly allowed, which created a slippery slope. The creator’s hopes for tacitly allowing it were almost hilariously naive. In a FAQ from 1998, he wrote, “Underwater pornography is actually rather scarce, and I do not think it will be as much of a problem here as James suspects… I think that most of the nudity which will (inevitably) show up in a.b.i.u. will be tasteful, and beautiful.”
Quickly, it’s clear from old threads that NSFW photos came to dominate the group, even though it was never intended for that purpose.
And there were other types of images that were technically underwater, but veered far from the group charter: images of shark attacks, drownings, bondage, and children and underage models.
After being taken to task for deciding a moderation guideline against bondage imagery unilaterally, the group’s creator/admin decided to allow policies to be determined entirely by majority rule.
As a result, four new rules were added, passed by a 70% margin:
The banned-in-ABIU subjects are:
(1) shark attacks and victims, etc.
(2) portrayals of drownings & drowning victims
(3) portrayals of UW bondage (tied-up/chained, or otherwise “bound” people)
(4) pictures of naked (or clothed) children or legally underage models (US Law)
Beyond here, the history gets muddy. It’s clear that these rules weren’t taken kindly to some of the active members of the group.
A splinter group, free.underwater, was created with absolutely no rules. (I’m only able to piece this history together because of cross-postings to that group and others like rec.scuba, since Google doesn’t host archives of the alt.binaries.* groups.)
From other postings in scuba enthusiast groups, it’s clear that the reputation of alt.binaries.images.underwater was irreparably damaged: through lax moderation, it was dominated by NSFW photos, and the accompanying porn spam ads that come with it, with little else of value.
By August 1999, the group’s original creator decided he’d had enough of his wholesome underwater photography newsgroup being flooded with porn and spam, and banned it entirely from alt.binaries.images.underwater.
He created a second newsgroup solely for NSFW (but non-violent!) underwater photos, the unwieldy alt.binaries.images.underwater.non-violent.moderated, named to indicate content disallowed by moderators, but neglecting to mention that NSFW images were allowed. The newsgroup’s one-line description only reads, “No death/drownings/bondage (Moderated).”
In a post to rec.scuba from October 1999, he proudly advertised that alt.binaries.images.underwater had changed.
Its binding original G-rated scuba-oriented Charter rules are being enforced. It is ready for you scuba fans to come and fill it with your G-rated UW photos. As its creator/admin, I’ll actively help you keep the spam and sex stuff out.
Back on Aug. 30th, a new Moderated newsgroup was created for the fans of underwater erotica (nudes & sex), and they have left. ABIU is now the place for family-safe UW pics.
How well did this approach work? Hard to say definitively, since neither group was archived by Google Groups.
But judging from a search of mentions on rec.scuba, it seems like alt.binaries.images.underwater once again became a place recommended by enthusiasts to find and post underwater photography, like its creator originally hoped.
There’s virtually no mention of alt.binaries.images.underwater.non-violent.moderated again, leading me to believe that it quietly died as people shifted to other unmoderated Usenet groups, as well as web-based forums, P2P file sharing, and later, communities like Reddit.