Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The birth of the FAQ

Well, I won't swear this is the origin of the term, and I'm certain that FAQs had been around under other names long before the internet, but ...

Back in the mists of time, when bang paths roamed the earth, there was USENET. Originally delivered via uucp and still around to this day at least in form, USENET began life as an improved way for Carolina and Duke to send each other announcements on academic topics, and presumably also of each one's deep respect and love for the other's basketball team and traditions.

As with many innovations, it soon took on a life of its own. In September 1993 it spun completely out of control as hordes of AOL users joined the fun. Somewhere along the way, news groups (or "forums" as they're called these days) began to attract more and more "newbie" questions and regular denizens began to get more and more annoyed. The eventual response was to regularly post lists of Frequently Asked Questions and to gently, or not-so-gently, admonish posters of such questions to read the FAQ post.

After a while, the nice folks at MIT took it upon themselves to gather such posts for easy FTP access at rtfm.mit.edu. For a while, before Google took over the world, I would often troll the FAQs for useful information. I have no doubt there's till a trove of useful information there.

And that was when it struck me that USENET had two completely different purposes. The first was its intended purpose: to provide a way for people with common interests to communicate. The second was a fine example of unintended consequences: to generate FAQ lists for people like me.

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