Alert: This post consists of substantial nerd rage and drama!
For those unaware, FreeNode is an old-skool internet chat network (IRC) previously populated by a cohort of nerds. In the grand scheme of social networks, the 90,000ish user count is tiny. However, those 90,000 users included critical developers across a range of core technology stacks. The vast majority of those users and groups now live on over another network (Libera). In many ways, Libera is FreeNode, but with a new name. For those curious, FreeNode suffered greatly from a series of inter-personal and technical missteps perpetuated by an (alleged) cocaine snorting play boy epitomizing the worst of California’s rot. For those more curious, Ars Technica ran a story covering the events.
I’ve been struggling for a bit with a certain… tech nostalgia… The more I work on modern systems with layers and layers of extended abstractions and complexities no one single person truly understands…. I’ve described it to other developers as “missing tech being fun”. For me, FreeNode held little practical purpose anymore. Most of the “critical” development these days exists within the halls of corporations shitting out code for specialized enterprisey use cases. FreeNode might have been “just the name” – but in so many ways, that name symbolized a continuity with the early “hacker” days of computing.
The core Linux technology stack developed around hobbyists and enthusiasts building computer software so that “everyone” could experiment with environments similar to multi-thousand dollar workstations (adjusted for inflation the base cost of a Sun Unix workstation would run easily $20,000 – $30,000). I entered the work force roughly at the same time Linux “grew up” for mainstream corporate server environments. This was just after the initial set of IPOs and land-rush for initial corporate structures of Linux. Much of the modern “tech stack” running the world consisted of small personal passion projects discussed on FreeNode.
Over the years, I’ve watched the “social web” around technology dramatically shift in tone and spirit. The old boom towns of the tech wild west are largely deserted. During the Dot-Com era, “Brogrammer” culture from cash rich startups completely overtook the Nerd Culture of curiosity and science. Only a handful of communities dodged the onslaught, but mostly from puritanical philosophies actively hostile to newcomers.
I really, really, really wish that young adults today could find a place similar to the ol’ computer groups and community. Perhaps that’s something of what GitHub is – but honestly – there’s just a lot of weirdly toxic bullshit driven from reactionary assholes. The 90s era had a weirdly “pirate” mentality. ISPs and services were not conglomerated. The lack of centralization meant smaller communities – often with personal real-life associations. Standing up a BBS or web forum has an entirely different feel than a Facebook group.
For the general public, a social media spat between developers and the corporate custodian of a chat server is roughly the equivalent to a child peeing in the local public pool. But for me, it’s oddly symbolic of the continual shifts in community over time. This past week, the “owner” of FreeNode deactivated the database of 20+ years of internet history to launch a “new network!”. I guess the world moved on, but I can’t help thinking we’ve lost something fundamental.