Your September is inevitable. Try to be nice about it.

I recently stumbled across an article on Wikipedia about a little bit of Usenet slang from the 90s that has more relevance now than it did maybe even then: the “eternal September.”

The story goes that, every September at universities around America, a bunch of new students would arrive on campus with really no idea what they were doing. Those students would bring their general cluelessness with them when they signed on to Usenet, one of the earliest internet social networks.

As a result of this influx of new people on Usenet’s multiple groups, whatever social norms that had become entrenched there over the course of the prior year seemed to disappear around September of every year. Around that time, new users became the loudest voice, and the whole thing looked less like an organized social network and more like anarchy. Individual Usenet groups became a mess of people who had very little idea how those services worked and how to politely join the conversation. In short, around September of every year, Usenet looked more like a YouTube comment thread than an organized social network. (video possibly NSFW: language)

But around 1993, according to that Wikipedia article, the internet morphed into a thing that new people started using every day. That meant that the anarchic disregard of internet social norms was happening constantly. New people were continually joining these services, and there was always a rabble that just didn’t know how to behave in those groups. (Ignoring, for a moment, those that purposely disregard these rules for the lulz.)

That’s what led a guy named Dave Fischer to write that September 1993 had never ended, that Usenet would forever feel like it was another anarchic September. The rabble of new users had overtaken Usenet’s ability to instill social norms, and internet etiquette was a thing of the past.

This is so fascinating to me. The most obvious plain meaning of the phrase is that internet etiquette is basically no longer a thing. The ever-broadening scope of the internet means that only very small subgroups, i.e. individual subreddits, forums, etc., have any ability to actually instill etiquette in their participants, and even these small subgroups face a constant September of clueless and etiquette-less new users. And the eternal September effect means that something like YouTube, with such a giant user base, can’t ever really develop specific sets of norms or etiquette because the September turnover is constant. There’s no persistent user base that can enact the social norms with any efficacy. The September has gotten so long that new users are the norm, not mannered pre-September users. Hence, YouTube comment threads.

But beyond that, this “eternal September” effect could also be understood as the philosophy that creates a certain kind of elitism-based humor on the internet. For instance, there’s at least one blog dedicated to showcasing individuals that think articles from The Onion are real news stories. That blog essentially highlights the fact that there are constantly new people finding The Onion that have never seen it before. It’s all about The Onion’s “eternal September.”

That’s true of Twitter (see, e.g., the old man who thinks Twitter is a search engine), Facebook (see, e.g., this woman who mistook Facebook’s status update box for a search box (possibly NSFW: very embarrassing search)), and even iPhone’s autocorrect feature (see generally people that are too new to autocorrect to know that they have to check their work). Presumably, the people who are doing these things would stop doing them after acclimating to Twitter, Facebook, and the iPhone. But this “eternal September” means that content will never run out for these types of blogs, because new people are constantly just starting to use these social tools and, therefore, just starting to use them wrong.

And the “eternal September” shows no sign of going away. If anything, it’s eternal-ness is only now becoming apparent. Because the “eternal September” applies not only to new users of established technologies, but also to new technologies. Or maybe more accurately, the increasingly frequent arrivals of new technologies (and updates to old technologies) mean that there are limitless opportunities for new September users. You can see these Septembers happen every time Facebook changes its layout or a new social networking platform arises.

“Eternal September” is a description of the lag between the first adoption of a technology and its widespread use, a description that applies to pretty much every technological development (no matter how small) and pretty much every person at some point. The phrase is coded with scorn for those that are slightly behind, the same scorn accompanying the term “n00b”. And it’s a particularly cruel scorn, because it isn’t early adopters making fun of late adopters, it’s early adopters confronting slightly-less-early adopters. This kind of early adopter can be notoriously elitist, and this is a tool for the barely-earlier adopters to hold their perceived superiority over an ever-larger group of people.

And that’s why September of ’93 is longer than even those original elitist Usenet denizens could have guessed: it’s a tool for enacting that ever-present elitism. At its core, the “eternal September” is a mechanism for those from last September to make fun of those from THIS September, all the while blissfully ignoring the fact that, maybe days ago, maybe hours ago, they were also just arriving.

(Photo by Bertrand Petitjean, used under a CC license)