Defining the Phenomenon | Eternal September

"September 1993 will go down in net.history as the September that never ended."

When Dave Fischer, an early internet adopter, wrote these words nearly 15 years ago, he was referring to AOL's decision to provide their customers unlimited access to Usenet – a newsgroup system which was (at that time) utilized almost exclusively by academics, geeks, and government researchers.

Each previous September, longtime members of the Usenet community had seen an influx of new users (or n00bs, as they were then dubbed) which corresponded to the enrollment of college freshman, granted access to the still-fledgling internet by their universities for academic use. These student users were largely unfamiliar with the unspoken etiquette and norms of online culture – and were popularly blamed for “dumbing down" the public conversations of those well-versed in the ways of the web. More seasoned users would spend the month schooling (or shaming) these freshman into conformity – thus maintaining the status quo.

Their message was strong – conform to the current culture, or move on.

This approach was largely successful in maintaining the established Usenet culture – that is, until September 1993, when AOL (at that time, the largest internet service provider in the world) provided free Usenet access to its entire user base. Suddenly, Usenet (which was formerly a relatively elite forum, available only to paid subscribers) was flooded with thousands of newbies – overwhelming the current culture, as well as the ability of the established “old-guard" users to educate and indoctrinate newcomers.

This massive shift in the demographic of users lead to an unavoidable change in the culture and conversations of the Usenet space. Long-time users eventually abandoned the service, in search of other forums or “backchannel" communications, in which it was easier to continue their dialogue without interference. This occurrence came to be known as Fischer described it – as “the September that never ended" – and the phenomenon has largely been attributed to the eventual death of Usenet.

These days, the phrase Eternal September is often used to describe a point of critical mass, at which a digital service or platform sees an irrevocable shift in population. Basically, the tipping point at which the culture of a digital space changes from that of the early adopters, to that of the participating majority – often resulting in the abandonment of the earliest users, who then seek new spaces in which to reestablish, or innovate.

Is Eternal September a real phenomenon? Definitely!

If you take just a moment to consider the rise of any popular social media platform, you'll see that Eternal September is a common phenomenon – just another unexpected reality of life on the web – only, these days, the numbers are far more drastic (and the stakes are higher).

While AOL's actions enabled Usenet access to tens of thousands of new users, today's social tools and platforms can draw attention to the tune of millions of users – and very quickly! For example, an article published in the Economist (April 2012) describes the struggle of early users of Instagram (originally released in September 2011 as an iOS app) to adjust to the onslaught of more than one million new Android subscribers within the first 24 hoursof its April 2012 release on GooglePlay.

Twitter also weathered a drastic influx, in its early days – expanding from a user base of 475k to more than 7 million users in a span of less than 12 months. The resulting shift in user demographic irreversibly altered the way users interacted within the Twitterverse – eventually inspiring the platform to adopt more user-driven features and functionality, which subsequently cascaded into an overhaul of Twitter's own corporate vision.

But, is Eternal September really a problem? Well, yes... and no.

Let's agree that Eternal September is more of a puzzle, or a conundrum. The truth is that, without growth, online communities eventually become stagnant, and die – but those which are incapable of weathering their growing pangs gracefully will alsosuffer.

To demonstrate – imagine an online community as a living, breathing organism, where each conversation is a vital cell. Cells which are active and healthy contribute to the survival of a thriving whole – when they die, they must be replaced by fresh cells, in order to maintain the overall health of the organism. This constant cycling maintains balance. Conversely, cells which grow at an unhealthy pace, or replicate incessantly with no modulation… well, that's cancer.

A healthy social platform thrives on the edge of chaos. If it grows too quickly – it fails; if it fails to grow, it dies. An influx of newcomers or new conversations is essential for preventing stagnation, inspiring change, and sustaining growth – but when unchecked, excessive expansion will overwhelm the status-quo, resulting in a watering-down of culture or conversation, which negatively impacts the interest of network users. Thus, Eternal September is best viewed as a theoretical challenge, similar to the Dining Philosophers Problem, or the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg.

In short – the problem of Eternal September is not the phenomenon itself, but the fact that our current model of social communication has not been constructed with the proper tools. We've built digital gathering spaces designed to accommodate infinite expansion – but which fail to scale in ways which preserve the initial culture and conversation.