The history of Usenet


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Last month, I attended ROFLCon II, a conference that originated two years ago at MIT as an occasion to study and discuss the nature and propagation of Internet memes, such as LOLcats. The event afforded me the opportunity to meet many of my heroes, from Matt Harding to Jason Scott (who I'd next see giving the keynote speech at KansasFest 2009). At the first ROFLCon, Scott presented a session, "Before the LOL", on the history of digital communications. The full presentation is available online, as is a four-minute video summary.

ROFLCon: Before the LOL

ROFLCon: Before the LOL

In 2010, Scott returned to ROFLCon and was part of a panel on the history and heroes of the Usenet. His panel consisted of celebrities both lauded and loathed, from Brad Templeton, former chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to Laurence Canter, the Internet's first commercial spammer. Despite the variety of backgrounds and reputations, it was an enjoyable and revealing session for all present.

ROFLCon II: Heroes of Usenet

ROFLCon II: Heroes of Usenet

I covered ROFLCon II for Bostonist.com, but with 13 pages of notes from 11 different sessions, I was able to summarize only a fraction of what I learned that weekend. My writeup unfortunately did not touch upon the Usenet session, which brought back memories of using my Apple IIgs, a 2400-baud modem, and ProTERM to dial into my local ISP and access a variety of newsgroups. Although I was not active in comp.sys.apple2 (aka csa2), I made regular use of the other resources Usenet provided, and I lament its unpopularity today.

I'm talking about the sense of an intimate community that existed before everyone and their mother got onto the Internet. Usenet was also a valuable reference for anyone looking to discuss shared interests. Today, if you had a modern Mac support question, where would you go to ask it — discussions.info.apple.com maybe? For cooking advice, you might think allrecipes.com — but there are no message boards there, only recipes and comments on same. The Grateful Dead? I wouldn't even know where to start. For more esoteric topics, like the Apple II, you have several options, from Applefritter forums to the Low End Mac mailing list — but which one do you choose?

I'm not against diversification of resources or even multiple communities, but there is no standard today. By contrast, with Usenet, you could take a single identity to multiple newsgroups and find all the information you needed. The tools for reading these boards made it effortless to keep track of as many as you wanted — something that modern message boards still have difficulty reproducing. (As a community manager for Computerworld.com, I still long for the powers I had as a CLI sysop.) Scott's session had me yearning to return to the days of the text-based reader tin. (Unfortunately, I can't get the Mac OS X installation instructions to work.)

When I graduated from college and lost my shell access, I never explored how else I might access Usenet. It wasn't until a few years ago, when I discovered Google Groups offers Usenet messages via RSS, that I again started lurking in csa2. RSS is my preferred method of content delivery, and depending on your ISP, you too may need to look into such alternatives, as fewer of them are offering their own news servers to which to connect your NNTP client. Even Duke University, which originated Usenet in 1979, is shuttering its newsgroups.

Regardless of your access method, Usenet is still available, and csa2 has shed its former reputation as a flame pit and has become a cordial environment in which to ask questions, pose problems, and suggest solutions, from the esoteric to the mundane. As long as people keep using it, there will be those dedicated to keeping it alive. Usenet isn't going anywhere — heck, if we're lucky, it could even be the basis of Wikipedia's successor.