Usenet has made a unique contribution to the world of computing. It was the first attempt to create a network beyond local BBS communities (which themselves were fairly new). At a time when the 'internet' was a network of privately operated ARPANET sites, Usenet offered a network for the general public. We at Giganews have recently had the opportunity to discuss the creation and evolution of Usenet with the people who developed, maintained, and made significant contributions to the Usenet culture.
The majority of our interview subjects experienced a Usenet that was markedly different from what we enjoy today. Access to Usenet was limited enough that for a number of years, one could read every article in every group in one quick daily session.
Although most of the communication on Usenet was technically oriented, casual conversation was also popular, and more and more machines joined the network. To keep up with demand and handle growing amounts of data, the underlying software powering Usenet was updated and rewritten numerous times by the same people that participated in the newsgroups.
Usenet was not only an important technical development; many social aspects of online communication were introduced, refined, and became de facto standards thanks to Usenet. Emoticons, flame wars, trolls, signatures, and even slang acronyms (BRB, LOL) found their first common usage on Usenet.
Compared to other technologies, computers have evolved (and are still evolving) at a whirlwind pace. Consequently, the history of computing has been muddied by innovations that quickly become obsolete, concurrent developments that solve the same issues, and developers discarding documentation of simple projects that became extremely successful.
Due to these issues, the archive provided by Usenet is a fine source of primary information from the most recent decades of computing. Usenet's history is not just relevant to social networks, but to many high-tech concepts and innovations.
Usenet began as a personal project for two Duke University graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. They wished to replace a local BBS-style announcement system that was made obsolete with a recent hardware upgrade. Steve Bellovin assisted with writing scripts, and the "netnews" program was born, linking Duke and the University of North Carolina. This software was soon made available to the public as "A News" (or simply "news" at the time,) which is considered the first Usenet package.
Usenet swiftly grew over a period of nearly two years and traffic eclipsed the abilities of "A News" to efficiently handle. Mark Horton, at the time a Cal-Berkeley student, and Matt Glickman, then a high school student, wrote "B News" to overcome the limitations of "A News". B News would become the most popular Usenet package at the time. Taking advantage of Cal-Berkeley's DARPA connection, Horton also created a link between ARPANET (the government-operated "internet" of the time) and Usenet. Development of B News was passed on to Rick Adams in 1983 and continued until 1989.
Beyond B News, Rick Adams was an extremely influential figure for Usenet and the Internet at large. Adams recognized that the growing amount of Usenet traffic was leading to tremendous costs for site operators. With a loan from USENIX, Adams founded UUNET as a nonprofit ISP and primarily provided Usenet feeds, email exchange, and a large repository of Unix software and documentation. UUNET was a very successful endeavor, paying off its initial loan and turning a profit within two years. UUNET was one of the very first commercial ISPs and set the precedent for success for many ISPs in the 90's.
Usenet's growth continued to exceed the expectations of developers and site operators alike. The addition of more servers and their users led to disorder and chaos. Recognizing this, Mark Horton kept notes on major Usenet sites and their administrators. With this information, Gene Spafford organized the "Backbone Cabal" to promote coordination between Usenet hosts with regard to issues such as managing article propagation, approving new newsgroups, and similar activities.
The Backbone Cabal was largely responsible for organizing, initiating, and pushing through "The Great Renaming" in 1987, which created the top-level hierarchies currently found on Usenet. The Backbone Cabal was active in some form until 1993, when Gene Spafford ceased all Usenet management duties.
Usenet's original distribution protocol, UUCP, depended on direct computer-to-computer links using standard telephone lines. By the mid-80's, the TCP/IP protocol was entering widespread usage, the 'always-on' internet and Ethernet local area networks were becoming more popular, and the personal computer was a more common sight than ever. Phil Lapsley, Erik Fair, and Brian Kantor created the NNTP protocol to bring these cutting-edge networking concepts to Usenet. NNTP's development led to newsreader clients that could be installed on a user's personal computer and retrieve only the articles they wanted. NNTP helped further reduce the operating costs for Usenet hosts as well as ensure the network would remain popular to new users. Prior to the release of the InterNetNews server package, NNTP and UUCP shared the distribution of Usenet traffic.
Rick Adams' success with UUNET and B News had gained him a considerable amount of influence amongst the Usenet community. In 1987, Adams, Gene Spafford, and other Cabal members proposed a reorganization of Usenet which would expand the top-level hierarchies and standardize the naming of newsgroups. Prior to The Great Renaming, there existed only three worldwide hierarchies, net.*, mod.*, and fa.*, and groups were organized within these hierarchies based simply on whether or not they were moderated and whether they originated from ARPANET. The Great Renaming sought to alleviate the difficulties associated with administering a loosely organized Usenet and also to make it easier for Usenet users and networks to decide which newsgroups they were interested in visiting or carrying.
Because many users were distrustful of any Cabal activities, there was much debate around the renaming, with some opponents claiming that the new system would limit their ability to express themselves. After extensive discussion and argument, the "Big Seven", misc.*, comp.*, sci.*, soc.*, talk.*, rec.*, and news.*, hierarchies were created and Usenet newsgroups were organized within these categories according to their topic. After The Great Renaming, the creation and organization of new newsgroups became an automated voting process, which is still in place today. Ironically, this process also played a major part in the decline and eventual disbanding of the Cabal.
A major event tied to the Great Renaming was the creation of the alt.* hierarchy, an event credited to Brian Reid, Gordon Moffett and John Gilmore. According to the structure established with the Great Renaming, the talk.* hierarchy was to be used for all discussions of sensitive, controversial, or otherwise taboo issues. Because talk.* was subject to the Cabal's influence, any proposed newsgroup in the hierarchy had to be approved before it was created. To John Gilmore, this seemed inappropriate for a hierarchy ostensibly focused on free speech. His opinion was solidified when his request to create the newsgroup rec.drugs was denied, nor was an alternate talk.drugs group allowed.
Brian Reid, a member of the backbone Cabal, was also dissatisfied with their management of the renamed newsgroup hierarchies. He was the moderator of the very popular mod.gourmand group and was not satisfied with the renaming of his group to the less attractive rec.food.recipies.
Reid and Gilmore shared their frustrations in person and decided that the best solution would be to create a new hierarchy, free from the Cabal's influence, where any user with the technical know-how could create a newsgroup. This hierarchy would be available to any Usenet site but would be distinct from the "Big 7" hierarchies of the Cabal. They decided on the simple title of "alt" for their new top-level hierarchy. The first alt.* newsgroups were alt.sex, alt.drugs, and through logical extension, alt.rock-n-roll. Today, the alt.* hierarchy is by far the most populous on Usenet.
C News was a news server package, co-developed by University of Toronto staff members Henry Spencer and Geoff Collyer as a replacement for B News. C News began as the result of a bug in the B News program which inspired Henry Spencer to completely rewrite the code, resulting in a cleaner, faster program. After this initial reworking, Geoff Collyer became interested in the core of B News, which, though still functional, was inefficient. After his rewrite of this section, the processing of news through B News became faster and led to the partners creating an entirely new server package, which became C News. Development of C News continued into the mid-1990s, including the creation of a new index function called NOV (or News Overview) in 1992. This change, which is still used today in the form of the NNTP XOVER command, allowed newsreaders to rapidly retrieve header and threading information with relatively little load on the server.
The software which superseded C News was released by Rich Salz in 1991. This news server package, called InterNetNews or INN, was the first news server package to fully integrate NNTP functionality. INN's predecessors, such as B and C News, processed articles individually or in batches while the INN server was able to receive and distribute articles through a single long-running process. INN is now the most commonly used news server package and is still actively developed by the Internet Systems Consortium.
In the summer of 1998, Giganews officially opened its news servers to the world. As other independent news services started to establish themselves in the Internet community, word of Giganews' high-quality newsfeed and exemplary member service started to get around and the service offerings expanded. Today, Giganews is the world's largest newsgroup provider, offering record breaking retention and high service level quality.
Starting in 2006 Giganews began to further raise the bar for the Usenet community by launching several premium features for its Usenet access services. These service improvements included providing the world's first news server with 100 days binary retention in all binary groups, deploying 256-bit Encrypted Usenet Access, and, ultimately, an even larger upgrade to 200 days retention in all binary newsgroups. These service improvements created an environment fostering greater access for the Usenet community to volumes of data not even dreamed of during Usenet's early days.