This week marks the end of an era for one of the earliest pieces of Internet history, which got its start at Duke more than 30 years ago.
On May 20, Duke will shut down its Usenet server, which provides access to a worldwide electronic discussion network of newsgroups started in 1979 by two Duke graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis.
Working with a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, they came up with a simple program to exchange messages and files between computers at Duke and UNC using telephone modems.
The "Users Network," Usenet for short, grew into an international electronic discussion forum with more than 120,000 newsgroups dedicated to various topics, from local dining to computer programming languages. Each group had a distinctive name such as soc.history or sci.math.
Know Your Usenet History
Test your knowledge of Usenet trivia from the early days of dial-up connections and flaming rants. Answers are below.
1. What was the first Usenet newsgroup?
2. Who were Cantor and Siegel and what service did they offer?
3. What historical event was the focus of Serder Argic's Usenet rants during 1994?
4. What is a troll?
Usenet also played an integral role in the growth of the popularity of the Internet, said Dietolf Ramm, professor emeritus of computer science. At the time, a connection to the Internet was not only expensive but required a research contract with the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency.
"ARPA had funded a few schools to begin the early stages of Internet, but most schools didn't have that," said Ramm, who worked with the students who developed Usenet. "Usenet was a pioneering effort because it allowed anybody to connect and participate in communications."
Many social aspects of online communication -- from emoticons and slang acronyms such as LOL to flame wars -- originated or were popularized on Usenet.
Although e-mail and other forms of online communication have largely supplanted Usenet, it is still in use, with tens of thousands of discussion groups.
Indeed, Truscott -- now a software developer at SAS Institute in Cary -- said he still checks Usenet daily. "In those days, there were very few computers at Duke," he said. "Now Usenet is just one of many choices."
New tools -- from blogs and RSS feeds to Facebook and Twitter -- have made online communication more user-friendly since the days of Usenet, said Lenore Ramm, Dietolf Ramm's daughter, who now works as an IT analyst with Duke's Office of Information Technology (OIT).
"Applications like Twitter have made communicating easier, but the challenges are still the same: trying to keep up with the information flow, sorting through it all and prioritizing what information to take in," she said.
Like an increasing number of Internet service providers who have shut down their newsgroup servers, Duke decided to retire its aging Usenet server based on low usage and rising costs.
The decision prompted a handful of calls to the OIT Service Desk and even some chatter in the blogosphere. Duke users can still access Usenet archives -- the largest collection of posted online messages -- through Google Groups.
What was your first Usenet posting? Who flamed you? Send in your Usenet newsgroup memory to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll post them below.
Graduate student Stephen Daniel wrote the A News software that first ran the Usenet newsgroups.
Memories of Usenet
Best I can figure, my oldest usenet posting that I was able to verify today was one to misc.security [concerning method of securing a hard disk in a publicly accessable microcomputer]. From mid-1987 to the death of dialup Usenet I ran the communications bits that supported Usenet at Rutgers University. During from the beginning of this period the hardware moved from a shared slice of a Pyramid 90X to a dedicated Sun 3/160 then to a dedicated Sun 4/280 before it got integrated elsewhere.
The connectivity hardware started with standalone Racal Vadic VA1200 modems, and the end of the line were racked Telebit Worldblazers. Someplace along the line (I think when we moved to the 4/280) the modems were connected to Cisco AGS terminal servers instead of directly.
Opening out into the world
soc.motss was instrumental in my coming out and accepting being gay. Though I'd met a few people locally, it was a safe way to talk to a larger community, and when I actually got to meet some of them at the USENIX conference in 1988, it was stuffy closet door opening out into the world.
Computers are useful!
Back in 1976, seeing the UNIX system at UNC changed my attitude toward computers. I realized they could be useful tools to do something other than managing card decks and tapes with JCL. Jim, Tom, Steve, Mike Pique, Jim Lipscomb and Steven Bellovin were my mentors and I remember learning more, and faster than ever before or since.
Eight or ten of us at a time would be writing programs on our PDP-11/45 with 128K RAM and a 60Mb disk packs (cutting edge stuff). While at least two of us were playing ‘adventure', and I don't recall having any problems with performance. Try to imagine eight people logging into your phone and doing software development while you are making a call -- of course, your phone is about 100X more powerful than that PDP-11.
Peter B. Reintjes
Exhibits Engineer, Museum of Life + Science
A fan of Usenet
When I accepted my first teaching position at Duke University in 1983, I wanted to transfer the computer files for my Ph.D. thesis from Princeton to Duke. At that point I don't think I even had a PC in my office; my first e-mail was still years in the future. The computing services department arranged for the file transfer and handed me my thesis on great big floppy disks. It seemed like absolute black magic to me that you could get a file from one computer to another across the country, but I was told -- and I believe this is correct -- that they did it through Usenet (which, of course, I had never heard of).
I didn't start using Usenet newsgroups until after I left Duke. In the early 1990s, I became a big fan. My best memories are of watching the sci-fi program "Babylon 5" on television and then going to rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon-5 to see the discussions and speculation about what was going to happen next. The creator of the program, J. Michael Straczynski, would sometimes post cryptic comments, which everyone devoured as if they were utterances of the oracle at Delphi. I think this synergy of the Internet and TV has yet to be beaten, although of course the technology has advanced lightyears since then.
Freelance Mathematics and Science Writer
Tragedy of the Commons
It was only 1982 or so; I was taking a couple classes at the local junior college, which hadn't even quite gotten its first Unix machine yet; 3 AT&T 3b2-300s would come in several months later. When they did, I was detailed to chase off and find us a Usenet feed. I ended up on the phone with Gene Spafford, then at GA Tech, and he pointed me to the folks at USF, the 4 year college across the bay.
We took our feed over as 1200 bps modem, which could just keep up (and was, over time, upgraded to 2400 and then 9600bps)... and so could I.
It was some time in mid-1983 that the amount of traffic in the groups we took outstripped my ability to at least glance at every message; August, I think. I've been on and off with Usenet since then, but even now, I don't think it's quite dead yet, though it looks nothing like it used to, architecturally.
Excellent example, though, of the Tragedy of the Commons, in case anyone needs one.
One thing surprisingly is still true today. While modern tools are more "user friendly" in a number of ways to the USENET tools of 25 years ago, it is shocking that this is not completely true, and there are still important elements of ancient USENET that draw people to it and make them feel it is more usable for online discussion.
In particular is the core feature of every USENET reader -- it tracks what you are interested in, and what messages are new and not yet seen by you, and presents you only with those. By "seen" I mean "seen the headline" rather than read. Most readers present that in a compact thread format that answers the question, "what's new for _me_?" and see if there is anything interesting there among all the different topics you subscribe to. You can then quickly select what interests you, read them in quick sequence, and then the rest are not shown to you again. (In addition, you read them on your own machine or LAN, not remotely.)
This user interface is remarkably rare among web message boards (though it is found in RSS readers) and in any event, you can't get it over a set of message boards you might read.
Since there are, amazingly, still lessons for today's software in the USENET tools, it is a double shame that Duke is shutting down their server. Aspiring designers of online communications systems are remiss if they don't come to understand what attracted people to USENET for so long, in spite of its eventual stagnation.
Answers to Usenet History
1. Net.general. According to Tim Truscott, it was "NET.general" (which quickly became "net.general" because people didn't like upper case.) "By ‘general' we were encouraging posts on a wide range of computer science topics," Truscott said. "Our expectations for ‘general' were ... exceeded."
2. They were immigration attorneys credited with being one of the first major Usenet spammers who blasted Usenet news groups in 1994 with ads for their "green card" services. They were roundly criticized but to little avail.
3. Believed to be a pseudonym, Argic regularly made postings on a variety of Usenet newsgroups for several months in 1994 denying the accuracy of the Armenian genocide by the Turks and engaging anyone who responded with fiery arguments.
4. According to Internet legend, the phrase came from Usenet group, alt.folklore.urban as in the phrase "trolling for newbies." It evolved into meaning someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages.
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