I Remember USENET

by Brad Templeton

The word came to me from several sources on December 12, 2001. Google Groups, a search engine company started by my friends Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had updated its archive of USENET postings to go back to mid-1981--more than 20 years, and almost back to its beginning in 1979.

USENET is the world's largest online community. And for a long time, perhaps even still, it was the soul of the Internet. It was the meeting place. The place where the important topics were discussed. The place where personalities met and things happened.

Google's new USENET archive brought back memories for me and for thousands of others who lived and made the dawn of the computer network age. A decade before there was a Web and 15 years before the dot-com bubble, we argued the technical and political issues of the day, met and made friends and rhetorical adversaries, and dreamed of the "WorldNet" yet to come.

And So It Begins

USENET was created in 1979 when Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis at the University of North Carolina wanted to replace the tool that updated users on the latest computer center news with a general tool that could support contributions from anybody, a multiuser "bulletin board." There were a few of those around, but what made theirs different was that two machines could run the same software and exchange messages with one another, and these machines could in turn talk to others, until an entire network of machines would share the messages. Users would read by running a local program (rather than dialing out as you did to a typical BBS), but ended up communicating with people all over the place.

A decade before there was a Web and 15 years before the dot-com bubble, we dreamed of the "WorldNet" yet to come.

When they released the software on tape at the USENIX computer conference, it spread like wildfire. Dozens of systems ran it and started exchanging news with others. Some would call each other up with modems every few hours or every night to synchronize messages. Better-off sites exchanged messages using the ARPANET at any time of day. In addition, the same programs allowed email, in a cumbersome way, between any two people on the Net, the emails traveling hop by hop the way the USENET messages had spread.

It didn't take long for lots of discussion categories, called newsgroups, to spring up, and for more sites to join. New versions of the software and protocol were written and the growth continued. Soon USENET became the place to go to discuss the issues that mattered to the computer nerds of 1980. There was lots of focus on computer hardware and software, but also discussion of science fiction and political issues--and jokes.

The world's oldest electronic conferences, the ARPANET mailing lists, were quickly integrated into USENET. Gateways were made so newsgroups starting with "fa" (From ARPANET) contained the mailing list contents, and USENET users could post and participate. ARPANET mailing lists emerged around 1975, not long after network email linked ARPANET users together. The first one was started by network pioneer Dave Farber, who today is a professor at University of Pennsylvania, Electronic Frontier Foundation board member, and leading Internet pundit.

We Could Change the World

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Anybody--at least anybody on a computer at a major company or university--could participate in a newsgroup, and they did. Many of the online trends and words, from emoticons to flaming, originated in USENET and the mailing lists. Similar experiences were happening on online services like CompuServe, and on a growing crowd of stand-alone BBS's around the world, but nothing was like USENET with its energetic and highly educated crowd.

I grew up in Canada, which wasn't connected to the ARPANET, but when I was consulting on the development of VisiCalc (the first spreadsheet) in 1979, I was given an account on MIT-MULTICS, and joined my first mailing list. I was hooked. Twenty months later, while working in California during a summer away from school in Canada, I found USENET.

I immediately began forwarding various messages on the network, and the whole SF-lovers list/newsgroup to my friends in Canada, who spread it around there. At the time, I was working for Personal Software, the leading PC software company, writing software for the IBM-PC before it would be released. Those were heady days, the very dawn of personal computing for the masses; and yet I was already distracted by an epiphany. This--letting people communicate with one another--this was what all these computers were for.

When I got back to the University of Waterloo to complete my last year there, I arranged to get the USENET software installed on my faculty's Unix machine, and (through the generous offer of Bill Shannon and Armando Stetner at DEC to handle long distance charges) the school joined USENET. Around the same time, Henry Spencer at the University of Toronto got his system connected, and the Net (as we usually referred to USENET before it became the common term for the Internet) crossed a national border for the first time. (Little did we know just how much the borderless nature of networks would affect the world.)

Even without having to pay long distance charges, the university's administrators were concerned about the resources the then-tiny network consumed. But I got other people hooked during my trial period and after a time there was no way they could take it away. The newsgroups and the email that came were too seductive, and too useful.

And the network took over my life. I loved participating in it, and my favorite topic was the network itself. Many of us loved to discuss its future and its politics, for we knew in some way (though none of us knew fully) that this was the future of the world. I helped maintain groups and wrote tiny pieces of software to help the Net grow. Others contributed much more software, all of it free and all of it source code, years before the free software movement would take full form.

It was the right place to be. By participating on a list that was discussing the future of email addresses, I "met" Jon Postel, who was the architect and custodian of those systems until his untimely death. In trying to see how to add top-level domains to email addresses, he had proposed writing them as user.domain@com. Though a minor participant, I put forward that read more naturally. This came to pass without further debate, and it amuses me to think my suggestion may have inspired the "dot" that became such a part of the world's vocabulary later. This contribution was a purely lucky accident, but it is symbolic of the nature of those days and why it was easy to get hooked.

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The O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, May 13-16, 2002, in Santa Clara, California, which explores the emergence of a new network--distributed, untethered, and adaptive.

I made many friends and came to know many others, though 99 percent of them I had not met in the flesh. Indeed, there were people at my university whom I interacted with on the Net but rarely in the physical world. We all discovered quickly how easy it was to depersonalize people when communicating purely by writing. Perfectly reasonable people would get quickly involved in "flame wars" and use invectives they would never say to a person's face.

As these archives return to the world, I have to admit some trepidation. Reading my old words I am sometimes painfully informed of how naive, and sometimes plain wrong, the younger me could be.

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