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I Remember USENET
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Imminent Death of the Net Predicted

In those days I was one of many who worried that soon the Net would collapse under its own weight. The traffic kept doubling on a rapid scale (forget Moore's law), and at first it was all paid for out of hidden budgets. System administrators at large companies would hide the long distance charges in giant corporate phone bills. Luckier sites used the ARPANET, but many worried that all the nontechnical traffic would be shut down some day as a violation of the rules requiring that the ARPANET be used only for research and education.



People were doing a lot of that, but quickly the majority of the traffic became quite frivolous by that definition. And there were the dirty jokes and the sexual discussions to boot.

The old Net is long gone . . . but the Net still thrives today.

So like many, I occasionally would write a post suggesting the Net would fall if certain current trends continue. We worried what would happen each fall, when students returned to schools and started posting as "clueless newbies." We worried what would happen if there were too many newsgroups, or newsgroups about drug use. We worried about the large postings of software and other binaries. We worried when sites like John Little's "Portal" appeared, where any BBS user with a modem and a monthly fee could get on the Net. It all couldn't scale, could it?

For a while, in the early days, a person could read all of USENET. Later, it took a determined person with a lot of free time. Not long after, it became impossible. As groups filled with more and more noise, it became harder to be a full participant. Some groups split into subtopics; some did not. At each turn, something came to solve the problem. Modems got faster and long distance got cheaper. Permanent connections got more common. The news-reading tools improved to allow you to skim and browse more easily. Inter-networking and LANS became common.

And so it never died. Each time we predicted it would die, something came to save it. It was too valuable, too important to too many people. In the end I concluded that it did die, but each time it was quickly replaced in a phoenix-like way with something bigger. The old Internet is long gone (except in those archives), but the Net still thrives today.

Back then we also wondered what would happen when the world discovered what you could do with computer networks. Going back as far as the 1970s, this was a popular topic among network builders. We all spoke of the coming "WorldNet" and what it might mean to have everything connected.

We feared in particular that when the rest of the population discovered the Net, it would be as pleasant for us as it was for the Native Americans when the Europeans discovered the new world. Jumping ahead a decade, it's amusing to note that we were mostly wrong. The general population discovered the Net and immediately looked to its earliest denizens for guidance on how to act, live, and even do business. It was as if the Europeans had landed in America and eagerly asked Native Americans how they, too, could build tepees and commune with the great spirit.

Years later, in 1989, I decided to write down a short summary of some of the major events of Net history I had seen or participated in. I did it just as a series of bullet points, too busy to write it all but wanting to get it out of my brain before it vanished.

As a joke, making fun of myself and others, every ten lines or so in the history, I inserted the phrase "imminent death of the Net predicted," to remind people of all the bad predictions that had come and gone. It later became a cliché to respond to predictions of the dire fate of the Net with that phrase. Sometimes it's even been echoed back to me, which is an entirely appropriate irony.

(I am pleased to see that with the archive in place, it will be possible for historians and cultural anthropologists to expand my history and the history of others with pointers to the real events. I will do a bit of that myself some day.)

Hoaxes

Some of my explorations in Google made me blanch, others made me smile. When I started my first software company and got my own Unix box, I had it join the Net. As was the custom in those days of a smaller Net, each new site announced itself to the community. Seeing my own small announcement again gave me a warm glow, reminding me of the excitement of having my own site.

I also found great hoax sites like Landon Noll's kremvax and my own nsa-vax.

Hoaxes were great fun in those days. The Net was small enough and slow enough that you could catch a lot of people. Most people took it well. These days hoaxers get lumped in with "trolls," people who are desperate for attention and who thus go "trolling" by making outrageous statements hoping for a response. Rob Pike of Bell Labs perpetrated the Mark V. Shaney and Elisabeth Bimmler hoaxes to great amusement, but he would be shouted off the Net today. (The archives are not yet complete, so the text of these hoaxes is not yet available.) My own favorite hoax, teasing SF fans about Battlestar Galactica, is also not yet there.

Naming

Much of the history of the Net revolved around arguments over group names. I've become convinced this was particularly counterproductive, and I wish we could have designed things to avoid that debate and get into more substantive issues.

The naming debate was so voluminous because the names of the groups (arranged in a hierarchical tree like a file system or Internet domains) sometimes conveyed their importance. In addition, in fewer cases than people imagined, some sites with limited budgets would only be fed the more "serious" groups in the serious hierarchies. This made people fear having a "talk" group and crave a name for their group, starting with "comp" because everybody got that.

In the beginning anybody could create a group just by typing in a new name when asked what group they wanted to post to. This was not just anarchic, it caused groups to be created when people made a typo. Later it required an explicit action, and much later a system was put in place to decide what groups would actually be universally accepted.

The debate came to a head when it came time for a "great renaming," the simultaneous renaming of all groups, putting them into seven broad hierarchies. In many ways that didn't stop the fighting, it only made it worse. The naming debates continue to this day.

More History

It's amazing how much is discussed on USENET that never makes it to the HTTP-based Web.

There is an immense amount of Net history--now world history--buried in that archive. I'm certainly not done wasting my time exploring and reliving it.

It's worth noting that the USENET archives have been up for some time, because a dot-com company called "Deja News" put up an archive sometime in 1995. Around the same time DEC's Alta Vista also had a close to real-time USENET search archive. These archives contained only current articles posted after the archives began. Both companies hoped people would browse the archives just as they search the Web, and that they might get advertising dollars from this. That was not to be; but when Deja News reached death's door, they at least sold the archive business to Google.

Even the current archives were a tremendously valuable resource. It's amazing how much is discussed on USENET that never makes it to the HTTP-based Web. Particularly, discussions of products and companies. If you're ever searching for experience people have had with a particular firm, the USENET archive is your place to go.

But with the addition of the past, it becomes a fount of history. I've been doing some etymological research. For example, I have just written an essay on the origins of the term "spam" based on Google searches. I also include the origin of "net-surfing."

Sadly, many people are a little too embarrassed at some of the things they wrote in the distant past, and so they ask the archives to remove them. To stay copyright-safe, Google complies, as did Deja News. While I can understand the motives of those who are surprised to have their pasts come back to haunt them (Who truly wants it recorded in stone that you foamed at the mouth like an idiot about something a decade ago.), from a historical perspective it is a shame. Fortunately, nonpublic archives for use by historians and researchers will probably remain complete. Copyright law has exceptions built in to stop it from standing in the way of research.

It may make sense to allow postings to be made anonymous, so that personally identifiable information about the poster is removed, thus allowing the public to repeat most of the experience.

Google has produced a page listing pointers to some of the major events of Net history that you may find a good starting point. So even if you weren't around the first time, you can still live the nature of the digital beast as a spectator. Dig away.

Brad Templeton founded ClariNet Communications Corp (the world's first "dot-com.") He also created and publishes rec.humor.funny, the most widely read USENET newsgroup and its web site, www.netfunny.com. He is currently chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the leading cyberspace civil rights foundation.