I posted a bit on Usenet in the early 2000s. It felt like a vast dying civilization, and I was fascinated by the depths of its history, so I ate up stuff like this.
One thing that sticks out is how much technical constraints defined Usenet. The decentralized store-and-forward structure was designed based on the extremely low bandwidth available (initially 300 baud modems, connected for a few minutes each night) and the various newsgroup hierarchies were largely meant to signal which groups should be prioritized over others when a site was determining what to carry. Hence the insistence on comp.women over soc.women because only the comp.* groups made it to Europe. As described in the article, the switchover from UUCP to TCP/IP made the "backbone cabal" and their carriage decisions obsolete shortly after the Great Renaming took place, yet the naming conventions remained.
A big difference between Usenet and modern services is that, except on the rare moderated newsgroups (where a moderator had to approve all messages before posting) anyone could post, all posts went to all servers carrying the newsgroup, and nobody could force other servers to delete posts. It was expected for users to "killfile" anyone whose posts they didn't want to read, but it was nearly impossible to ban someone from a newsgroup so that nobody could read their posts. Ban someone from one server and they could just sign up on another. Defederating a server, the so-called Usenet Death Penalty, was almost exclusively used against spam servers. These properties of Usenet made it an attractive platform for sharing pirated and other illegal content, which in turn led to the demise of ISP-hosted Usenet servers in the late 2000s (by which time most of the legitimate discussion groups had migrated elsewhere).
There was nothing like the current Mastodon drama with sites defederating each other over whether certain political views should be allowed by moderators, because there were no moderators and no notion that any political views were unacceptable to post. (Of course, political posts outside political newsgroups were considered rude, but there were no bans for rudeness, only killfiles...)
I was a late-80s Usenet user, came on just after the great renaming, and at the start our feed was from overnighted tapes from the NASA downlink on our continent. I felt like I’d been included in a global civilisation that almost nobody in my provincial city between the desert and the sea knew about. I was an immediate convert and told everybody that the future was coming.
In 1990/1 I organised the proposal for voting the creation of a comp.os subgroup while backpacking around Europe for 4 months. I still remember the kindness of the Charles University people who not only provided a terminal but also a warm meal (I must have looked fairly hungry!)
By the late 90s, the buzz and bustle of Usenet was turning down and the great people were hanging out elsewhere.
By the early 2000’s - apart from some weird community recolonisations of alt.poetry or something, it felt like a vast ruined landscape, and wasn’t appealing to spend time there.
Such a big chunk of my life, commingled with something similar but smaller on a fairly isolated cluster of PLATO systems.
ISP-hosted Usenet was a cost center. Between the potential liability from illegal content, the heavy bandwidth usage of alt.binaries.* and the lack of interest in anything else, it's no wonder ISPs shut it down. Frankly I'm a little surprised they still offer email, I can't remember the last time someone gave me an ISP email address. I can't see any business model for ISPs to start offering Mastodon/ActivityPub either.
Back in the early days, a Usenet server represented a natural community - a university or employer. The early regional ISPs like Panix were small enough to still be community-like, though the common bond was looser. Modern ISPs, your Comcasts and Verizons, aren't communities at all, any more than customers of any other large business are. So although from a technological standpoint it makes sense to organize user-facing decentralized services on an ISP basis, from a social perspective it really doesn't anymore.
I got Usenet access as a young kid, first through BBS gateways run by various datacom people, and later by working at a Tektronix spinoff in my teens.
I learned so much from the 'Net, and (for better or worse) it helped me grow out of much simpler socioeconomic class circumstances. The general cooperation and altruism of early 'Net people also matched my expectations from decent humble religious upbringing.
(Though it didn't prepare me for the Web gold rush, and what would happen when huge numbers of people weren't benevolently onboarded into 'Net culture, and who didn't tend to have the same general awarenesses. Before, certain founders and pre-existing megacorps, who arguably ended up remaking Internet culture in their own image, might've stuck out like a sore thumb, and people would've taken on-principle stances against that.)
It's great to see in this article some of the names of net.personalities, along with some of the backstory I wasn't aware of.
I also miss the great UI that I eventually had for Usenet. I was just thinking that yesterday, while trying to get an interesting feed in Fediverse with Mastodon software; and a few days, earlier while skimming various forums for Rust. The closest to what I want might be old.reddit.com and HN, but both are primitive compared to the UI that I used to have.
Yeah, having my own UI, and having it be consistent across everywhere, is the thing I miss the most about the old internet. I mostly used Forte Free Agent because I was a kid without a lot of cash, but I remember there were much fancier options.
I could swear that somewhat recently (in the past 5-6 years), I saw mention of some forum software that could also provide NNTP access, but I can't seem to locate it now.
I feel like accessibility of forums would skyrocket if people could use their own interface, with whatever adaptations they want. That might be an angle to pursue...
IRC did this for me. Seeing that the #warez op who owned breasts.com was making $50k a month for reposting titty pics back in 1995 made me realize I had to rethink the whole future plan my parents had in mind for me.
Times when real flame wars existed. Fought by persons and characters, not by big media.
"During the Cabal's last days, its death was quicken by "comp.women" debacle, as it was later known. In summer, 1988, a newsgroup for woman was proposed. Its creation became the subject of a massive flame war because its supporters wanted to put it in the comp.* groups because this would insure a better propagation. Opponents noted that this hierarchy was devoted to far more technical things. After much discussion someone created a "comp.society.woman" out of exasperation. This person got a great deal of flamage for doing so, but the group came to life after it was created. "
Interesting article. I sometimes wonder to what degree we moderns are simply recreating the (failed) systems of old. We are trying to move from twitter to "federated" systems, which are structurally quite similar to usenet. What lessons are we going to learn about why people broadly moved away from usenet to web forums?
Usenet still exists and the store and forward transport mechanism (nntp) and its flooding concept would be fine to transport todays "tweets" or "toots" …
I managed one of the top 100 nodes in the nineties. Two reasons made end users prefer other systems: interactive editing (wysiwyg) as in forum software transfering onto web sites and pictures.
Usenet readers to offer both features could have been developed. And running private leaf nodes (as a number of people did) would have been possible. Instead people moved to other platforms and reinvented many wheels, not always in a better version.
Archiving Usenet articles is and was easy. A forum on the other hand is a tiny walled garden and if the people running it quit, the content is lost.
For adventurous people: its still possible to get a Usenet connection, e.g. for a small fee at http://news.individual.de/ (intro page in German, but Google or Deepl will translate it for you ;-) … disclaimer: I'm just a customer myself there.
Spam would be a huge problem on it though if it were that widely used. It was just not designed to stand up to that kind of abuse. It lacks sender verification etc. Just like SMTP is kludge upon kludge and totally broken, and nobody has done a real modern rewrite because nobody wants to deal with all the legacy.
> Usenet readers to offer both features could have been developed. And running private leaf nodes (as a number of people did) would have been possible. Instead people moved to other platforms and reinvented many wheels, not always in a better version.
But that is a huge drawback of non centralized systems. Multiple implementations are great, until you want to develop a new feature, and then it never happens (or happens very slowly). It takes hard work to get multiple, sometimes even competing people and groups, to have a same vision or goal, and sometimes it is impossible.
And when you do end up updating, there are still people that will complain about it, forever. On this very forum, we often see people complanining that the web is not just static hypertext documents.
I still can remember, that there was a technical hurdle to connect to the Usenet. My memory is from mid-nineties. You had to find the usenet server of your provider, which wasn't broadly pronounce, or even another one. This wasn't feasible for most people. Web forums worked in the browser.
The same was the case with everything else in those days. You had to set up winsock, set your POP3 and SMTP, SLIP/PPP etc. If you weren't technical you were just not on it or you had someone else set it up for you.
We're talking mid-90s and Windows 95 made things a little better but it was still a mess because Microsoft thought they could make their own internet knockoff MSN a success. So they put much more effort into that at first. Thank God they were unsuccessful because the online world would have been even more commercial than it is now. Even now they're willing to risk the tiny market share of edge by spamming people with "special offers"
Webmail was still pretty new and not fully functional. Usenet was just one of the many things to set up. I don't think this was the reason it didn't take off.
In most cases I remember, it was just [usenet|news|nntp].providername.tld
Only if you couldn't find it after trying those, would you have to check the signup info you got from the ISP. Which also included their SMTP server, which, I mean... most customers also got email figured out just fine.
I think the larger issue is that, if you didn't get your email working, life _sucked_, everyone expected you to have it. But if you didn't get usenet working, you were the only one who suffered and a lot of people didn't even know they were missing out. So the incentive to connect simply faded.