Usenet’s Legacy (Wikipedia)

One of the earliest online community message systems was Netnews, which ran on a system called Usenet. This USEr NETwork, started in 1979 by two Duke University students, predated even the Internet and goes back to the era of old computer "bulletin board systems."

Usenet worked on a simple principle. BBS systems were small communities of users who would connect (usually by a modem and phone line) to a central computer and engage in typed discussion about common topics such as computer hackery, sports, or whatever the sysop, or system operator, allowed to happen on the computer.

One computer system might have served a virtual island of a few dozen or hundred users. Another system might have a community of another set of users. To relay bulletin board postings, the computer systems would contact each other periodically and exchange text information. In the 1980s, before the high-speed Internet, this would usually be by an automated phone call. A computer system contacting another computer system (often at night when toll costs were lower) to exchange messages might take minutes or hours to settle all transfers of text messages, pictures, or other data back and forth.

By a kind of digital osmosis, computers would relay their messages to other computers, and so on, with information hopping across to different enclaves of users. It was not "live" or instantaneous like Internet systems that we know of today, so discussion happened not so much in real time, but rather over hours or days at a time.

While not immediate, it was useful enough for folks to start creating a system called Netnews, which provided a global discussion system where topics were organized in a treelike fashion. Comp.sys.mac, for example, would be about Macintosh computer systems, while rec.sports.skiing would be about skiing.

Most of the bulletin board posts on Usenet were ephemeral conversations among users, but over time, the system started to see the same types of information being requested over and over again. In an era before the Internet and the World Wide Web, there was no readily available repository for accumulated knowledge. Therefore, users on Usenet created FAQs, or frequently asked questions, which were normally initiated and maintained by an enthusiastic volunteer for that subject., for example, would have questions (and answers) like:


This FAQ is posted on the sixth day of every month . . .

1. General

1.1 What is chocolate?

1.2 What is the history of chocolate?

1.3 How is chocolate made?

1.4 What is conching?

1.5 What kinds of chocolate are there?

1.6 What is this white, blotchy stuff on my chocolate bar?

1.7 I just bought a whole bunch of chocolate. What’s the best way to store it?

1.8 What is lecithin and why is it in my chocolate?

2. Cooking with chocolate

2.1 What is tempering?

2.2 What is couverture?

2.3 How do I melt chocolate and what’s the best kind to use?

2.4 I was melting some chocolate, and suddenly it changed from a shiny, smooth liquid to a dull, thick paste. What happened?

2.5 How do I make chocolate covered strawberries?

2.6 Where can I get some chocolate?

3. Chocolate trivia

3.1 Hey! Did you hear about this lady at Neiman Marcus who wanted to buy a cookie recipe . . . ?

3.2 Is chocolate really an aphrodisiac?

3.3 Can I give chocolate to my dog?

3.4 How much caffeine is in chocolate?

3.5 Doesn’t chocolate cause acne?

With information accumulated in FAQs, encyclopedia-like content was starting to emerge on Usenet. But without any type of universally accessible "persistent storage" in the early 1980s, readers were relegated to monthly updates posted to the entire discussion list. The maintainer of an FAQ usually welcomed outsiders’ contributions and edits, but out of necessity, control over editing the document was held by a handful of people.

At the same time, a select group of universities and research institutions were connected via an experimental network called ARPANET, which was a project started for the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. This was the precursor to today’s Internet and was a "live" connection of computers around the United States. Eric Raymond, in A Brief History of Hackerdom, describes the creation during the ARPANET days of the Jargon File, another precursor to Wikipedia’s group-edited document:

The first intentional artifacts of the hacker culture—the first slang list, the first satires, the first self-conscious discussions of the hacker ethic— all propagated on the ARPANET in its early years. In particular, the first version of the Jargon File ( developed as a cross-net collaboration during 1973-1975. This slang dictionary became one of the culture’s defining documents. It was eventually published as The New Hacker’s Dictionary.

The Jargon File was much beloved by the hacker community and passed along like a family heirloom, with prominent computer scientists such as Richard Stallman, Guy Steele, and Dave Lebling all having a major hand in its editing. ARPANET was for the elite set—those who were lucky enough to work for a research institution, or straggled around as graduate students at engineering strongholds like MIT or Carnegie Mellon University.

For most people it was Usenet that provided their first entry point into a global online community.

Users could read Usenet’s Netnews through one of many different types of newsreader programs since the way messages were stored and transferred was a widely published standard for all to use. There was not just one program for reading news. People were encouraged to create other reader programs with better enhanced features. Even today, Netnews still exists and is used by many in technical circles. While the likes of Web-based sites like and other dedicated discussion forums have dominated the landscape, a user-friendly version of this system can be found in Google Groups (formerly DejaNews).

A peculiarity of Netnews was that users were not authenticated in any central way. That is, anyone could post what he or she wanted under whatever alias the user chose, and the community was generally trusted to behave nicely. There was no central control as to who belonged or not, and real names were optional. It was, after all, just a general agreement for disparate systems to exchange their latest messages with one another.

People generally respected the Netnews netiquette because it made the community better for everyone. But as with anything that gets popular quickly, the dynamics changed. You had people who would not stay "on topic" within the purpose of the newsgroup, would send heated emails or would harass others. It was in reaction to this that Netnews culture generated many of the Internet norms we know of today—writing in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS was considered the equivalent to shouting, and sending scathing emails was considered "flaming." Both were considered bad form. Acerbic dueling users engaging in "flamewars" would at times plunge entire discussion boards into crisis.

Fortunately, there was a simple remedy for dealing with annoyances—the ominous-sounding "kill file." In actuality, it was simply a list of word patterns you could instruct your particular Netnews reader to ignore. The contents could be the username of someone you didn’t want to hear from again, or a topic that you never wanted to read about. So one’s kill file might read "JohnnyAppleseed" or "JFK" if a particular user sending assassination conspiracy theories annoyed you. Anything that matched your kill file words would simply not show up on your screen.

With the kill file, most problems could be screened out on the reader’s end, but in the case of system-wide disruptive behavior, other community action was needed.

The massive waves of unsolicited and unwanted emails we know as "spam" had its origins in Netnews in the 1990s. Because there was no central authority, and anyone could post, marketers and scam artists certainly saw Netnews as a target-rich environment.

This was the case in 1994 when two immigration lawyers, Canter and Siegel, discovered the Internet and Netnews. Seeing an opportunity, they initiated a slew of advertisements to pitch their services for obtaining permanent resident "green cards" to stay in the United States. Ignoring all accepted "netiquette," they sent postings to thousands of newsgroups with the title "Green Card Lottery" and a description of their services. The community was immediately enraged. The duo was spoiling their digital commons with their unsolicited blanket messages. Within a few hours, Usenet veterans assembled software programs called "Cancelbots" to counter the spam messages. These were like Usenet cruise missiles—computer programs specifically combing the newsgroups to look for and destroy messages titled "Green Card Lottery." It was an example of how the community could pull out the heavy artillery when needed. Their software "bots" dished out vigilante justice, zapping Canter and Siegel’s messages on sight.

The community decided to react quickly, so as not to give the spammers any kind of reward for their actions. Canter and Siegel would enter the history books as the ones who brought about the end of Usenet’s age of innocence. As the Internet became more commercial and allowed in individuals and corporations looking to make a buck, the hacker ethos would no longer be dominant.

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