The Usenet we know and love today has grown to be an enormously popular resource for people all around the world. Its origins were modest and its first design certainly set out to serve a smaller and more immediate purpose. Nonetheless, it was a solid foundation that would only grow as computer networks expanded to serve as a platform for more people, ideas, and conversations.
In 1979 at Duke University, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis began experimenting with ways to expand the single system announcement program they were using to another system at nearby University of North Carolina. Originally they experimented with some Bash shell scripts written by Steve Daniel and Truscott. Soon after it was followed by compiled software called simply “news”.
By 1980 Usenet as it existed was connected to ARPANET through UC Berkeley as they had direct connections to both networks. In its first year the Usenet network had grown to service over 50 sites included Bell Labs, Reed College and the University of Oklahoma. This exposed many new users to the new platform and put Usenet onto its path of growth that continues today.
By 1983 as computer networks were growing and more people had access, Usenet had expanded to over 500 hosts including many universities and Unix related companies. By 1984 it had nearly doubled to over 940 hosts. At this point Usenet had more than 100 newsgroups. Most were devoted to Unix and computer related topics, but even in the early days there were groups devoted to recreation and current events.
Throughout the 1980s Usenet evolved to service more networks and nodes and even dial-up BBS systems by linking with their messaging features. As Usenet expanded the protocols that we use today such as NNTP were formed and formalized. By the late 80s Usenet had largely taken the form that we recognize today.
Contributions To Culture
The boom of the 90s and many of the technological advances of the time were rooted in Usenet discussions. Software like the World Wide Web, the Linux kernel, and the Mosaic browser were all first announced on Usenet. Usenet also gave us some common terminology in use today like “FAQ”, “spam”, “flame”, and “troll”.
In 1993 America Online (AOL) began to provide access to Usenet to it’s vast
online community, making it simple for new users to access newsgroups for the
first time. This drastically changed the culture of Usenet as the influx of
new users clashed with longtime Usenet users’ ideologies and etiquette.
This mixing of cultures was labeled the “Eternal September”. September being the month in which years past had brought Usenet new users in the form of college freshman. These freshman would also often run afoul of established Usenet etiquette, but in smaller numbers than the huge amount of users that AOL would bring to Usenet.
Today and The Future
Today Usenet is an enormously popular platform for communication. Newer technologies also allow us to store vast amounts of articles and hold them for increasingly longer amounts of time. This means that you not only have access to what’s happening right now on Usenet, but also a vast archive of Usenet history.
In its role as forum for the Internet and gathering place for enthusiasts of all types, Usenet has served the online world well in the past. In the future we’ll likely see Usenet expand and continue to serve as a platform of information dissemination and an online exchange for ideas.