Usenet: Not dead yet

Major ISPs are cutting off access to Usenet communities. But that doesn't mean we're witnessing its final years

The ninth major hierarchy, alt.*, was created as a protest to the Great Renaming, and was specifically intended to provide a less controlled alternative to the Big 8. Fittingly, Internet folklore says the first three newsgroups created in alt.* were alt.sex , alt.drugs and alt.rockandroll.

Usenet had already developed its own culture and standards, often referred to as netiquette. "Back then Usenet was a conversation, and a fairly safe one. It was well behaved, pretty much everybody posted using their real names, and it was courteous," says Steve Yelvington, principal strategist at Morris DigitalWorks, a subsidiary of publisher Morris Communications Co. in Augusta, Ga. Back in the 1980s, Yelvington wrote software for his Atari ST so he could access Usenet and participate in a newsgroup for Atari owners. "Everybody read Brad Templeton's rec.humor.funny joke every day," he recalls.

Then came Never-ending September. Usenet had its origins on college campuses, which is where the computer networks were in the 1980s, and it went through an annual turmoil every fall as an influx of new student users learned the finer points of netiquette. "When AOL connected its users to Usenet in 1993, there was a sudden flood of people who hadn't read Emily Post," recalls Yelvington. Some Usenet veterans claim that the masses of new users who engaged in personal attacks, flame wars, fanboy diatribes and the like did permanent damage to Usenet standards of behavior -- hence the feeling that September 1993 never ended.

The next year, 1994, Usenet civility suffered even more when a husband-and-wife lawyer team, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, hit Usenet with the notorious "Green Card Lottery" spam. This first recorded example of large-scale commercial Internet messages was soon followed by a flood of spam.

"A lot of people were driven away by that, and they never came back, despite the fact that we won the spam war and basically fixed that problem," says Jeremy Nixon, a member of the Big-8 Management Board who formerly worked for newsgroup service provider Supernews.

Since 1994, of course, the Web has happened, and there has been less reason to go back. "Usenet is old technology, and as such, it's less pretty and it's harder to use," says Nixon. "You don't just click on it in a Web browser, or if you do, it's a lousy Google interface. Blogs, which are basically a re-invention of Usenet, look nice, and are easy to use and to get to." The Web eclipsed Usenet, but it didn't extinguish it. Over the past decade, Usenet has gone in different directions. The Big 8 hierarchies have continued to march along the high road in a kind of comfortable obscurity, supporting communities of discussion in the Usenet tradition. When Usenet was talked about at all, it was usually because of the alt.* hierarchy, which has acquired an unsavory reputation as a free market for digital content with a provenance of questionable legality or morality. Over time, Usenet has become a major distribution platform for pornography, illegal media and broken software.

Usenet in the spotlight

Usenet may have operated under the radar while the Web was in its ascent, but that changed this past June, when Cuomo announced a deal with Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Sprint to "eliminate access to child porn newsgroups ... [and] purge their servers of child porn Web sites." In July, he added AT&T, AOL and Comcast.

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David DeJean

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