& the GII
This note looks at Usenet, an internet-based newsgroup
It covers -
- what is usenet?
and operation - how does it work?
and fall - the trajectory from explosive growth to normalisation
utopian moment - were early expectations
about 'Usenet = Democracy' realistic?
- figures on usenet traffic and readership
following page considers academic and other studies, usenet
landmarks and issues.
Usenet is an internet-based newsgroup system that is independent
of (and predates) the web. One enthusiast described it
fair, a cocktail party, a town meeting, the notes of
a secret cabal, the chatter in the hallway at a conference,
the sounds of a friday night fish fry, post-coital gossip,
the conversations overhead in an airplane waiting lounge
that launched a company, and a bunch of other things.
its simplest form, Usenet represents democracy, or the
right to share almost everything that could be possibly
shared from a computer. Most of the material in Usenet
is contributed by the same people who actively read
Usenet. Thus, the Usenet audience chooses the content
and subject matter to be thought about, presented, and
debated. In this way, Usenet is a worldwide uncensored
forum for debate and informational exchange where many
sides of an issue come into view. Rather than being
force-fed by an uncontrollable power, the participants
set the tone and emphasis of the different groups in
Usenet. Without the time and effort put in by its users,
Usenet would not be the democratic and resourceful informational
forum it is today
has been increasingly superseded by email mailing list/discussion
group services and by blogs.
Usenet participants use newsreader software to read and
post email-like messages
(often characterised as 'articles) to a number of distributed
newsgroups. Some groups are international; others have
a more restricted coverage. They feature text and non-text
content ('binaries') including images and music.
Downloading and posting involves access to a 'gateway'
server, typically provided by an institution or internet
service provider (ISP).
That server communicates with other servers on a 'store
and forward' basis. There is no single master usenet server:
administration of usenet is instead distributed, with
each usenet server administrator controlling what usenet
groups are available to users of the particular server
and what groups it propagates in communicating with other
As with email, another store and forward system, the administrator
determines issues such as who can be a user and how long
before messages 'expire'. An administrators newsgroup
provides for cooperative coordination of the various administrators
and their servers.
Usenet has been characterised as a space - if not the
space - for "online community"
(in particular the Netizen) - and as "the Internet
structure and operation
Newsgroups are organised hierarchically under some seventy
top-level categories, of which the major (in terms of
traffic, users and subcategories) are -
- oriented to ICT professionals and hobbyists, in particular
computer science, hardware and software
- relating to research in or application of the non-ICT
- the arts and social sciences
- 'social issues' and personal interaction.
- debate-oriented, often without the 'hard information'
that features in comp and sci
- concerned with the news network, group maintenance,
- oriented toward hobbies, the arts and recreational
- embracing themes outside the preceding categories
or across the categories, including regulation
- 'alternative' issues and content, including erotica
(and sometimes dismissed as an acronym for "anarchists,
lunatics, and terrorists"). It includes alt.activism,
alt.alien.visitors, alt.cult-movies, alt.atheism, alt.fan.monty-python
categories - often propagated only to servers within
a particular nation - such as aus (including aus.jokes,
aus.computers, aus.computers.ibm-pc, aus.religion, aus.general
groups can be 'unmoderated' (ie any participant one can
post) or 'moderated' (posts are automatically directed
to a moderator who edits or filters and then posts the
Some moderated groups (especially those that are actually
gatewayed internet mailing lists) are distributed as 'digests',
with groups of postings periodically collected into a
single large posting with an index. Some newsgroups have
parallel mailing lists for people without netnews access,
with postings to the group automatically propagated to
the list and vice versa.
Newsreader software (such as Xnews, Gnus and SLRN) allows
users to post, reply, followup, find and save articles.
They often communicate with the news server using the
network news transfer protocol (NNTP) - RFC
977 - based on TCP/IP connections. Adoption of the
web has seen many users shift to web-based interfaces
for posting and reading. In December 2001 Google (which
had acquired the Dejanews service) provided web access
to an archive of much of the usenet news since 1981.
In contrast to email newsgroups, users do not subscribe
to a mailing list and enjoy substantial anonymity from
other users, although not from the administrator of their
particular server. They instead access a usenet newsgroup
server and select the relevant group from a particular
When a user posts an article that is initially only available
on the user's news server. Ongoing communication of 'newsfeeds'
between that news server and one or more of its peers
results in copying of the article from server to server,
in principle ultimately propagating the article across
all usenet servers throughout the globe and into an archive
such as Googlegroups.
rise and fall
Adoption of Usenet followed the same trajectory as the
early internet, with
growth from a handful of academic sites located in the
US, Western Europe, Australia and other countries
from the 'hard' sciences - in particular those relating
to ICT - and associated interests to a more diverse
range of groups that encompassed economics, sociology,
cooking, bedwetting and needlework
of the Usenet population
is generally considered to have begun in 1979 as a series
of scripts written by University of North Carolina (UNC)
grad student Steve Bellovin to facilitate Unix to Unix
Copy Protocol (UUCP) communication between UNC and Duke
University. These scripts - the basis of the Unix User
Network connecting a small number of machines in public
and private sector research organisations - were rewritten
and extended in a program written in the C computer language
by Steve Daniel and Tom Truscott - often referred to as
the 'A' release of news.
Usenet started with two hierarchies: mod (all moderated
groups) and net (all other groups). US high school student
Matt Glickman and Berkeley grad student Mark Horton wrote
the 'B' version of news in 1981, enhanced over the following
three years and reflecting growth of usenet from an initial
three sites in 1979 to 15 in 1980, 150 in 1981 and 400
in 1982. The 'B' version allowed any single group be moderated
or open, the great renaming was undertaken. A Usenet backbone
was created by Gene Spafford in 1983 to rationalise propagation
of Usenet news.
The 'Great Renaming' of 1986 saw restructuring of Usenet,
with establishment of several new main hierarchies (comp,
misc, news, rec, sci, soc, talk) in addition to the existing
net, mod and fa. Reorganization reflected the proliferation
of groups (as with internet domain
names there were administrative and navigational advantages
in increased diversity at the top of the hierarchy) and
movement of controversial groups to the talk" domain
so that administrators could remove such groups from their
Demise of the original backbone in 1987, as Usenet traffic
increasingly involved ARPANET connections, was accompanied
by widespread replacement of UUCP by NNTP, pressure for
'democratisation' of the newsgroup creation procedure
- notably attacks on "the Backbone Cabal" -
and establishment of the alt hierarchy (kicking off with
alt.sex, alt.rock-n-roll and alt.drugs under the auspices
of figures such as John Gilmore).
Henry Spencer of the University of Toronto created the
'C' version of news in 1988-1989, followed by the proliferation
of client newsreader programs. Usenet's coming of age
- or irreversible decline, from the perspective of some
digerati - was marked in 1993 when America Online offered
access to its subscribers.
Acceptance of the web and of listserve programs (with
messages being pushed to subscribers rather than to newsgroup
peers) over the following decade saw what has arguably
been a marginalisation of Usenet, increasingly perceived
by some of the online population - and by regulators -
as "the dark side of the net", "the home
of dirty old men" or spammer's paradise.
One example was TIME magazine's 1995 feature
on cyberporn, highlighting dubious claims
by Marty Rimm that 83.5% of images on Usenet newsgroups
were "pornographic". Another is recurrent comment
that users are abandoning Usenet because "worthwhile
messages are drowned" by spam.
the utopian moment
Early writing about Usenet embodied many of the same values
evident in advocacy for blogging
or open source, with enthusiasts
variously claiming that it
an opportunity to reclaim truth from corporate media
was necessarily (and properly) 'a technology of freedom'
communitarian and self-regulating
universal cultural values (often tied to a geek perception
of the US constitution).
Ronda Hauben thus asserted
number of sites receiving Usenet is continually increasing,
demonstrating its popularity. People are attracted to
Usenet because of what it makes possible. People want
to communicate and enjoy the thrill of finding others
across the country (or across the world) who share a
common interest or with whom to be in contact. Besides
the common thrill, it is possible to form serious relationships
online. Usenet makes this discovery possible because
it is a public forum. People expose their ideas broadly,
making it possible to find compatriots in thought. The
same physical connections which carry Usenet often also
transport private electronic mail. However, the interactions
and discoveries are only made possible by the public
aspect of Usenet. Mailing lists have as wide a range
of discussion, but are available to much smaller groups.
Being on Usenet can become tiresome at times, but it
is rare that anyone leaves it permanently. Unless, of
course, a person's life changes and this change means
that time once spent online is no longer available.
As more universities, schools, libraries, businesses,
and individuals connect, the value of Usenet grows.
Each new person can eventually add his or her unique
opinion to the collection of thoughts and information
that Usenet already has. Each new connection also increases
the area where new connections can be made through cheap
local phone calls. The potential for inexpensive expansion
is limited only by the oceans, other natural barriers,
or perhaps by mistaken government policies.
essence of Usenet means it will survive because of its
users' determination. Usenet draws its strength from
being a peer-to-peer network. People who use Usenet
do so because they wish to communicate with others.
This communal wish means that people on Usenet find
it in their own and in the community's interest to be
helpful. In this way, Usenet exists as a worldwide community
of resources ready to be shared. Where else today is
there so much knowledge that is freely available? Usenet
represents a living library and is an important part
of the worldwide computer network.
The very nature of Usenet promotes change. Usenet was
born outside of established "networks" and
transcends any one physical network. It exists of itself
and through other networks. It makes possible the distribution
of information that might otherwise not be heard through
"official channels." This role makes Usenet
a herald for social change. Because of the inherent
will to communicate, people who do not have access to
Usenet will want access when they become exposed to
it, and people who currently have access will want Usenet
to expand its reach so as to further even more communication.
Usenet could grow to provide a forum through which people
influence their governments, allowing for the discussion
and debate of issues in a mode that facilitates mass
participation. This discussion becomes a source of independent
information. An independent source is helpful in the
search for the truth
we have suggested elsewhere on this site, those aspirations
appear misplaced. Much of the traffic, for example, appears
to have related to distribution of pictures of Asian teens,
rather than earnest debates between philosopher kings.
Governments have not fallen. States have not withered.
The medium of enlightenment has not differentiated between
chatter about alien conspiracies, Messiaen's Méditations
sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité
and Eminem's latest hit.
Hauben claimed that
is an uncensored forum for debate where many sides of
an issue come into view. Instead of being force-fed
by an uncontrollable source of information, the participants
set the tone and emphasis on Usenet. People control
what happens on Usenet.
prevalence of flame wars, bullying and spam suggest that
questions of control and consent are more subtle.
Much of the "robust debate" featured on Usenet
is attributable to
or poor moderation (the famous town
square in US online creation myths is a fine place
to gather for a lynching)
for pseudonymous or anonymous
communication and use of false names
expectations about netiquette,
which in practice often privileges those who are aggressive,
impatient with subtlety and different points of view
or merely insane.
Hardy commented that
wars are the most important means of social constraint
on the Usenet system. In the absence of any central
administration or much formal structure, flame wars
provide a democratic way to air out differences. Even
minor shifts in policy or procedure are likely to produce
a flame war (as is just one person who had a bad day).
When a flame war begins, lurkers (people who read but
never post) and newbies (new users) run for cover. Personal
aspersions, outrageous exaggerations, and overheated
rhetoric are the order of the day (or week, or month).
A person's past transgressions (real or imagined), personal
habits and proclivities (real or imagined) and unsupported
claims of personal privilege or authority seem to rule
the day, for a time. Eventually the source of irritation
is removed, removes themselves, cooler heads prevail,
or everyone just gets sick of it and moves on to another
Identifying and making sense of Usenet statistics
is problematical, with most published research dating
from the early 1990s and major uncertainty about demographics.
A 1991 analysis of what was characterised as "the
top 1000 Usenet sites" showed about 58% US sites,
15% unknown, 8% Germany, 6% Canada, 2-3% each for the
UK, Japan, and Australia, and the rest mostly scattered
Brian Reid's January 1995 Usenet Readership Summary
Report claimed that in July 1994 Usenet was received
at around 190,000 sites, accessed regularly by an estimated
7.13 million people (from an overall online population
of 23 million) and involved over 72,700 articles per day
(some 189 megabytes).
At the same time it was claimed that the average number
of netnews readers per site was 86, with articles being
kept online for an average of nine days and an estimated
61 terabytes of disk space used globally.
As of 1996 it was estimated that the "alt.binaries"
hierarchy comprised 2%-3% of all newsgroups but accounted
for 65%-80% of all traffic
A number of commercial and not-for-profit services offer
usenet statistics, for example NewsAdmin.
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