NewsDemon Celebrates USENET 30th Anniversary: An Interview with USENET pioneers Tom Truscott and Brad Templeton

 

The opinions expressed in the following publication are those of the individual interviewees and are not meant to represent the opinions or official positions of NewsDemon.com or its parent company.

What do USENET’s founding fathers think about what the service has become... and what it’s becoming?

Thirty years ago, the Internet was a white hot flash of future tech on the horizon, a boundless source of energy and intellect that would soon reshape America and the world. Even then, in that pre-historic Internet era, however, some folks were more plugged in than others.

Brad Templeton and Tom Truscott are the bedrock upon which USENET was founded. Their work both in creating and commercializing newsgroups has led to amazing new technologies like Bittorrent, media streaming, and a 24-hour Internet news cycle. We talked with these two mild-mannered supermen about the health and future of their baby, now three decades old.

Ancient History

Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis created USENET in December of 1979 at the University of North Carolina. Their vision was simple and rooted in the tradition of play-by-mail chess and adventure games - computers would share packages of “news” with each other over a network, phone line, or, as Tom Truscott will tell us, airmail. The news was stored locally and all new posts were collated and sent through the network, propagating news, entertainment, and bull sessions in a way that predated even the simplest web pages. The creation, called USENET, appeared at a major conference and spread like wildfire. Suddenly computers weren’t just dumb terminals for performing calculations - they were a bar, a corner store, and a library.

Templeton came to the network later, in about 1980, but his importance is not to be overlooked. He created the ClariNet Communications Corportation, one of the first electronic publishers and based his service on USENET. He has been called the father of the dot-com and it is thanks to him, after a chance encounter on USENET with email architect Jon Postel, that our email addresses look like “[email protected]” rather than “[email protected]

NewsDemon: USENET is 30 years old. Why is the technology still relevant? Why should kids with their space cars and iPods care about newsgroups?

Truscott: Kids can fly their space cars to an interesting convention or other meeting of like minds, but that is a significant commitment even using a space car. Kids enjoy lots of things about iPods, but find talking back to them quite unsatisfying. USENET provides two-way communication without much commitment. Semi-casual thought-sharing, I suppose.

Templeton: First, let’s talk about the original value. One of the most important aspects was that you can pre-feed articles to your system or onto a local server, which means lighting-fast access. There’s no waiting, no matter how big the item is. Today, though, pre-feeding has become rare, and people connect to a remote nntp server, removing some of this benefit.

As for right now, it’s a great way to look at network architecture. It’s distributed and an handle any load. It never dies under the load at the source site, the way a blog or popular "slashdotted" web site can. It’s also “owned” by nobody - which is both a curse and a blessing. You also get serial publishing (what blogs and mailing lists are also about) but in one common format. Don't have to create user IDs and passwords for a thousand sites.

ND: Obviously USENET spawned a number of imitators in the BBS scene. What brought about the desire to recreate this sort of system?

Templeton: Creating a system like USENET is most definitely fun, especially when done on your own home computer. In the early years USENET sites all ran Unix and tended to be in computer science departments and tech companies. BBS systems opened up cyberspace for a much wider community.

ND: What brought about the need for networks like USENET? What cemented its position in the pantheon of networks/protocols? Ease of use? Popularity? Fun?

Truscott: We wanted something like a quick-turnaround newsletter for topics of interest to us. In the ancient days there was no World Wide Web or even a general-access Internet. There were specialty newsletters, but those tended to be mailed - not emailed! - on erratic schedules depending on the time and health of the preparer. Magazines and journals rarely had the ideal breadth or depth of coverage of a topic, and the publishing delay was, and still is, large. Letters and phone calls were fine, if you knew with whom you wished to communicate.

So USENET invented itself and became popular because other people also wanted to communicate in that way. It was quite easy to use, which helped its popularity. Its implementation was simple could adapt to new communication technologies. Some weren’t even new: for a while Australia was on USENET thanks to magnetic tapes air-mailed between UC San Diego and the University of Sydney.

Templeton: 30 years ago most sites did not have live connections. You needed a pre-feeding store and forward network to have online discussion at all.

Then it became "the place" - the one site for internet community. This was where you went to talk about any one of thousands of topics. The only competition was mailing lists, and a few BBSs, and later the online services, but on the internet, this was the place for most things.

Access was fast. In the old days, most people ran the USENET server on their own LAN, so everything was faster, 20 years ago, than reading web sites is today. You hit the "next article" key and your screen was updated faster than you could see. Once you had that speed it was hard to go back to watching an hourglass spin.

ND: What's next for USENET?

Templeton: I used to be more upbeat but I think it will now just coast to slow oblivion unless somebody takes the lead to build a new network, designed to be integrated with the always-on Internet from the ground up.

 

ND: Where do newsgroups fit in media today? Where are the real hotbeds of newsgroup use?

Truscott: Everything is online now, from slow-moving magazines and journals to instant messaging services. USENET’s still occupies the same niche, which it shares with mailing lists. I think USENET and mailing lists are actually quite similar, though in practice there are implementation differences. One is that “newsgroups” are a ready-made way to handle lists of lists. Another is that USENET waits for the user to “pull” information from it, mailing lists are usually pushed at the user. Again, this can be finessed by the implementation, but with USENET I choose when to drink from the firehouse, with mailing lists it seems to be the other way around.

ND: Do you feel HTTP has supplanted USENET completely? What value do newsgroups offer in a modern context?

Templeton: Well, the online world is much bigger, but many USENET discussion groups continue to have very high volumes so obviously it is not complete. People go to them for the speed I spoke of, and the different characters of communities. But it's not always good. Some newsgroups have many trolls and that turns people away. There is no way to be rid of them.

USENET newsreaders continue to do better thread handling and killfile handling than any web board, and that's odd, considering it's 20 year old technology.

ND: What did folks think about USENET thirty years ago? What do they think of it now?

Truscott: It was a nice tool. Early on people concluded that Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crud”) most definitely applied to USENET traffic. But they also concluded that the remaining 10% (or even 1%)was worth some trouble to obtain. And so computers kept making those expensive long-distance calls in the dead of night.

Amazingly it is still here. I like that, because I use it daily in my work.

Over 30 years, USENET has been a habit for thousands of users each day. Bridging distance, USENET newsgroups have been and continue to provide a multitude of channels for discussion on practically every topic imaginable. Long surviving it's critics, it continues to not only survive, but evolve. Over the last few years, more and more newcomers have come to realize the resources that USENET can provide and have migrated with the existing USENET community. As any social network, USENET relies on the size of its community to survive. With this resurgence of interest, USENET newsgroups are more relevant than ever before. As USENET is shaped and shifted by its users, the next 30 years of USENET evolution is expected to continue to surprise many while still remaining an active destination for the masses.