Original-author: firstname.lastname@example.org (Edward Vielmetti)
Original-date: 26 Dec 1991
Last-change: 23 Apr 1999 by email@example.com (Ed Vielmetti)
See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
The periodically posted "What is Usenet?" posting goes: > >Archive-name: what-is-usenet/part1 >Original-from: firstname.lastname@example.org (Chip Salzenberg) > >The first thing to understand about Usenet is that it is widely >misunderstood. Every day on Usenet, the "blind men and the elephant" >phenomenon is evident, in spades. In my opinion, more flame wars >arise because of a lack of understanding of the nature of Usenet than >from any other source. And consider that such flame wars arise, of >necessity, among people who are on Usenet. Imagine, then, how poorly >understood Usenet must be by those outside! Imagine, indeed, how poorly understood Usenet must have been by those who had the determined will to explain what it is by what it is not? "Usenet was not a bicycle. Usenet was not a fish." Any posting like this that hasn't been revised every few months has become a quaint historical document, which at best yields a faint notion how the net "should have been" and at worst tries to shape how the Usenet "really was". The first thing to understand about Usenet is that it was big. Really big. Netnews (and netnews-like things) had percolated into many more places than were even known about by people who tracked such things. There was no grand unified list of everything that was out there, no way to know beforehand who was going to read what you post, and no history books to guide you that would let you know even a small piece of any of the in jokes that popped up in most newsgroups. Distrust any grand sweeping statements about "Usenet", because you can always find a counterexample. (Distrust this message, too :-). >Any essay on the nature of Usenet cannot ignore the erroneous >impressions held by many Usenet users. Therefore, this article will >treat falsehoods first. Keep reading for truth. (Beauty, alas, is >not relevant to Usenet.) Any essay on the nature of Usenet that doesn't change every so often to reflect its ever changing nature is erroneous. Usenet was not a matter of "truth", "beauty", "falsehood", "right", or "wrong", except insofar as it was a conduit for people to talk about these and many other things. >WHAT USENET IS NOT >------------------ > 1. Usenet is not an organization. Usenet was organized. There were a number of people who contributed to its continued organization -- people who posted lists of things, people who collected "frequently asked questions" postings, people who gave out or sold newsfeeds, people who kept archives of groups, people who put those archives into web servers, people who turned those archives into printed books, talk shows, and game shows. This organization was accompanied by a certain amount of disorganization -- news software that didn't always work just right, discussions that wandered from place to place, parts of the net that resisted easy classification. Order and disorder were part of the same whole. In the short run, the person or group who ran the system that you read news from and the sites which that system exchanged news with controlled who got a feed, which articles were propogated to what places and how quickly, and who could post articles. In the long run, there were a number of alternatives for Usenet access, including companies which sold you feeds for a fee, and user groups which provided feeds for their members; while you were on your own right when you typed this in, over the long haul there were many choices you had on how to deal with the net. > 2. Usenet is not a democracy. Usenet had some very "democratic" sorts of traditions. Traffic was ultimately generated by readers, and people who read news ultimately controlled what was and wasn't discussed on the net. While the details of any individual person's news reading system limited or constrained what was easy or convenient for them to do at the moment, in the long run the decisions on what was or wasn't happening rested with the people. On the other hand, there had been (and always will have been) people who had been on the net longer than you or I had been, and who had a strong sense of tradition and the way things were normally done. There were certain things which were simply "not done". Any sort of decision that involved counting the number of people yes or no on a particular vote had to cope with the entrenched interests of those who weren't about to change their habits, their posting software, or the formatting of their headers just to satisfy a new idea. > 3. Usenet is not fair. Usenet was a 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. > 4. Usenet is not a right. Usenet is a right, a left, a jab, and a sharp uppercut to the jaw. The postman hits! You have new mail. > 5. Usenet is not a public utility. Usenet was carried in large part over circuits provided by public utilities, including the public switched phone network and lines leased from public carriers. In some countries the national networking authority had some amount of monopoly power over the provision of these services, and thus the flow of information was controlled in some manner by the whims and desires (and pricing structure) of the public utility. Most Usenet sites were operated by organizations which were not public utilities, not in the ordinary sense. You rarely got your newsfeed from National Telecom, it was more likely to be National U. or Private Networking Inc. > 6. Usenet is not an academic network. Usenet was a network with many parts to it. Some parts were academic, some parts weren't. Usenet was clearly not a commercial network like Sprintnet or Tymnet, and it was not an academic network like BITNET. But parts of BITNET were parts of Usenet, though some of the traffic on Usenet violated the BITNET acceptable use guidelines, even though the people who were actually on BITNET sites reading these groups didn't necessarily mind that they were violating the guidelines. Whew. Usenet was a lot of networks, and none of them. You name another network, and it wasn't Usenet. > 7. Usenet is not an advertising medium. A man walks into a crowded theater and shouts, "ANYBODY WANT TO BUY A CAR?" The crowd stands up and shouts back, "WRONG THEATER!" Ever since the first dinette set for sale in New Jersey was advertised around the world, people had been using Usenet for personal and for corporate gain. If you were careful about it and didn't make people mad, Usenet was an effective means of letting the world know about things which you find valuable. But take care... - Marketing hype was flamed immediately. If you needed to post a press release, edit it first. - Speak nice of your competitors. If your product was better than theirs, you didn't say theirs is "brain damaged", "broken", or "worthless". After all someone else might have had the same opinion of your product. - Dance around the issue. Post relevant information (like price, availability and features) but make sure you didn't send everything out. If someone wanted the hard sell let them request it from you by e-mail. - Don't be an idiot. If you sold toasters for a living, you didn't spout off in net.breadcrumbs about an international conspiracy to poison pigeons orchestrated by the secret Usenet Cabal; toaster-buyers got word of your reputation for idiocy and avoided your toasters even if they were the best in the market. - Disclaimers are worthless. If you posted from foobar.com, and put a note on the bottom "not the opinions of foobar inc.,", you may have satisfied the lawyers but your corporate reputation was still affected. To maintain a separate net.identity, you posted from a different site. > 8. Usenet is not the Internet. It was very difficult to sustain the level of traffic that was flowing on Usenet back then if it weren't for people sending news feeds over dedicated circuits with TCP/IP on the Internet. That's not to say that if a sudden disease had wiped out all RS/6000s and Cisco routers that formed the NSFnet backbone, CIX hub, and MAE East interconnects, that some people wouldn't be inconvenienced or cut off from the net entirely. (Based on the reliability of the MAE East, perhaps the "sudden disease" already hit?) There was a certain symbiosis between netnews and Internet connections; the cost of maintaining a full newsfeed with NNTP was so much less than doing the same thing with dialup UUCP that sites which depended enough on the information flowing through news were some of the most eager to get on the Internet. The Usenet was not the Internet. Certain governments had laws which prevented other countries from getting onto the Internet, but that didn't stop netnews from flowing in and out. Chances were pretty good that a site which had a Usenet feed could send mail to you from the Internet, but even that was not guaranteed in some odd cases (news feeds sent on CD-ROM, for instance). > 9. Usenet is not a UUCP network. UUCP carried the first netnews traffic, and a considerable number of sites got their newsfeed using UUCP. But was also fed using NNTP, mag tapes, CD-ROMs, and printed out on paper to be tacked up on bulletin boards and pasted on refrigerators. >10. Usenet is not a United States network. A 1991 analysis of the top 1000 Usenet sites showed about 58% US sites, 15% unknown, 8% Germany, 6% Canada, 2-3% each the UK, Japan, and Australia, and the rest mostly scattered around Europe. The state of California was the center of the net, with about 14% of the mapped top sites there. The Washington, DC area was also the center of the net, with several large providers headquartered there. You could read netnews on all seven continents, including Antarctica. If you were looking for a somewhat less US-centered view of the world, you could have tried reading regional newsgroups from various different states or groups from various far-away places (which depending on where you are at could be Japanese, German, Canadian, or Australian). There were a lot of people out there who were different from you. >11. Usenet is not a UNIX network. Well...ok, if you didn't have a UNIX machine, you could read news. In fact, there were substantial sets of newsgroups (bit.*) which were transported and gatewayed primarily through IBM VM systems, and a set of newsgroups (vmsnet.*) which had major traffic through DEC VMS systems. Reasonable news relay software ran on Macs (uAccess), Amiga (a C news port), MS-DOS (Waffle), and no doubt quite a few more. I'm was typing on a DOS machine when I first wrote this sentence, and it's been edited on Macs and X terminals since then. There was a certain culture about the net that grew up on Unix machines, which occasionally ran into fierce clashes with the culture that had grown up on IBM machines (LISTSERV), Commodore 64's (B1FF 1S A K00L D00D), MS-DOS Fidonet systems, commercial chat systems (America Online), and "family oriented" systems (Prodigy). If you were not running on a Unix machine or if you didn't have one handy there were things about the net which were puzzling or maddening, much as if you were reading a BITNET list and you don't have a CMS system handy. >12. Usenet is not an ASCII network. There were reasonably standard ways to type Japanese, Russian, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic, and Vietnamese that used the ASCII character set to encode your national character set. The fundamental assumption of most netnews software was that you're dealing with something that looks a lot like US ASCII, but if you were willing to work within those bounds and be clever it was quite possible to use ASCII to discuss things in any language. >13. Usenet is not software. Usenet software had gotten much better over time to cope with the ever increasing aggregate flow of netnews and (in some cases) the extreme volume that newsgroups generated. If you had been reading news then with the same news software that was running 10 years previous, you'd never have been able to keep up. Your system would have choked and died and spent all of its time either processing incoming news or expiring old news. Without software and constant improvements to same, Usenet would not have been. There was no "standard" Usenet software, but there were standards for what Usenet articles looked like, and what sites were expected to do with them. It was possible to write a fairly simple minded news system directly from the standards documents and be reasonably sure that it will work with other systems, though thorough testing was necessary if it was going to be used in the real world. You did not assume that all systems were tested before they have been deployed. >WHAT USENET IS >-------------- Usenet was in part about people. There were people who were "on the net", who read rec.humor.funny every so often, who knew the same jokes you did, who told you stories about funny or stupid things they'd seen. Usenet was the set of people who knew what Usenet was. Usenet was a bunch of bits, lots of bits, millions of bits each day full of nonsense, argument, reasonable technical discussion, scholarly analysis, and naughty pictures. Usenet (or netnews) was about newsgroups (or groups). Not bboards, not LISTSERV, not areas, not conferences, not mailing lists, they're groups. If someone called them something else they were not looking at things from a Usenet perspective. That's not to say that they were "incorrect" -- who is to say what is the right way of viewing the past? -- just that it was not the Net Way. In particular, if they read Usenet news all mixed in with their important every day mail (like reminders of who to go to lunch with Thursday) they were not seeing netnews the way most people saw netnews. Some newsgroups were also (or "really") Fidonet echoes (alt.bbs.allsysop), BITNET LISTSERV groups (bit.listserv.pacs-l), or even both at once! (misc.handicap). So there were some violent culture clashes when someone referred to you favorite net.hangout as a "board". Newsgroups had names. These names were both very arbitrary and very meaningful. People fought for months or years about what to name a newsgroup. If a newsgroup didn't have a name (even a dumb one like misc.misc) it wasn't a newsgroup. In particular newsgroup names had dots in them, and people abbreviated them by taking the first letters of the names (so alt.folklore.urban was afu, and soc.culture.china was scc). >DIVERSITY >--------- There was nothing vague about Usenet. (Vague, vague, it was filling up millions of dollars worth of disk drives and you want to call it vague? Sheesh!) It may be hard to pin down what was and wasn't part of Usenet at the fringes, but netnews tended to grow amoeba-like to encompass more or less anything in its path, so you can be pretty sure that if it wasn't Usenet then it will be once it's been in contact with Usenet for long enough. There are a lot of systems that were part of Usenet. Chances were that you didn't have any clue where all your articles will end up going or what news reading software will be used to look at them. Any message of any appreciable size or with any substantial personal opinion in it was in violation of some network use policy or local ordinance in some state or municipality. >CONTROL >------- Some people were control freaks. They wanted to present their opinion of how things were, who ran what, what was OK and not OK to do, which things were "good" and which were "bad". You ran across them every so often. They served a useful purpose; there was a lot of chaos inherent in a largely self-governing system, and people with a strong sense of purpose and order made things a lot easier. Just don't believe everything they said. In particular, don't believe them when they sad "don't believe everything they said", because if they posted the same answers month after month some other people were bound to believe them. If you ran a news system you could be a petty tyrant. You could decide what groups to carry, who to kick off your system, how to expire old news so that you kept 60 days worth of misc.petunias but expired rec.pets.fish almost immediately. In the long run you would probably have been happiest if you made these decisions relatively even-handedly since that's the posture least likely to get people to notice that you actually did have control. Your right to exercise control over netnews usually ended at your neighbor's spool directory. Pleading, cajoling, appealing to good nature, or paying your news feed generally yielded a better response than flames on the net. >PERIODIC POSTINGS >----------------- One of the ways to exert control over the workings of the net was to take the time to put together a relatively accurate set of answers to some frequently asked questions and post it every month. If you did this right, the article was stored for months on sites around the world, and you'd be able to tell people "idiot, don't ask this question until you've read the FAQ, especially answer #42". The periodic postings included several lists of newsgroups, along with comments as to what the contents of the groups were supposed to be. Anyone who had the time and energy could have put together a list like this, and if they had posted it for several months running they would get some measure of net.recognition for themselves as being the "official" keeper of the "official" list. But don't delude yourself into thinking that anything on the net was official in any real way; the lists served to perpetuate common myths about who was talking about what where, but that was no guarantee that things actually worked out that way. >PROPAGATION >----------- In the real old days, when it cost real money to make long distance phone calls to send netnews around the world, some people were able to get their management to look the other way when they racked up multi-thousand dollar phone bills. These people were called the "backbone cabal", and they had a disproportionate influence on news traffic because, after all, they were managing to get someone else to pay for it. More recently, communications costs were (for many sites) buried in with a general "internet service". If you wanted to have a disproportionate influence on news traffic, you needed to be able to beg, borrow, buy or steal access to great big disk drives (so that you could keep a full feed) and lots of memory (so that you could feed a lot of sites at once). There was a vigorous, competetive cash market for news feeds; you could get a newsfeed from a local provider via modem or via Internet in all 50 states of the USA, more than 50 countries, and via satellite in most of North America. The notion that any one system was a "pre-eminent site" was past; communications costs had gotten low enough, and traffic high enough, that if any one node were to have gotten wiped out completely it would have still been possible for everyone to be back on the net within weeks. >NEWSGROUP CREATION >------------------ You were better off starting up a mailing list. If you *had to* start a newsgroup, you were best off starting a mailing list anyway - even an informal one - to plan the newsgroup. Get a half dozen people to all agree on the basic goals, topics of conversation, etc. Figure that you have about two months to agree that there's something worth talking about, get a hundred other people to see your way, and run the vote. There were time-honored rituals for newsgroup creation, designed mostly to minimize the amount of work that news administrators (the people who have managed to corral a bunch of disk space to store news) had to do; in particular, this involved minimizing the number of mail messages they had to read every day. The process involved handing off responsibility to a group of people well-steeped in ritual (the Usenet Volunteer Votetakers) who ran through the process for you. >THE CAMEL'S NOSE? >----------------- I'm not sure what camels have to do with anything. The only real camel that had anything to do with Usenet is Larry Wall and Randal Schwartz's "Programming perl", aka the "Camel Book", published by O'Reilley. Larry wrote "rn", one of the second generation of news readers that let you ignore some news that you didn't want to read. The process of getting rid of unread news got to be a complex enough decision process that he wrote a programming language (perl) to help him write a newsreader to replace "rn". He never finished the new newsreader, though that's not at all surprising. "perl" is a pretty useful language, though. If you can understand "perl" you'll have a much greater appreciation for the ability of news admins to get rid of things they didn't want to see. There are easily $12M worth of computers that I could have pointed to that were responsible for the transportation of netnews around the world, plus another $12M per year in communications bills spent to keep news flowing. Much was made of the risk that miscreants would do something horrendous that will mean The Death Of The Net As We Knew It. It seems unlikely, however, that this collective enterprise would be endangered by any one user's actions, no matter how bold they might be about trying to propogate their message against the collective will of the rest of the net trying to keep them in check. Was was surprising was how the success of the net became indistinguishable from its failure. >IF YOU ARE UNHAPPY... >--------------------- If you are unhappy, what are you doing reading netnews? Take a break. Stretch. Walk outside in the sunshine or the snow. Relax your brain, watch some TV for a while, listen to the radio. If you need to communicate with someone else, give them a phone call, or see them in person. It's good to not spend too much time all in the same place with a fixed focus - rest your eyes everyone once in a while by looking around at something else. Don't worry about missing anything, it'll all get re-posted if it's any good. >WORDS TO LIVE BY #1: >-------------------- Hours can slip by, people can come and go, and you'll be locked in Cyberspace. Remember to do your work! -- Brendan Kehoe >WORDS TO LIVE BY #2: >-------------------- Part of the apprenticeship for a network guru was knowing enough other people and attending enough conferences to find out where things were hidden. This worked just fine when the Internet was a small network. -- Ed Krol >WORDS TO LIVE BY #3: >-------------------- The second newsreader philosophy believes that you want to read only 10 percent of the articles in any given group.... This philosophy is far more realistic. -- Adam Engst >WORDS TO LIVE BY #4 >------------------- ... Usenet, als das Usenet noch Usenet war, und kein nicht-klickbares Anhaengsel des WWW ... -- Gert Doering Copyright 1996 Edward Vielmetti. All rights reserved.