The Evolution Of Usenet News: The Poor Man's Arpanet

by Michael Hauben, Fall 1992

(Speech Presented At Macul 3-12-93)

In response to the many requests that I post this on com-priv, following is the Talk on "The Evolution of Usenet News:The Poor Man's Arpanet" that was presented after being erroneously cancelled on March 12, 1993 at the MACUL Conference in Detroit.

Editor's Notes: * This and following excerpts describing responses to the student are from the Appendix to "The Social Forces Behind the Development of Usenet News", by Michael Hauben, Fall 1992.


Five years ago I met someone at a computer gathering who told me of an interesting and exciting world called Usenet News. He said the frustration of it was that there was so much interesting information available on it that you couldn't possibly read it all. It took me four years to gain access to it, but once I did I discovered that it was indeed an amazing world. So today I want to invite you to the Wonderful World of Usenet News.

Usenet News is a computer news network that involves over 3 million people worldwide. Many of the participants are involved in education and research activities and institutions. Yet Usenet News is rarely mentioned in the public arena and few who are not connected with it know of its existence. My talk today will first describe a project of a student using Usenet News and then it will give a bit of background about how Usenet News developed. Then my co presenter will describe how one would gain access to Usenet News and show a few samples of what is available on it. Also, I have some copies of the Amateur Computerist newsletter to distribute. The Fall 1992 issue was a special issue:"Welcome to the Wonderful World of Usenet News" which contains articles about Usenet News from a variety of perspectives. We welcome questions so we will try to leave some time at the end for questions and comments.

In Fall of 1992, an undergraduate college student in a computers and society class had a term project to do. The teacher's assignment required that the project be the result of using resources beyond research from books. The teacher proposed that students consider interviewing people, sending letters, etc.

The student had done some reading and had found a reference that claimed that computer networks had become "the largest machine that man has ever constructed -- the global telecommunications network" (from Ithiel de Sola Pool, "Technology Without Boundaries", edited by Eli Noam, Cambridge, Mass, 1990, p. 56)

The student decided that he would do his research on this international computer network that now spans the globe and that many college students, and faculty worldwide have access to. He planned to use the network as much as possible to conduct his research.

After reading some of the few books and articles that describe the networks, he gathered a few significant quotes and wrote a brief introduction stating that he was trying to determine the subject for a term paper. He asked if the quotes seemed accurate and if readers had any advice with regard to formulating the subject for his paper. Some of the quotes were from a journal article documenting the disintegration of the Eastern Europe as a result of the lack of free speech which impeded computer development. Also, the student asked if there was any evidence that the Berlin Wall had fallen because of computers. He raised several other questions and included several quotes from his reading.

Then he took this proposal and posted it on the international Network News system called Usenet News. Posting is the word used to indicate that one has sent an article to NetNews to be propagated around the world.

Usenet News is like an electronic News magazine or a world town meeting. It has various newsgroups organized by different topic areas. There are an estimated 2,500 different newsgroups. And the number is continually growing. Users can post articles to any of the groups, can respond to someone elses article or can send email to the author of an article. Email is a way of sending a message to someone, whereas posting makes it available to everybody. There are newsgroups for computer topics like comp.misc, comp.lang.c, science related newsgroups like sci.physics, newsgroups dealing with social issues, like soc.culture.german, soc.culture.french, soc.culture,korean, etc. Other newsgroups discuss political issues like talk.politics.theory, recreational subjects like rec.arts.poems, rec.arts.books, deal with legal issues like misc.legal, with job openings, like misc.jobs, with education issues, like misc.edu or sci.edu, k12.chat.elementary, k12.chat.junior, k12.chat.senior, k12.chat.teacher, etc.

The student posted his questions to a number of newsgroups. In his post, he wrote:

"The Largest Machine": Where it came from and its importance to Society

I propose to write a paper concerning the development of "The Net." I am interested in exploring the forces behind its development and the fundamental change it represents over previous communications media. I will consult with people who have been involved with Usenet News from its beginnings, and the various networks that comprise the Computer Network around the world. I wish to come to some understanding of where the Net has come from, so as to be helpful in figuring out where it is going to."

Within a few days, responses began to arrive via electronic mail to him. He received a response from a teacher in Russia who explained that the Soviet System had been toppled by its resistance to the free flow of information. The message said: "Hello. I would also consider another side of the coin: the world is divided on people who use possibility of computer-mediated communications and ones who do not. But I am not a specialist in your field. And as one from east, I know well that Internet is first and only connection to the rest of the world for us in Russia. But unfortunately, to get it there is not too easy.... If you have some questions you think I could answer - please send me email...."*

The student sent some excerpts he had found in an article about how the lack of free speech in the Eastern Europe had impeded computer development. And he sent the teacher some questions about the excerpts. In response to the questions, the teacher from Russia answered:

"(The) first time I had seen a computer was in 1985, when our institute got one. It was Apple II. At that time, I had no idea about what a network is, and it was a time when PCs just started to appear in the environment of (the) "normal Russian" (I mean, military people most likely have used PCs and nets, but I am not informed in that area). As you can see, it was already Gorbachev's time, and communists were stopping (or already were unable) to keep very strong control on information flow in the society. So it was easier to access the PC in our institute then to get a permission to use photocopy device. Then number of PCs was fast growing, and now we have more then 15 PCs, but still no Internet connection... And (the) most common thing there is 80286 AT. I should say that it is not the usual situation. Most scientific institutes now have an access to the net. But usually it is restricted to the possibility of using the electronic mail system."

"I would say that in the past networks had no direct effect on the life of people there, and now they become more and more important. One of the points is that it is practically the only the way to communicate with the west. Telephone lines are so bad that to send a FAX message is almost impossible, conventional mail will reach the address with probability of 50% and it will take at least one month, and e-mail message will be received in 12-24 (!) hours. I have used it for the last year and never had any problems. I am lucky that one of my relatives has an e-mail! I guess, you understand how the possibility to communicate is important for scientific community...."

The student received a response from a German student who explained that he believed the Berlin Wall had fallen because accurate information about events like the Chernoble Nuclear Explosion had become available to people who were no longer dependent upon government channels for their only source of information. There were responses from a teacher in Australia, a businessman in California, a net pioneer, and many others.

The student found that he had a way of independently verifying the material he had found in books and articles by comparing it with the real life experience and observations of people around the world. He decided to prepare another post. He had become interested in how far and wide the network reached and who would have access to the post he was making. He posted the following message:

Subject: I want to hear from the four corners of the Net - that means YOU!

I would like to hear from EVERYONE on the Net-Frontier. If you think you are weird or abnormal (or special) in terms of net-connections or usenet connection, please tell me about it.... To the further expansion of the Net! :)

He received answers from over 50 people around the world from France to India and Africa. A response from Japan explained: "Yes, I believe I'm connected through some sort of hokey mechanism, but that's just because I'm in Japan. Connectivity doesn't register highly on the importance scale here. Takes a few hours for mail to get from one side of Tokyo to the other.

"So what makes me so `special'," wrote the Japanese correspondent, "as far as net connections go? A few things. I can not receive most newsgroups and can not post to any. Yet a friend of mine in the same building as me (on another floor) receives a mostly different set of newsgroups and can post to a few. The interesting bit about any group we both get is that we don't always get the same articles. Japan," he explained, "the `leader' of technology, doesn't know a thing about actually using computers. Just my opinion, of course -- my company won't listen to me anyway! Hope this adds to your research..."

And the student received a response from an employee in a large American company. The writer explained: "Not too strange, but I work for a big company that leaches off two small `service providers' for free mail and news feeds. Kind of funny, really....Hey, Usenet broke... and I can't receive mail from the Internet anymore, although I can send it." He described how the company told him `Sorry... the problem is with our feeds. We'll try to get them to fix it.' "Strange enough," the writer sarcastically reported "these small services...[a medical school and a public access usenet site - ed] wouldn't drop everything to fix our problem. How dare they! Of course MY suggestion," he explains, "PAY THEM SOME MONEY," was completely ignored." He goes on to explain that he has been told that his company "won't let us have a direct connection to the Internet for security concerns. I understand, but it doesn't make me happy," he ended.

A response from Krakow, Poland explained that their site in the Department of Physics at Warsaw University was one of the first four sites in Poland to have access to Usenet News.

A response from a French user explained how the government charges a lot of money for an internet connection in France and thus discourages usage: "It's cheaper to send a 'hello' to someone in the US than to someone 5 kilometers from my desk!," the French user wrote, "If you have a 'stupidity chapter' in your paper, this could fill a few lines."

From Wellington, New Zealand, the student learned that there was a "burgeoning "Net Community" in Wellington, as there were two Internet connections, one by a private net.enthusiast, and another run by the Wellington City Council on an old PDP-11 computer." They offered the citizens of Wellington "free ftp, telnet, IRC, archie, gopher, E-mail, and Usenet - and all the 1935 locally carried newsgroups."

A response from someone who works for Bell Labs wrote: "Some people say that many of us at Bell are on the fringe, but we're probably in the core of things in the Internet. :-)

Other responses came from university students and hobbyists in the U.S., from users in Germany, Italy, India, etc.

The student also got offers of help finding information, suggestions of books to look at, and offers to send him articles or reports that would be helpful with his research.

And many people wrote asking for a copy of the paper when it was written.

The student's teacher had asked that the student try to find out how messages on Usenet are transported. Also, he asked for information on how much it costs for messages to be posted. (In most cases Usenet News is available to a site without any charge, though there are also commercial providers who make it available only for a fee.)

The student posted the questions in relevant newsgroups on Usenet and soon thereafter there were lively discussions posted in response to the questions. Various people debated the cost, some claiming it was very minor, some pointing out that the people posting didn't charge anything for their contributions, and labor, etc.

In response to requests that he post the draft of the paper before it was completed, the student wrote a draft and put it on Usenet. He received several helpful comments. He wrote the final draft and handed it in to his teacher and posted it on Netnews. A lively discussion then followed because the student's paper had claimed that the ability of users to post in Netnews was a sign that Usenet was democratic, whereas the document in the news.newusers.answers newsgroup describing what Usenet is and isn't, claimed that Usenet is an anarchy. The discussion raised the contradiction of how there can be an official statement if something is an anarchy.

Also, a number of people wrote the student asking him if they could distribute the paper more broadly, quote the paper in their upcoming book, etc. Another student who was writing a proposal for his Master's thesis cited the paper as an important source in his proposal. This all occurred within 2 weeks of the paper being posted.

This story is but one small example of the important educational possibilities represented by Usenet News and the worldwide communications networks it is part of.

Yet for people who are not connected to these networks, the existence of Usenet News is virtually unknown. Similarly, the history and evolution of Usenet News is virtually unknown. But the story gives helpful insight into the difficulties one encounters when trying to access Usenet and the means for dealing with the difficulties.

Usenet News was born in 1979 when Tom Truscott, and Jim Ellis, graduate students at Duke University and Steve Bellovin, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina conceived of creating a network to link the computers at their different schools together. Using homemade auto dial modems and the unix to unix copy program (called UUCP), that was being distributed with the UNIX operating system, version 7, Steve Bellovin, one of the students, wrote some simple shell script programs in Unix to have the computers call each other up and search for changes in the files and then copy the changes. The program was very slow, however, and so the students enlisted Stephen Daniel, also a graduate student at Duke, to rewrite the program code in the C programming language. Other people at Duke and the University of North Carolina took part in getting the network debugged.

Once the programs were functioning on their respective machines, Jim Ellis went to a meeting of the academic unix users group called Usenix. In the following account, Tom Truscott describes what happened:

"James Ellis (jte) gave a short talk and handed out a 5 page "Invitation to a General Access UNIX Network" at the January 1980 Usenix Conference in Boulder Colorado. We made up 80 copies and they were gobbled up (not surprising, there were a record- smashing 400 attendees.)....Afterwards, jte mentioned that the audience particularly enjoyed his description of Duke's two home- built 300 baud autodialers." (from email message, Oct 12, 1992)

The invitation they distributed explains:

"The initially most significant service will be to provide a rapid access newsletter. Any node can submit an article, which will in due course propagate to all nodes. A "news" program has been designed which can perform this service. The first articles will probably concern bug fixes, trouble reports, and general cries for help. Certain categories of news, such as "have/want" articles, may become sufficiently popular as to warrant separate newsgroups. (The news program mentioned above supports newsgroups.)

"The mail command provides a convenient means for responding to intriguing articles. In general, small groups of users with common interests will use mail to communicate. If the group size grows sufficiently, they will probably start an additional news group...

"It is hoped that USENIX will take an active (indeed central) role in the network. There is the problem of members not on the net, so hardware newsletters should remain the standard communication method. However, use of the net for preparation of newsletters seems like a good idea.

The Invitation urged:

"This is a sloppy proposal. Let's start a committee. No thanks! Yes, there are problems. Several amateurs collaborated on this plan. But let's get started now. Once the net is in place, we can start a committee. And they will actually use the net, so they will know what the real problems are." (from "Invitation to a General Access Unix Network" by Tom Truscott, Duke University. Copy made available by B.Jones)

Several months later, the software for the A News program for Usenet News was put on the conference tape for general distribution at the Delaware Summer 1980 Usenix meeting. The handout distributed at this conference explained:

"A goal of USENET has been to give every UNIX system the opportunity to join and benefit from a computer network (a poor man's ARPANET, if you will)...." (copy in the Usenet History Archives)

One of the students, Stephen Daniel, who wrote the C program for A News, explains why the term "poor man's ARPANET" was used.

He wrote, "I don't remember when the phrase was coined, but to me it expressed exactly what was going on. We (or at least I) had little idea of what was really going on on the Arpanet, but we knew we were excluded. Even if we had been allowed to join, there was no way of coming up with the money. It was commonly accepted at the time that to join the Arpanet took political connections and $100,000. I don't know if that assumption was true, but we were so far from having either connections or $$ that we didn't even try. The `Poor man's Arpanet' was our way of joining the CS community (Computer Science -ed), and we made a deliberate attempt to extend it to other not-well-endowed members of the community. It is hard to believe in retrospect," he writes, "but we were initially disappointed at how few people joined us. We attributed this lack more to the cost of autodialers than lack of desire." (from email dated Jan 25, 1993, Usenet History List)

The Arpanet that Daniels is referring to pioneered the network technology that serves as the foundation of today's global internet. The first host connected to the Arpanet was the SDS Sigma-7 on Sept. 2, 1969 at the UCLA (University of California in Los Angeles) site. It began passing bits to other sites at SRI (SDS-940 at Stanford Research Institute), UCSB (IBM 360/75 at University of California Santa Barbara), and Utah (Dec PDP-10 at the University of Utah). There were many unexpected problems and obstacles, but through the collaborative work by the participants using the net, the number of sites steadily expanded and by 1977 the Arpanet extended to more than 50 sites from Hawaii to Norway. Originally funded under the Department of Defense's program for Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Arpanet was an experimental network that was set up by the U.S. military for those university computer science departments and private research institutes with DoD funding. The sites were involved in the research of getting the network to function and they had access to the advantages of the network to help their research. But academic computer science departments without DoD grants had no means of access to the ARPANET and had no access to the advantages that it provided for collaborative research.

Usenet News, however, was available to all who were interested as long as they had access to the Unix operating system (which in those days was available without charge to the academic community.) And posting and participating in the network was possible at no cost to the individuals who participated besides the cost of their own equipment and the telephone calls to receive or send Netnews. Therefore the joys and challenges of being a participant in the creation of an ever expanding network, the experience available to an exclusive few via the Arpanet, was available via Usenet News to those without political or financial connections -- to the commonfolk of the computer science community.

As Daniel notes, Usenet pioneers report that they were surprised at how slowly Usenet sites expanded at first. But when the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) joined Usenet, links began to be created between Usenet and the Arpanet. University of California at Berkeley was a site on the Arpanet. At first, it is reported, mailing lists of discussions among Arpanauts (as they were called by Usenet users) were poured into Usenet. Also by 1979-80, UCB was under contract to ARPA to provide a version of Unix** (Berkeley Systems Distribution) for the ARPA contractors that were going to be upgraded to VAX computers.

This first connection between the Arpanet and Usenet News, Daniels reports, only contributed to "the sense of being poor cousins." Daniel explains: "It was initially very hard to contribute to those lists, and when you did you were more likely to get a response to your return address than to the content of your letter. It definitely felt second class to be in read-only mode on human-nets and sf-lovers. (Those were two popular Arpanet mailing lists. Mailing lists are a way of having all the people who wanted to be part of a discussion receive all the mail that any person sent -ed)

Daniel also clarifies the different philosophy guiding the development of Usenet as opposed to that of the Arpanet. Daniel explains that "Usenet was organized around netnews, where the receiver controls what is received. The Arpanet lists were organized around mailing lists, where there is a central control for each list that potentially controls who receives the material and what material can be transmitted. I still strongly prefer the reader-centered view," he concludes. With the increasing connections to the Arpanet from Usenet, the numbers of sites on Usenet grew. Describing the gatewaying between Usenet and the Arpanet, Steve Bellovin, another Usenet pioneer, explains: "The first gateway of ARPANET mailing lists to Usenet was an early force to have gateways with ARPAnet. Gateways," he continues, to ARPAnet were on the side things and in all likelihood not officially sanctioned. However, this provided the impetus for future gateways into ARPAnet. This was the first pressure on the ARPAnet to provide service to a larger number of people -- a first step to transforming of the ARPAnet to become a part of the backbone on the Internet."

The original creators of Usenet explain that they didn't know about the existence of the Arpanet mailing lists until the ucbvax at Berkeley, which was also on the Arpanet, joined Usenet. "Only when ucbvax [Unversity of California at Berkeley -ed] joined the net," explains Truscott, did "fa" (from arpa-ed) appear. Indeed I was unaware of the Arpanet mailing lists such as human-nets until ucbvax enlightened us." (comment from Tom Truscott, Sept. 25, 1990, Usenet History Archives).

And Lauren Weinstein, a pioneer of both the Arpanet and of Usenet, describes how the restrictions of both the technical and the military environment of the Arpanet had an impact on the continued technical expansion of the network. Weinstein writes:

"Greetings. It's all too easy to forget, even for those of us who were there all along, how "small" it all started. When I was at UCLA-ATS (ARPANET site 1) in the early 70's, even small mailing lists could cause concern. I still distinctly remember the concerns regarding network loading from Geoff Goodfellow's NETWORK-HACKERS mailing list (this was in the days when "hacker" didn't have the negative meaning it has picked up since then) as the list passed *100* addresses. A list about wine (WINE-TASTERS, I believe it was called) which was mentioned in "Datamation" magazine caused memos to be sent out from the powers-that-be about "official use" of the net. There was also a lot of hand-wringing about the 255 site limit (that is, a limit on the number of IMPs (Interface Message Processors) in the network topology under NCP [Network Control Program-ed]. It's quite remarkable how much we accomplished on what by today's standards were slow machines with "tiny" amounts of memory, running with a 56 Kbit network backbone!" (from Nov. 23, 1992) >

Another Arpanet pioneer Bernie Cosell described the problem that ARPA faced with the burgeoning mailing list discussion groups that had developed. He writes:

"Well the influence of Arpa may have had a fair bit to do with it. In fact, mailing lists, themselves, almost went away. The problem is that the ARPANET was funded for two, and only two purposes:

1) to provide a vehicle for doing networking research [routing algorithms, queueing theory, congestion control, protocols, etc] and 2) to provide a means for having ARPA contractors collaborate electonically.

[Also, the Arpanet was originally funded by the Department of Defense to create a working network. And the original vision conceived of it as a means of saving the DoD money by making it possible for the military to utilize remote computer and human resources and thereby eliminate the need to duplicate such resources - ed.]

Now," Cosell explains, "ARPA was fairly liberal within those limits, but they did occasionally put their foot down. The `mailing list' problem [which predated USENET] happened with SF- Lovers, about the first [along with HUMAN-NETs] really large- scale mailing list. BUT...unlike HUMAN-NETs, SF-LOVERS could show *NO* legitimate reason for using "ARPA bandwidth" and so actually got shut down for a couple of months [it was eventually reinstated when Roger Duffy managed to make the case to ARPA that email was an important use of their network, and SF-LOVERS was providing valuable research and experimentation in the administration and operation of large mailing lists]."

"Up to the day that the ARPANET was decommissioned there were explicit [but poorly enforced] use policies. In fact, when CSNET (a net that was created under pressure from some of those academic computer and science departments who were excluded from the ARPANET-ed) wanted to use the ARPANET as an email link between two disconnected parts of CSNET, the NSF actually had to seek [and got] permission from DARPA for that use of the net."

"The use of the ARPANET for distribution of netnews was always a tricky matter and I don't know how the guys at BRL (U.S. Army Ballistics Research Laboratory-ed)managed to get away with it -- but I think that the idea was that they managed to convince their management, and then DCA (Defense Communications Agency-ed) [who was operating the ARPANET at the time] that a `significant percentage of the usenet traffic they were expending computer resources on and gobbling ARPANET bandwidth *was* legitimate `research' traffic and that the interests of that research were best served by quietly ignoring the `abuse' around the edges [like net.jokes and such]." (from communication from Bernie Cosell, Jan. 26, 1993)

Some excerpts from the Human Nets mailing list show the kind of discussion that it encouraged. One writer describes the unique nature of computer facilitated communications. He writes:

"I think/feel that computer communications (done between humans via computers) lie somewhere between written and verbal communications in style and flavor. There is an ambience of informality and stream-of-consciousness style that pervades it but coupled with ideas that are well thought out (usually) and deeper in insight than average verbal communications. Does this make any sense to anyone 'sides myself?" from 5/15/81 FFM@MIT-MC Subject: English Murdering & flame about human telecommunications

In another Human Nets article, the writer describes the advantages he has experienced from his participation on the Arpanet:

"Ever since I first `found' the ARPANET, some 3 years ago, I had considered it a playground. It is also a place where quite a bit of work gets done, but I think the `playground' atmosphere really encourages the work, since if you can make your work fun then you will want to work harder, increasing productivity, but also increasing addiction." (Jonathan Alan Solomon,"Computer Network Addiction," )

There were many problems and difficulties that Usenet participants faced, but they worked to help each other gain and continue access to Usenet News and email. There are many stories of frustrations along the way but one of the most outstanding is told by Amanda Walker who shows how it was necessary to send email across the continent to get email to the computer center on the Case Western Reserve University campus. Describing the problem, Walker writes:

"Indeed. I suspect that there are any number of examples of this, but the most egregious in my experience was at CWRU. The ECMP department had a VAX 11/780 on Usenet ("cwruecmp"), and the campus computer center had a DEC-20 in the room next door. The machines were separated by a grand total of about 30 feet and a piece of wallboard, but the computer center was not at all interested in "catering" to "those CS types" by stringing an RS- 232 line between them. So it was possible to send mail between them, but only by sending via a route resembling:

    cwruecmp => ucbvax (UUCP)
    ucbvax   => columbia (CU20A, I think) (ARPANET)
    columbia => cmu-cs-c => cwru 20 (CCnet)

[i.e. the mail went from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio to the University of California in Berkeley via uucp; from the University of California Berkeley to Columbia University, in New York City, via the Arpanet; from Columbia University in New York City to Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, Pa, and from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio via ccnet -ed]

"Yup," writes Walker, "that's three networks, and two coasts just to get through a piece of sheet rock :-). Took about a week, too."

Despite such frustrations, there were also those who helped Usenet News to grow and develop. Unix enthusiastists and pioneers at some large companies like AT&T's Bell Labs did whatever they could to provide support for Usenet. And at one point AT&T realized that it would save millions of dollars if it worked out the bugs to have internal email and in the process it gave support to the pioneers of Usenet who were trying to develop more efficient email routing programs. Also, Digital Equipment Corporation supported Usenet in various ways and the spread of Usenet and Unix encouraged the sale of the unix based computers from DEC. Also, Usenet newsgroups provided needed technical help for the folks using Unix and Unix based computers.

By 1982, the continuing explosion of Usenet News surprised even its most dedicated fans. Greg Woodbury, describes the shock that was experienced when the pioneers realized how Usenet News was not mainly developing as a means connecting spatially nearby localities sharing news, as they had envisioned, but instead, was taking a totally unexpected course of development. He writes:

"I do not recall that anyone was quite expecting the explosion that followed," recounts Greg, "What developed took everybody by surprise. When the direction of evolution took an unexpected turn, and a continental network emerged, spanning the continent from California to North Carolina, and Toronto to San Diego, it was sort of a shock to realize what had happened." (from Gregory G. Woodbury, "Net Cultural Assumptions")

Statistics Gene Spafford presented at an IETF meeting in 1988 show the tremendous growth and development that NetNews, as its founders like to call Usenet, experienced.

    1979      3 sites  ~2 articles a day
    1980     15 sites, ~10 articles a day
    1981    150 sites, ~20 articles a day
    1982    400 sites, ~50 articles a day
    1983    600 sites, ~120
    1984    900 sites, ~225
    1985  1,300 sites, ~375 articles per day, 1+Megabyte per/day
    1986  2,500 sites, ~500, 2MB+
    1987  5,000 sites,~1000, 2.5MB+
    1988 11,000 sites,~1800, 4MB+

(from Gene Spafford, Usenet History Archives - from the Mailing List, Gene Spafford, Oct. 11, 1990 based on stats from Adams, Spencer, Horton, Bellovin and Reid)

Today Usenet News continues to grow in both the number of sites and in the size of posts it carries and the number of newsgroups. Usenet is transported by uucp connections and via nntp (Net News Transfer Protocol) along the internet, which is the child of the old Arpanet. The issue of the Amateur Computerist on Usenet News (Vol 4 No 5) that we are distributing today was put together with much help from postings on Usenet. Also, there is an alt.amateur-comp newsgroup where discussion of topics from the Amateur Computerist is encouraged. And our efforts are only one of a multitude to contribute to the content and value of Usenet News.

Many times pioneers of Usenet have been convinced that the load of posts or the number of sites was becoming too great and that it wouldn't be sustainable. The fear is now facetiously referred to as "the imminent death of the net is predicted." For though each time the problems have seemed insurmountable, they have been investigated and solutions found to deal with them through the hard work of many net participants (sometimes referred to on Usenet as "net.citizens").

In the past few years a system of Freenets has begun to develop utilizing the Netnews software to make Usenet News available to community people who don't have access to a university or industry site. Cleveland Freenet, sponsored by Case Western Reserve University and other community community organizations in Cleveland, Ohio was the first freenet. They used the Netnews software to create a set of local newsgroups reflecting the different community services in the Cleveland area like the hospitals, public schools, public libraries, museums, etc. Users also have access to the worldwide newsgroups of Usenet News. The Freenet software makes it relatively easy to read and post on Usenet, and is a bit more manageable than most of the public domain software used in the Universities. In Michigan, Freenets in Ann Arbor (called Huron Valley Freenet) and perhaps in Kalamazoo are in the planning stages.

Following my presentation, my co-presenter will describe how one can temporarily gain access to Usenet by using the Freenets from the msu gopher, or more permanently gain access by getting a Usenet feed.

The Arpanet pioneered important breakthroughs in computer network technology. It also pioneered the ability to collaborate and to utilize dispersed resources -- both people and computers. Daniel Dern, an editor and writer, in a tribute published in 1989 honoring the 20 years of achievements of the Arpanet, wrote:

"It was the beginning of an era....It was the start of a new way to think about computers, of a new way to work. It was the start of a state of mind. The name of the technology was packet switching. The name of the network was the ARPANET." [Daniel D. Dern, "The ARPANET is Twenty: What We Have Learned and the Fun We Had, "ConneXions," vol 3, no. 10, Oct. 1989, p. 2]

Usenet represents the continuation of this tradition by making access to these collaborative research relationships available to the commonfolk. The extension of Usenet has also required a great deal of pioneeering effort and technical development, but the folks participating in Usenet have been there to solve the problems.

Writing in 1968 before the Arpanet network began, J.C.R Licklider, who has been called the Father of the Arpanet, and Robert W. Taylor predicted the challenge that would face society with the development of computer networks. They wrote:

"First, life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity. Second, communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable. Third, much communication and interaction will be with programs and programming models, which will be (a) highly responsive, (b) supplementary to one's own capablities, rather than competitive, and (c) capable of representing progressively more complex ideas without necessarily displaying all the levels of their structure at the same time -- and which will therefore be both challenging nad rewarding. And, fourth, there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone (who can afford a console) to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him, with programs ready to guide him or to help him explore."

"For the society," they continued, "the impact will be good or bad depending mainly on the question: Will `to be on line' be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of `intelligence amplification,' the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity."

"On the other hand," they continued, "if the network idea should prove to do for education what a few have envisioned in hope, if not in concrete detailed plan, and if all minds should prove to be responsive, surely the boon to humankind would be beyond measure."

"Unemployment would disappear from the face of the earth forever, for consider the magnitude of the task of adapting the network's software to all the new generations of computer, coming closer and closer upon the heels of their predecessors until the entire population of the world is caught up in an infinite crescendo of on-line interactive debugging." [from "In Memoriam: J.C.R. Licklider 1915-1990," Aug. 7, 1990, p. 40; reprinted by permission from Digital Research Center; originally published as "The Computer as a Communication Device," in "Science and Technology", April, 1968, p. 40)

The vision of the masses being needed to participate in the debugging and development of the network that will make a new world possible is still a helpful vision. Thus I want to invite you to the Wonderful World of Usenet News. It's a world that needs and will reward your participation.


**The Unix Operating system was created by computer programmers at Bell Labs. They explain that it was created to help develop a community of programmers. With the growth and development of Usenet News it has demonstrated that it has achieved that purpose.

Also special thanks to Bruce Jones for the history materials he has gathered and made available.


HTML Markup by Brad Cox (bcox@gmu.edu)