Duke University: A Piece of Internet History
By Cara Bonnett
Monday, May 17, 2010
Durham, NC -- This week marks the end of an era for one of the earliest pieces of Internet history, which got its start at Duke more than 30 years ago.
On May 20, Duke will shut down its Usenet server, which provides access to a worldwide electronic discussion network of newsgroups started in 1979 by two Duke graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis.
Working with a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, they came up with a simple program to exchange messages and files between computers at Duke and UNC using telephone modems.
The "Users Network," Usenet for short, grew into an international electronic discussion forum with more than 120,000 newsgroups dedicated to various topics, from local dining to computer programming languages. Each group had a distinctive name such as soc.history or sci.math.
Usenet also played an integral role in the growth of the popularity of
the Internet, said Dietolf Ramm, professor emeritus of computer science. At the time, a connection to the Internet was not only expensive but required a research contract with the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“ARPA had funded a few schools to begin the early stages of Internet,
but most schools didn’t have that,” said Ramm, who worked with the
students who developed Usenet. “Usenet was a pioneering effort because
it allowed anybody to connect and participate in communications.”
Many social aspects of online communication – from emoticons and slang
acronyms such as LOL to flame wars – originated or were popularized on
Although e-mail and other forms of online communication have largely
supplanted Usenet, it is still in use, with tens of thousands of
Indeed, Truscott – now a software developer at SAS Institute in Cary –
said he still checks Usenet daily. “In those days, there were very few
computers at Duke,” he said. “Now Usenet is just one of many choices.”
New tools – from blogs and RSS feeds to Facebook and Twitter – have made online communication more user-friendly since the days of Usenet, said Lenore Ramm, Dietolf Ramm’s daughter, who now works as an IT analyst with Duke’s Office of Information Technology (OIT).
“Applications like Twitter have made communicating easier, but the
challenges are still the same: trying to keep up with the information
flow, sorting through it all and prioritizing what information to take
in,” she said.
Like an increasing number of Internet service providers who have shut
down their newsgroup servers, Duke decided to retire its aging Usenet
server based on low usage and rising costs.
The decision prompted a handful of calls to the OIT Service Desk and
even some chatter in the blogosphere. Duke users can still access Usenet archives – the largest collection of posted online messages – through Google Groups.
More at the source (link in title), including a USENET trivia quiz, which I'll reproduce here.
Know Your Usenet History
Test your knowledge of Usenet trivia from the early days of dial-up
connections and flaming rants. Answers are below.
1. What was the first Usenet newsgroup?
2. Who were Cantor and Siegel and what service did they offer?
3. What historical event was the focus of Serder Argic's Usenet rants
4. What is a troll?
USENET lives, but it's still a sad day. I've been on USENET since 1992 and managed to rise to a position of some prominence there--Friendly Neighborhood Vote Wrangler of alt.usenet.kooks. There, I ran the longest-running, most notorious, and best organized awards on USENET from 2006-2009.
Before that, I posted the monthly summaries on alt.fan.utena from more than a year ending in 2006. Before that, I ran the gRAMDies and the Drum Corps World fan poll on rec.arts.marching.drumcorps (1996-2002 for the gRAMDies and 1993-2003 for the fan poll).
I've had more fun and opportunities at leadership on USENET than I would have believed when I first started posting.
Looks like it's time to actually write that book I've been thinking about for the past 4 years--"USENET: The world's largest functioning anarchy." USENET needs a good history from someone with inside knowledge.