By Lee S. Bumgarner
(14-Jan-2006 Note – Dan Flood – There is now a Wikipedia article regarding this, which complements this faq. I cannot find this FAQ anywhere on the net these days. )
In the 20 odd years of its existence a rich culture has evolved around the use of the Net. Over the years, silent battles have been won and lost outside the awareness of the rest of the world. For years, the only disruption to the Net’s culture was the yearly influx of clueless newbies in September caused by thousands of college freshmen discovering the Net for the first time. Eventually these newbies assemilated in the general Net.Culture.
Sometime in 1993 this changed. Large numbers of people who knew little or nothing about Net.Culture started to use it, in numbers far exeeding the ablity of oldbies to control them.The widespread use of Frequently Asked Questions lists was largely the result of this inrush.
Among one of the more important events to take place during this “Golden Age” of Usenet was the Great Renaming. After all was said and done, we were left with, for the most part, the current organization of groups that we know today. Although much of what is known about the 1986-87 Great Renaming of Usenet is lost to the mists of time, this FAQ hopes to give some insight into the events surrounding it. This document’s format take inspiration from David DeLaney’s seminal Net.Legends FAQ, 2nd Ed. ( And will make more sense if you read it first) Thus the actual 5W&H are alluded to rather than written.
One should be able to download, print out and read this FAQ over dinner. Thus this FAQ hopes to give a concise, readable history of the events around the Great Renaming. Things interlinked with the Great Renaming, like the orgins of the mythical Usenet Cabal and the great ” comp.women” debacle are also explained. This FAQ sources are a November 1994 thread in comp.society.folklore, email to the author, Henry Edward Hardy’s study of net.culture and an article in the Net. Send all links, flames, faint praise or just a hello to Lee S. Bumgarner. Also, if you are reading this due to a link, make sure to stop by the rest of Undertoad while you are here.
Apparently, the first time anything like Usenet was ever used was during the price and wage controls of the early 70’s. It was a way for the government to make sure all the controls were uniform. However, it would not be until the late 70’s that Usenet was actually born. Usenet was created in late 1979 as the Unix User Network when Duke University graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, decided to connect computers together in order for the Unix community to communicate. The first two sites were “unc” and “duke,” computers another graduate student Steve Bollovin had installed his news software on. From this point word spread and Usenet began to grow quickly.
Usenet in the early 80’s was an obscure computer network made up of academics and Unix users. At least one AT&T employee seems to have though it was owned by them, because one source reported a post saying something about a light in the AT&T parking lot. According to Tom Geller in the Net Magazine, the first three newsgroups were net.general, net.v7bugs and net.test. The old system could be the possible origin of Usenet’s other name, “netnews.” It didn’t take long, however, for non-technical newsgroups to show up, and this eventually caused problems.
The mythological “Usenet Cabal,” often referred to jokingly during debates over new newsgroups, actually existed in the form of the “Backbone Cabal.” Gene “father of the Backbone” began a listserv in 1983 made up of group of site admins and their close friends devoted to encouraging stable news and mail software. The Cabal’s power came from the technology Usenet was using at the time. During these early years of Usenet, UUCP, a point-to-point connection protocol, was Usenet’s only communication method. NNTP, which would allow news traffic over ARPAnet, (Internet’s foremother) had yet to become widely used. Although the systems were connected, they were not as interdependent as Internet and Usenet are today.
Usenet had the form of a graph (in the graph-theory sense). “Network maps” were produced from time to time. (See appendix.) Eventually huge Postscript files were made showing how big Usenet had gotten. On such a diagram you can choose to emphasize a set of lines forming a path through the hosts. Usenet’s “backbone” was simply a group of hosts whose admins agreed to form such a connected set. They further agreed to to devote whatever resources were necessary to carry all the Usenet traffic and to pass it on promptly.
Other, non-backbone, sites might wait until night, when their machines were less busy, to pass news along. During these early years, a news feed depended greatly on who you knew. A lot of people got feed because of the generosity of Bill Shannon and Armando Stenttner who ran “decvax” at Digital (DEC). During its heyday, the average post arriving on any given machine would likely have been sent through a Backbone computer, because the backbone enabled it to arrive quicker than any other link. Without the Backbone, Usenet propagation would be incredibly delayed or just expire before it could be transmitted. This actually happened when a key site like the AT&T machine in Naperville, IL, known as “ihnp4”, through which almost 100% of news flowed from the West Coast went down.
By 1986, Usenet was experiencing some growing pains. The original scheme of just three worldwide hierarchies – net.* for unmoderated groups, mod.* for moderated groups and fa.* for ‘from ARPAnet’ – was becoming difficult to administer. The fairly haphazard way in which new names were developed – at one point one could create a group simply by posting to it (several were created due to typos) – only made things worse. (This haphazard scheme frequently still exists for local newsgroups.)
Things came to a head when one particular net.god, future UUnet founder and Bill Gates pal Rick Adams, decided something must be done. Adams, site admin for “seismo,” at the Center for Seismic Studies in northern Virginia, was powerful for a number of reasons. Among them was seismo’s status as the only link to Europe from the US.
The Great Renaming discussion began in part because transmitting news was quite expensive in those days and the Europeans refused to pay for the fluff groups like net.religion and net.flame. According to a post by Joe Buck, Adams proposed a “talk” hierarchy for the high flame groups. As the Great Renaming discussion progressed, it was generally understood that if a group was put in talk.* instead of soc.* it would not be as widely propagated. According to Buck, “The idea was that he could simply put ‘!talk’ in the configuration file for each connected site that didn’t want these groups.”
According to the soc.culture.jewish FAQ, the group’s name is an example of this. Orginally “net.religion.jewish,” it was generally believed during the Great Renaming discussion that renaming it “talk.religion.jewish” would be detrimental to the group’s success. This problem was solved by proposing the group be placed in the soc.culture.* hierarchy.
Due to Usenet’s structural conservatism, Adams had to threaten to pull out of Usenet altogether before people took notice. Thus, through default, the task of the Great Renaming was given to the Backbone Cabal. The Great Renaming started July 1986 and ended in March 1987, according to Henry Edward Hardy’s history. Spaf and fellow net.legend Chuq von Rospach (the author of “A Primer on How to Work With the Usenet Community”) were among the people involved with this initial discussion on the mailing list.
Some worried that the Backbone Cabal, which was made up of a small group of male computer experts in their 20’s and 30’s, would be deciding the newsgroups names for the entire, diverse Usenet community. In responce, the Cabal and its cronies often reiterated a magic phrase: “Usenet works by the golden rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.” In other words, they would refused to pay the long-distance transmission charges for groups they didn’t like. Matthew P Wiener, (email@example.com), remembers differently. “Actually, they were quite reasonable about the whole thing,” he posted.
Much of the debate centered on ways in which the wider Usenet community could somewhat support the backbone financially, so everyone could keep getting the groups they wanted. In the end, no one thought anything like that would work. Also, various people also proposed schemes for cutting down volume but that, too, was thought unlikely to work.
As the Great Renaming discussion progressed, a current list of proposed new newsgroups was posted to net.news several times along the way. However, protests by a few vocal people forced “a dozen or two dozen changes made from the original lists.changes,” according to Wiener. One of the big debates of the Great Renaming had been whether there should be a “drugs” newsgroup *anywhere*; this putative newsgroup was the example people used of a group that sysadmins would never be able to convince their bosses to support. Usenet at the time was a very low key affair and Sysadmins feared drawing any undue attention to Usenet in general. They feared if their bosses became aware of a drug newsgroup, it would mean the end of their Usenet feed altogether.
According to Wiener, “Years and years before (early ’80s), there had been a similar debate about net.gay. After a long and bitter debate, the famous net.motss compromise was reached. The rec.drugs debate sparked some creative names.”
In any event, under the direction of the direction of the Cabal, the Great Renaming happened and comp, misc, news, rec, sci, soc, talk, setup was created.