The Great Renaming – Part III

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Part 3 – Breaking of the Backbone Cabal

A number of simultaneous events rendered the Backbone Cabal irrelevant. The most important was the increased use of NNTP around this same time. Usenet’s use of Internet made it easier to ignore what the Backbone news admins thought. Acording to Reid, the Backbone started to decline when he and Richard Sexton snuck the site “gryphon” into the backbone. It was arranged to get “gryphon,” a 386 PC in Greg Laskin’s living room in Los Angeles, to get news feed from “famous and important” backbone sites and thus put into the official backbone map.

Also, the new procedures set up after the Great Renaming led to a challenge by “readers” against the “privileged” positions of the admins. In the years right before the Great Renaming, a new group would be created after a subject had sufficient traffic on an existing group, or arbitararily. Then the Cabal would figure out the name and create it. The Cabal was strongest during this period: backbone sites refused to carry groups they considered stupid.

The new procedure went something like this, according to Greg Woodbury. Someone proposed a newsgroup and then the Cabal talked about the potentials of/for the new group. The Cabal defined a name for the group, and after asking the views of other admins, would then create the group.

“There were often votes. Many things didn’t really interest them, but they wanted evidence that the precious namespace wasn’t wasted,” Wiener said.

This original system eventually became the proposal and “vote” scheme of the Big *. Holding votes was a way to make people shut up if a group was unpopular. Even though there is no one “in control” of Usenet, the voting system is the closest thing to a government it has. Although voting had existed long before the Great Renaming, according to Wiener, it was much more informal, with neither an offical ending time nor count requirements.

The current voted format was laid down around right before the Great Renaming, but not used until 1987. Once the voting mechanism was in place, the individual opinions of the backbone-site admins no longer mattered much.

Lastly, Usenet’s changing makeup was involved. Adams was given a loan by USENIX to set up a non-profit Usenet site. Eventually this became UUnet and thus as a commercial entity existing to distribute news, had every reason _to_ carry all of alt.* .

During the Cabal’s last days, its death was quickened by the “comp.women” debacle, as it was later known. In summer 1988, a moderated, technical issues and women newsgroup was proposed. Its creation became the subject of a massive flame war because its supporters wanted to put it in the comp.* groups for better propagation. Opponents noted this hierarchy was devoted to far more technical things. “Proponents noted that comp.risks and comp.society were often non-technical,” Wiener said. After *much* discussion John F. Haugh created a “comp.society.women” via a forged control message, out of exasperation. Strangly, Wiener remembers these events differently. “There was a vote–for that very name–and the newsgroup passed, and then Rick Adams refused to issue the newgroup for it,” he said. According to Haugh, this was no big deal if you had a well-connected UUCP machine. “And I had 50+ UUCP neighbors at the time,” Haugh notes. Haugh got a great deal of flamage for doing so, partly due to the content of his first post to the group.

“…it was basically a very sarcastic dig aimed straight at Gene Spafford and the rest of the Backbone Cabal,” Haugh said Yet because it was sarcasm, “there was some question about the actual meaning and many took the posting as being patronizing,” he said. Anyway, the group came to life after it was created.

About a month or so after the comp.society.women debate, the backbone mailing list having gone almost entirely silent, Spaf announced he was going to shut it down. It had become silent because very few people were using dialup UUCPnet links any more. A few months after _that_, it was observed that the list had become /dev/null. The Cabal’s last act, according too Jim Jewett, was to ” sanction Ed Vielmetti’s rush creation of comp.sys.next.” Regardless, the Backbone Cabal was dead, and the “Usenet Cabal” myth was born.

Richard Sexton and Usenet’s consitutional crisis

Yet, in a way, things did not change all that much. After the death of the Backbone Cabal, Spaf was installed as the new group creation “Tsar.” Spaf’s place in Usenet culture cannot be overstressed, even though his famus “Burn out letter” was posted in the early 90’s.

One of the biggest events during Spaf’s post-Backbone Cabal days was the 1989 aquarium reorganization controversy, which is the closest to a constitutional crisis Usenet will ever get. Richard Sexton noticed at some point that there was no newsgroup for tropical fish afficionados. He posted to rec.pets, but only got 2 responses in 6 months. He thus proposed a group for aquaria. When the vote failed by a 10% margin, Bob Webber created alt.aquaria. Soon, the group was getting about 40 posts a day but because it was in alt.* it did not have great distibution and was not read in Europe. Readers of the group generally belived that the subject should be mainstreamed via a rec.* group.

Yet Sexton decided he disagreed. A vote for sci.military had recently been successful and Sexton reasoned, “if killing people was a science then so was keeping tropical fish; besides, sci.aquaria would make it to Europe,” Sexton says in the Net.Legends FAQ.

Following the newsgroup creation guidelines of the time, a discussion was held for two weeks on the group, and popular opinion was very much against it. Yet the discussion phase was non-binding so Sexton went ahead and called the vote anyway. At this point, the Backbone Cabal came back for one last fight. Sexton got a lot of his ex-Cabal friends to skillfully forge yes votes and the group passed 938 to 727. The forgeries went undetected and Spaf created the group, although many sites either refused to honor the newsgroup or forwarded its traffic into one of the other *.aquaria groups. It was at this point that newsgroup creation rules were changed.

(The 2/3 rule came about after comp.protocols.tcp-ip.eniac passed, according to Wiener.)

Yet even this is not the end. Given that Usenet behaves almost like a living thing, it is very likely the current rules will be changed as needed. Stay tuned.

Thanks Many thanks to the following, for without them this thing would not exist. I’m afriad it’s taken me so long to get around to updating this document that I may have forgotten some people along the way. If you feel this is so, please remind me to put you on it.
James “Kibo” Parry , [email protected], David Lawrence([email protected]), [email protected] [email protected], [email protected] (John G Dobnick), [email protected] “Bengt Larsson, [email protected] (J. Porter Clark), Gregory G. “Wolfe” Woodbury, ([email protected]), [email protected] (Mark Brader), [email protected] (Ed Falk), [email protected] csd.uwm.edu (John G Dobnick), [email protected] (Tom Lane), [email protected], [email protected] (Melinda Shore),[email protected] (D. Glenn Arthur Jr.), [email protected] (Ran Atkinson), [email protected] (Tom Wilson), [email protected] uth.tmc.edu (Jay Maynard), [email protected] (jamie andrews), Henry Edward Hardy [email protected], [email protected]

Appendix:
UUCP/USENET Logical Map  -   June 1, 1981 / mods by S. McGeady 11/19/81

            (ucbvax)
+=+===================================+==+
| |                                   |  |
| |                wivax              |  |
| |                  |                |  |
| |         microsoft| uiucdcs        |  |
| |  genradbo      | | |  |           |  |           (Tektronix)
| |     |          | | |  | purdue    |  |
| decvax+===+=+====+=+=+  | |         |  |
|       |   | |      |    | | pur-phy |  |                        tekmdp
|       |   | |      |    | |     |   |  |                           |
+@@@@@@cca  | |      |    | |     |   |  |                           |
|       |   | |  +=pur-ee=+=+=====+===+  |                           |
|    csin   | |  |   |                   |                           |
|           |
+==o===+===================+==+========+=======+====teklabs=+
|           |    |
|
|           |    |                    pdp phs   grumpy  wolfvax
|
|           |    |                     |   |      |        |
|
|           | cincy                unc=+===+======+========+
|
|           |   |        bio       |
|
|           |   |  (Misc) |        |            (Misc)
|
|           |   | sii  reed        |    dukgeri duke34  utzoo
|
|           |   |  |    |          |         |   |       |
|
|      +====+=+=+==+====++======+==++===duke=+===+=======+==+=========+
|
|      |      |    |     |      |   |                       |         |
| u110
|    bmd70  ucf-cs ucf   | andiron  |                       |         |
|   |
|                        |          |                       |         |
|   |
|                  red   |          |                       |         |
| pyux
|                   |    |          |     zeppo             |         |
|   |
|       psupdp---psuvax  |          |       |               |         |
|   |
|                   |    |          | alice |   whuxlb      | utah-cs |
| houx
|                allegra |          | |     |     |         |   |     |
|   |
|                     |  |          | |     |     |         |   |
+--chico---+
|                 +===+=mhtsa====research   |   /=+=======harpo=+==+     |
|
|                 |   |  |  |               |  /            |            |
|
|               hocsr |  |  +=+=============+=/           cbosg---+      |
|
|    ucbopt           |  |    |                             |     |
esquire |
|       :             |  |    |                           cbosgd  |
|
|       :             |  |    |                                   |
|
|    ucbcory          |  | eagle==+=====+=====+======+=====+      |
|
|       :             |  |  |     |     |     |      |     |      |
+-uwvax--+
|       :             |  |  |   mhuxa mhuxh mhuxj mhuxm mhuxv     |  |
|       :             |  |  |                                     |  |
|       :             |  |  |        +----------------------------o--+
|       :             |  |  |        |                            |
|    ucbcad           |  |  |      ihpss    mh135a                |
|       :             |  |  |        |         |                  |
|       :             \--o--o------ihnss----vax135----cornell     |
|       :                |  |        |         |                  |
+=+==ucbvax==========+===+==+=+======+=======+=+========+=========+
  (UCB) :            |        |              |          | (Silicon valley)
     ucbarpa      cmevax      |              |        menlo70--hao
        :                     |              |        |    |
     ucbonyx                  |              |        |   sri-unix
                              |           ucsfcg1     |
                              |              |        |
Legend:                       |              |      sytek====+========+
-------                       |              |               |        |
- | / \ + + Uucp           sdcsvax=+=======+=+======+     intelga
zehntel
=           "Bus"                  |       |        |
o           jumps               sdcarl  phonlab  sdcattb
:           Berknet
@           Arpanet
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

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