Oct 31 2008

End of an Era, or Just a Break?

Last month, Comcast, my Internet provider, dropped its Usenet service.  I’ve been meaning to write about Usenet and its decline ever since Joey did, so this seems like a good time.  It wasn’t any big surprise; ISPs have been running away from Usenet ever since the feds said they could be held liable for illegal files passing through their servers.  Since a large part of the data passing through Usenet is pornography and pirated software and entertainment, and customers who actually used Usenet for anything legal were becoming scarce anyway, it didn’t really make sense for them to keep providing it.  I suspect most ISPs would have dropped it a long time ago, if not for one old sysadmin keeping it running out of stubbornness or nostalgia.

In its heyday, Usenet was simply awesome.  If you weren’t online in the early 90s, you have to realize that communications for most people were so slow that you could read data faster than it came across your screen.  I used to search the net for files by sending off an “Archie” search by email and getting the results back the next day.  There was no world-wide web; so other than Usenet newsgroups, the main things people did on the net were sending e-mail, getting files from FTP servers, and chatting on IRC.  (IRC deserves its own article.)  Everything was slow.  But with your own Usenet server, regularly pulling a feed from a neighbor and storing it locally, you could have thousands of worldwide discussion groups on nearly every topic imaginable right there on your local network, where access was more-or-less instant.

Usenet predates the Internet, so you didn’t even have to be connected full-time to use it.  People set up modem and radio connections to stream Usenet feeds into their networks.  It gave them a way to have conversations with people all over the world on all sorts of topics—not in real time, by any means; but fast enough that the conversation continued every day and you could get useful information out of it.  And all this was done with software that hasn’t changed much in 30 years, and hardware that was long since tossed in the garbage.

Nowadays, though, the main reason for running your own Usenet server is gone: pulling information from across the globe usually doesn’t take any more apparent time than pulling it from down the hall.  So ISP’s were farming out the service anyway.  Comcast was paying Giganews to provide Usenet to its customers, and who knows where Giganews’s servers are located.

But Usenet, like FTP, IRC, and other services, has been becoming more and more of a backwater anyway as the web has gotten more useful.  “Newsgroups” (or “groups,” as Usenet’s discussion forums were also called) that used to be full of interesting, on-topic conversation have dried up as web-based forums drew most of the traffic.  The St. Louis Blues group, alt.sports.hockey.nhl.stl-blues, dried up when a St. Louis newspaper started a Blues web forum that got popular.  And so it went.  With most new Internet users knowing nothing but the web, Usenet has become a hangout for those of us who have been online 10 years or more.  But that makes it less useful even for us, because most of the people we might want to talk to, whether we’re arguing politics or trying to get help fixing our car engine, are discussing those topics on the web somewhere.  So even we old-timers drift away and use it less.

It’s a shame, because Usenet worked so well.  No web forum has come close to it yet for ease of use.  With a basic Usenet newsreader, I could access thousands of discussion groups through the same interface, follow conversation threads, post to any of them, create my posts in whatever editor I liked, have it ignore the posters and threads I’m not interested in, and more.  In 2003, I posted 2043 messages to Usenet, containing over 300,000 words.  Most of it, I probably wouldn’t recognize if I saw it now (but I have it all saved), but it seemed important at the time—or at least fun.

Now, if I want to keep using Usenet, I’ll have to pay Giganews or some other provider for an account.  They don’t cost much, but honestly, I hadn’t been using it much in the last year anyway.  Most of my favorite groups had dried up, and the ones that hadn’t yet, like alt.support.diet.low-carb, were mainly the same old group of people running out of things to say.  Some groups have been stagnant so long, the participants have beaten the group’s topic to death many times over, so they’re just old friends chatting about everything else.

So, I guess I’ll wait and see how it goes.  If I start to miss it, I’ll sign up with Giganews or someplace.  I’d hate to think I’ve made my last Usenet post—especially since it was the one where I predicted the Chiefs would go 6-10 this year!  But I don’t use gopher or Veronica or any of those other obsolete services with names much cooler than “WWW” anymore either, so I guess all good things come to an end.  Probably I’ll do without, and just end up cussing every now and then that no one can make a web forum that works as well as ‘tin’ circa 1992.

If you enjoyed this article, why not rate it and share it with your friends on Twitter, Facebook, or StumbleUpon?

GD Star Rating

WordPress Themes