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USENET may go away

Roy Bragg (San Antonio Express News) -- Back in the Web's Dark Ages, before flashy graphics, broadband connections and real-time anything -- when baud rates were low and Internet penetration was lower -- there was USENET.

Picture a geek, alone in a dorm room or in a cluttered upstairs bedroom that's illuminated only by the green glow of a monochrome screen.

The geek pecks away at a clunky computer keyboard.

The computer hums. The modem blips. The geek sits back and waits.

That was the Internet in years preceding 1994, before Web browsing and streaming media took off. Around the world, a handful of early surfers -- actually, "surfing" wasn't even a term back then -- communicated via USENET's text-only, wait-and-see message system.

They'd write. Days would pass. Someone answered. More days passed. The answer would be answered. Then that would be answered. And so on.

Devoid of graphics, sex appeal, and immediacy, USENET was the Internet's version of cave paintings.

But now, like the fragile images on cave walls, progress threatens USENET.

MSN (msn.com), Microsoft's online service, announced in February that it was eliminating access to USENET for its members, saying chat rooms and message boards serve the same purpose.

Remarq (remarq.com), another Web-based USENET site, was bought in January by Critical Path, which plans to turn it into a fee-based service.

Though USENET has grown in size and choice, its legacy as a free, always open, forum is threatened. Advocates of the system blame commercialization, technological innovation, spamming and the lack of government supervision as the main threats to this virtual soap box.

"A lot of people have found there are better platforms and better places to exchange and get information," said Ariel Poler, the founder and chief executive of Topica (topica.com), a Web site that e-mails content to subscribers. "A lot of people have been turned off by the time lag and the noise of USENET."

"Having said that," Poler said, chuckling, "there's still some really good stuff out there on USENET."

Such as how to monkey with the wiring of your cellular phone. Or tricks to make your computer perform better. Or the lyrics to the theme song from the '60s sitcom "My Mother The Car." Or places to find information about disease or medical conditions. Or where to find authentic Turkish furniture.

Odds are that if you need it, it's somewhere on USENET.

The system had its beginnings with the Advanced Research Projects Agency network, or ARPANET, which was developed in the early 1960s by the military and research universities as a way of decentralizing important communications.

It remained the province of the government and research universities. By 1977, it had expanded to more than 50 college campuses across the nation.

In 1979, Duke University graduate students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, using the UNIX language developed by AT&T's Bell Labs, came up with the idea for the NetNews, which would link all of the various machines on different networks around the nation.

"An online community grew up around it," said Ronda Hauben, author of "Netizens: An Anthology," a history of the Web's early days. "People would contribute to it, building the body of something that would be valuable for everyone to have."

More universities joined. New protocols and networks joined the fray, and it became known as USENET.

Soon, it became so big that a reorganization was in order. Network administrators came up with a system of hierarchies, which was drawn up as a way of classifying messages.

"Comp" was the name given to computer-related information, such as comp.sys.psion.apps, which would be a group dedicated to discussion of programs for the Psion computer operating system.

"Rec" is the term used for recreational material, such as "rec.games.video.sega," where Sega users can discuss that company's video games.

There's "sci" for scientific information and "soc" for discussions of a sociological nature.

"Alt" covers a lot of everything else, from "alt.music.polkas" to "alt.binaries.activism.militia" to "alt.cheese."

"It is a very wide open set of forums where you can find sessions on practically any conceivable topic," said David Ritz, a Milwaukee-based writer. As such, it's become a real boon to communications. People like to get together and share their interests. Or you can do verbal battle over a subject that matters most to you."

People buy, sell, and trade anything on USENET. And they say anything, too.

But that lack of regulation comes with a price, said Ritz.

"It is certainly open to abuse," he said. "Abuses go on all the time. Spamming is particularly bad." Spamming is the mass e-mailing of unsolicited sales pitches.

Ritz estimates that up to 10 percent of Internet connection costs are attributable to spam.

Hauben, the Net historian, said a bigger threat comes from the lack of government involvement in the Internet and the commercialization of Web resources.

She likened it to NASA's support of space exploration -- without government involvement, space research would be nil.

"There's a public interest that has to be maintained and scientific interest that has to be maintained," she said, adding that commercial entities have no motivation beyond profit to keep obscure parts of the Internet -- such as USENET -- up and running.

But that might not solve the problem. It could be that USENET has simply outlived its usefulness and will be replaced by more user-friendly discussion services, such as chat rooms and Web-based message boards.

Another USENET veteran said there are better ways to communicate.

Chat rooms and message boards, like USENET, speak to the basic mission of the Internet, which is to bring a diverse and scattered population closer together by letting them exchange ideas, said Michael Van Vleet, senior content manager at Yack (yack.com), a chat-focused portal.

"It's less a matter of personal choice and more a reflection of the technology," Van Vleet said. With USENET, "the worst part is waiting a day or two and finding that no one has responded."

"The lag doesn't destroy conversations," he said. "It's a break from the 'message-in-a-bottle' technology of USENET."

(c) 2001 San Antonio Express-News

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