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December 12, 2014

Newsgroups

Filed under: Main — admin @ 12:01 am

Before the web, before Gopher, WAIS, Archie, and the lot, people went on the Internet to review, contribute, and rant about newsgroups.

Officially known as Usenet, the newsgroups were message boards early Internet users could subscribe to. They covered a variety of topics, from scientific research to poems to jokes to movie reviews and fan fiction. I remember back in the 1980s and early 1990s turning on my computer and reviewing my newsgroups as a way to start my computing day.

You may not have been around back then, or just lacked an Internet connection, but most early Internet software packages came with a newsgroup reader program. Unless you were a grizzled veteran of a Unix host somewhere (I was fortunate), you probably didn’t mess with newsgroups because it was a lot of text and confusion.

Newsgroups featured a hierarchical naming structure. So you’d visit comp.lang.c, or Computer Languages C, to read about C programming. Like any message system, you’d peruse topics and then view messages on those topics. You could post a reply or start a new thread.

I was a major fan of rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.moderated, Babylon 5 being my favorite TV show at the time. The creator, J. Michael Straczynski, was — yes, he himself — on that forum and would answer questions and provide insights. It was amazing connectivity.

I had one of those 10-foot “Montana State Flower” TV satellite dishes back in the 1990s. I would watch the raw upload of Babylon 5 every week, seeing the episode before anyone else. Well, seeing it before people with regular cable TV service.

The Usenet newsgroups came in two flavors. The majority were text feeds. Yep, just wall after wall of text. Some of them would be pretty hot too: The Star Trek forums were rife with college sophomores desperately using what little they knew of physics to try to explain Warp Factor 2.

Trolls were around back then, often starting a “flame war” between opposing camps. They would begin their messages with the tag /FLAME ON and then end with /FLAME ON. It’s a practice you often see echoed on today’s blogs.

The second newsgroup flavor was binary. The NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) didn’t handle raw binary data, only text. So binary files were translated into text by using a coder/decoder. If you were fortunate, the decoder was part of your newsgroup reader software. Otherwise, you had to save the message text and then use a separate program to decode and create the binary file. And sometimes the files came in several parts, which had to be stitched together.

What was the most popular type of binary newsgroup file? Why, porn of course. That’s right. Before the web, porn was found on Usenet newsgroups.

I read somewhere that the last NNTP (newsgroup protocol) server went offline about 10 years ago. That makes sense. The Web, Facebook, blogs, and other outlets have provided a lot of the services offered via Usenet and the newsgroups. But back in the day, the newsgroups were a big deal if you were on the Internet.

5 Comments

  1. Ahh, Dial up internet!, Back in the day when my friends and I had Amigas, one of got hold of a 600 or 1200 modem. I think it was a 600 Baud modem many hours of staring at white text on black screen slowly appearing only to break when the phone line was picked up else where in the house. It was character building!

    Comment by glennp — December 12, 2014 @ 4:46 am

  2. I don’t know of an ISP that includes Usenet any more, but you can still get free (non-binary) Usenet from services such as eternal-september.org. I still follow a handful of newsgroups, but I have yet to find a good newsgroup reader that works on current versions of OS X.

    Comment by Matthew Reed — December 12, 2014 @ 6:52 am

  3. Thanks for the tip, Matthew Reed!

    GlennP, even as a young adult who could not afford it, I paid for that second phone line for exactly the reasons you mentioned! Call Waiting was the worst.

    Comment by admin — December 12, 2014 @ 7:27 am

  4. I used to spend a lot of time on usenet right before it died out around 2000. The problem with usenet is most of the newsgroups are not moderated so they get automated spam which cannot be removed. There are still hundreds if not thousands of free usenet servers on the internet you can log into. But for me it is just easier to use a web interface like gmane I dont have to download feeds. Internet forums have pretty much made usenet obsolete. I think the internet did not really catch on till the early 90s, the majority of people were still using bbs then, so they only chatted on their bbs and had no connectivity to the outside.

    Comment by BradC — December 12, 2014 @ 2:03 pm

  5. Anyone old enough to use the old MSG system? I think it was UCSD MSG, a message board similar to Usenet but not Usenet.

    Comment by admin — December 12, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

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