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Somehow, Usenet lumbers on

It's been spurned, scorned and spammed, yet somehow Usenet lumbers on. And if you're not cheering, you've probably never heard of Usenet.

Usenet is an online bulletin board. Actually, it is 100,000 or so bulletin boards, each dedicated to a particular subject. For instance, ''comp.sys.mac" caters to fans of Apple Computer Inc. computers, while ''alt.tv.alias" is for people who never miss an episode of the popular secret-agent TV show.

The Usenet is a kind of peer-to-peer network. The messages are stored on thousands of computers which constantly update each other. Post a message to a particular bulletin board, and your Usenet server sends a copy to every other server. Meanwhile, your server receives all of the messages sent to every other server on the network. Viewing the messages on your desktop requires ''newsreader" software; the Outlook Express program found on every Windows PC will do the job.

Founded in 1979 at Duke University, Usenet was for many years a favorite hangout of scholars and computer buffs. Then came September 1993, the infamous month when America Online offered Usenet access to its subscribers. Back then only about 1.5 million people used AOL, but that was enough to transform Usenet from an electronic Harvard Yard to Skagway, Alaska, during the Yukon gold rush. The newbies crowded in, asking dumb questions and hurling digital insults. Horrified, the original Usenetters began moving toward the exits. By 1994, a full-fledged exodus had begun, thanks to two people whose names still inspire revulsion among Internet veterans. Lawrence Canter and Martha Siegel, two immigration attorneys in Phoenix, posted advertisements on thousands of Usenet newsgroups, generating so much traffic that some Usenet server computers crashed. Usenetters soon coined a term for this sort of posting: spam.

The plague has since spread to our e-mail boxes, but Usenet spam has also gotten worse. Many of Usenet's thousands of bulletin boards contain little else. No wonder once-faithful users defected to e-mail lists and Web forums. The Web soon scooped up most of the newbies, as well, so that few of them have sampled the soiled delights of Usenet. The final insult came early this year, when AOL, whose users had ravaged Usenet like a Mongol horde, announced it would no longer connect to the service. They'd helped make the place a desert, and then called it quits.

But more than a few green shoots are popping up out of the ruins.

In 1996, a typical day's worth of Usenet posting was a sizable 4.5 gigabytes. Today, the network handles nearly 450 times as much data, or 2 terabytes a day. If relatively few people know about Usenet, what's driving all the traffic?

Piracy. The Usenet's long been used to swap digital photos; today, file traders deal in music and movies, as well. You can't directly post these files on Usenet, but special software breaks up the illicit files and encodes them in a compatible format. A similar program lets Usenetters download and reassemble the files. A quick visit to one such bulletin board revealed stolen copies of ''The Omen," ''Chicken Run," ''Dances With Wolves," and, inevitably, ''Star Wars Episode III."

Disgraceful. But there's plenty of admirable activity on Usenet as well, much of it sponsored by the public-spirited altruists at Microsoft Corp. In 1993, the company launched its Most Valuable Professional program on the online service CompuServe. Microsoft MVPs were experienced users who volunteered their time to provide online technical support. In exchange, Microsoft gave the MVPs some free software, an annual get-together at company headquarters, and a pat on the back.

Microsoft moved the MVP program to Usenet in 1996, and it's been thriving ever since. There was a hiccup in 1999, when the company toyed with the idea of withdrawing its sponsorship. Then somebody in the bureaucracy realized how many millions of dollars the MVPs were saving the company in tech support costs, and salvaged the program.

Back then there were about 600 MVPs. Today, there are 2,800. Together, they constitute a superb resource.

One of them, Doug Knox of Tewksbury, works as a field engineer for Velocita Wireless LP. But off duty, he spends up to three hours a day on Usenet, answering questions. He started in 1998, helping users of Windows 98 software. ''An existing MVP put my name in for consideration and I've been an MVP ever since," Knox said. Today, he's a specialist in Microsoft's Windows Media Center PC software, which among other things, enables a computer to record and play TV shows.

Alas, Microsoft has begun to shift some of its MVP resources away from Usenet, to Web logs and Web-based bulletin boards. It's not exactly a bad idea, but Usenet offers a major advantage: permanence. Blogs and Web boards come and go. But the Web search company Google maintains a searchable index of virtually all Usenet postings; it's under ''Groups" on the main page. That means every time a Usenet-based MVP answers a question, his response is preserved.

Microsoft does by far the best job of providing Usenet-based tech support, but there's plenty more if you know where to look, as well as amusement and good conversation. And, yes, rubbish too. Usenet isn't the tidiest neighborhood, but a decade after Hurricane AOL blew in, it's still standing.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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