Online Discussion Post-Usenet

An event perhaps long overdue, today May 20, 2010 is the day Duke University will shut down the Internet’s first discussion forum. The “Users Network” or its more recognizable name ‘Usenet’ was started in 1979, and evolved to more than 120,000 newsgroups on almost every subject imaginable.

We could call Usenet the Twitter of yesteryear, and that wouldn’t be too far off. But even as we say good-bye, I see attributes in Usenet that are still somewhat unique. Will we ever see the Internet offer a single source and location of global discussion? It’s not likely.

I also find it interesting how the service persisted and was valued by many groups into the early 2000’s, even as the world wide web was splintering discussions. The subsequent technology of discussion forums added a host of new and valuable features, but required Internet users to discover their existence.

Group discussion has started to open back up again with blogging and social media, but we’ve lost almost almost all subject arrangement. Even huge services like Twitter today can’t replicate the same wider scale open topical discussions. The use of #hashtag discussions, for example, is in desperate need of a re-vamp. At least Usenet had permanent archived repositories so you could re-visit past threaded discussions.

Two more points:

  • Usenet was perhaps the first Internet tool to die from spam. We managed to adapt email technology, but Usenet never recovered. If you ever begin to wonder why people on the Internet hate commercial messages, remember how some very good tools have been thrown under the spam bus.
  • Saying outrageous things online has always worked. Read the part in the above story about how the term ‘troll’ originated with Usenet. An individual’s credibility is undermined just as much today as it was then, but trolling works.

Usenet may not have been the perfect online discussion venue, but for a period of time… it worked pretty well.


  1. David Cheifetz


    So much for the … world, fortunately, the newsgroups are archived on Google Groups.

    One failing of the WWW is the death of OLR software, which created coherent message threads connecting message and reply. People who used Compuserve, for example, before and after it went public rue the loss of that threading ability. The operators of the new platform promised a real time equivalent. Never happened.

    As you know, USENET adapted “troll” to apply to the drop-by dive-bombers who visited just to cause fights, by “translating” the assumed visual and mental ugliness of the fantasy troll so that the decribed certain USENET types.

    And, USENET is the reason for the existence of Godwin’s Law.