How everyone ruined the Internet

If you weren't up past your bedtime spilling wine on your Performa in 1994, then you probably weren't on Usenet reading alt.gothic's "Most Gothic Way to..." epic threads on the same. Usenet predated the World Wide Web by over a decade, well before Mosaic was a glimmer in Marc Andreessen's eye. But the advent of the Web certainly boded Usenet's end. If you used the distributed collection of special-interest newsgroups to follow the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 flame wars and octo-hentai binaries, then you likely had an email address ending in .edu and a lot of time to spend late at night in the comp-sci lab. (Think FriendFeed is overwhelming? Try the chatty Cathys over in comp.os.minix.) It all seems like half a lifetime ago. That's what seems so unbelievable about politicians' crusade against child porn on Usenet — my first reaction was to wonder if it was really still around. It is — and, surprisingly, Usenet still has its uses.

Binaries, newsgroups that are 99.99 percent there for the exchange of images, music, video, and software, are what remain controversial, long after Usenet's heyday. These are the newsgroups that Google, despite its claim to index all the world's information, doesn't host on Google Groups. (The search engine got in on Usenet years ago by buying DejaNews's archive in its first-ever acquisition.) Usenet's also taken a hit from countless campaigns to block pirated software and entertainment (yeah, warez and pr0n) which has made Internet service providers think twice about offering them, even if throwing in newsgroup access sounds like a nice way to justify the $23.90 a month they want from hardcore dial-up users.

The core eight Usenet hierarchies — comp.*, humanities.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.*, and talk.* — are generally more restrained than the nostalgically anarchic alt.* hierarchy, which hosts just about everything else anyone bored and passionate wants to rail on about. Sex with people who get off on being furniture? Killing Wesley Crusher? Religions based on other crap found only on Usenet? Alt.* was moribund, drowned with spam long before Internet service providers soured on the business.

You can still sign up for independent access through some enterprising Web services — which are wooing new users with discounts after alt.* groups were blocked thanks to New York attorney general Andrew Cuomo's anti-child-porn campaign. But pegging your company PR to child porn inclusivity seems like a nonstarter. No wonder most attempts to make money off Usenet have failed miserably.

The legacy Usenet leaves behind is that some of the worst blowhard behaviors online were born there, too, and still won't die. The kids Twittering their gripes in public today probably had parents who replied-all "I don't see why this is news" on Usenet a decade ago. But for anyone who was on Usenet in its brief halcyon days, sad or not, these are the blocks of amber that preserve an Internet before their moms showed up. Before everybody showed up. At least we can all agree on one thing: The Internet was so much better when we were the only people on it.

(Photo via Punk Vixen [not me in high school])