Web Masters Episode #29: Tom Truscott

For most people, social media is part of the fabric of modern day life. But do you know how social media began? Find out on Web Masters when Tom Truscott shares the story of Usenet. Launched in 1979, it was the world’s first digital social network.


Usenet vs Torrent: Why Usenet is better than Torrent? | by Digital Wolf |  Medium

Caterina Fake:

When I was at Vassar, I found this amazing Usenet group of… I was really into Borges, Jorge Luis Borges at the time, and I found this amazing group of Borges scholars who had posted all this stuff on Borges in Aarhus, Denmark. And it was just mind blowing to me that I could connect with and read the papers of, and correspond with these people who are also interested in Borges in Denmark. To me, it was just phenomenal. I was a kid who always really was interested in pen pals, I always had 10 pounds when I was a young girl. And I had a pen pal who I corresponded with for a really long time in the Philippines and another one in Jamaica. And I just love this idea of communicating with people in very different worlds and very different cultures. And this experience with the Borges scholars in Denmark was truly mind blowing. After that, I was like, “I love this thing.”

Aaron Dinin:

That was Catarina Fake, founder of the pioneering photo-sharing website Flickr talking about how her love of famed literary figure, Jorge Luis Borges came from her ability to communicate with Borges scholars in Denmark via a newsgroup platform called Usenet.

David Mikkelson:

In the Usenet newsgroup alt folklore urban, it was primarily people just repeating urban legends or discussing their plausibility. But I was the one who started actually poking into, “Could we find out if some of these are true or not” like ones that involve certain celebrities. I went out and got a… It was a big, hard bound book of celebrity addresses, and I would send letters to celebrities, usually enclosing a small check for them to donate to charity, just so they wouldn’t think I was some crank fan asking them about this odd stuff, sending letters to Johnny Carson and Josh Agabor and people like that. And spending weekends at the research library at UCLA, just going through microfilm and old magazines to try and track things down rather than just discuss them, to see if we could actually find where they began and if they were originated with any real life incident. So Usenet newsgroups are ephemeral. You post stuff that goes away eventually, depending on how long the local administrator wants to keep it around. And when the web came along, I thought, “Okay, I can keep this stuff permanently instead of watching it disappear after a few weeks.” So that’s how I ended up putting it onto the web.

Aaron Dinin:

That was David Mikkelson, founder of the well-known fact checking website, snopes.com explaining how he got his start online by debunking urban legends posted in Usenet newsgroup.

Tom Truscott:

I should say one thing, and this is where I am a failed entrepreneur, is it took off in a way that I was not expecting. And actually didn’t even much appreciate the, let’s call it the social dimension. People wanted to talk about all kinds of things besides computer science and the latest programming standards, for example, or floating point arithmetic. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know about what’s going on with that? But no, they wanted to share recipes. We actually joked early on that someone would try to sell a used car that they created a newsgroup, that was what we called the categories, newsgroup, net.usedcars. We thought that was quite a laugh. It wasn’t too long before someone in New Jersey offered to sell a dinette set, a small kitchen table and chairs, and a user in Australia was asking, “Well, does that price include shipping?” But that said, perhaps people should be able to use things the way they want to.

Aaron Dinin:

And that was Tom Truscott, the man who actually invented Usenet. As you just heard, he never intended it to evolve the way it did nor did he expect it to have the influence on the world that it ultimately would, but, well, that’s how innovation works. You can control what you create, but you can’t control how people ultimately decide to use it. Are you ready to hear the story? Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

Welcome to Web Masters. This is the podcast that explores entrepreneurship by talking with some of the Internet’s most impactful early innovators. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin, I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University and I study the history of the internet. In this episode, I’m going to share a story I’ve been researching for a while. It’s the story of Usenet and one of its creators, Tom Truscott. But before I can do that, I need to take a quick moment to thank our sponsor.

This podcast is being brought to you thanks to the generous support of our partner, Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cashflow positive internet businesses and digital assets. That includes things like E-commerce stores, domain portfolios, SAS apps, content websites, and just about any other types of online work from anywhere internet business you can think of. If you’ve got a profitable internet business and you’re thinking of selling it, contact Latona’s. Their team of experts can help you market it to their huge audience of ready buyers, or if you’re interested in running an internet business but don’t want to do all the work to start one from scratch, be sure to check out the Latona’s website, latinas.com, where you’ll find a constantly changing collection of profitable internet businesses you can buy and start running immediately. That website again is latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

Way back when I interviewing people for the first episode of Web Masters, a funny thing happened. When asked to describe their earliest impactful experiences online, lots of the people I spoke with referenced Usenet. The more people I interviewed, the more I began to realize that Usenet and the communities that enabled is responsible either directly or indirectly for much of what the internet and World Wide Web have become. In fact, a lot of the concepts people closely associate with the digital world, everything from spam to flame wars to FAQ’s actually originated on Usenet. So that seems worth knowing something about, right? I also realize a lot of you listening might not have heard of Usenet, and that’s okay. If I’m being honest, I didn’t know much about Usenet either prior to starting this podcast. And that makes sense because Usenet launched in 1980, which was before I was born, and I suspect that’s true for a lot of you as well.

It was also launched more than a decade before Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. Heck the internet was still ARPANET with only a handful of nodes on it. So in case you don’t know what Usenet is, or if you only have vague recollections, it’s best to think of it as Reddit, but without the pictures. In other words Usenet is threaded messages categorized by different topics and subtopics. I’ll add to that description as the episode moves along, but hopefully it’s good enough to get us started. And to do that, I want to begin by sharing a bit more about our guest on this episode, Tom Truscott and the journey he took toward creating Usenet.

Tom Truscott:

I got into computers starting between my junior and senior years of high school. High schools back then did not have computers. In fact, universities often didn’t except for business purposes, but there was a summer science program at the University of North Carolina and I went. And they didn’t have a computer either, but we could call into one. And that was terrific. Some of us who were so interested by these things that we figured out how to leave the windows of the building open and we could sneak in at night.

Aaron Dinin:

Wait a second, so you’re telling me you were so interested in computers as a high schooler, that you basically broke into a classroom on the University of North Carolina campus in order to use one? Am I hearing that correctly?

Tom Truscott:

Oh yeah. So the summer science program had chemistry and astronomy, they have a very nice astronomy there, but they also had a class on using a computer. There were only so many hours in the day that you could use the computer when we had these other tests, but the evenings were open. So if we just arranged that the Phillips Hall building had a window to that particular classroom, it was on the ground floor I should mention, ground floor window, then we could in the evening just go over and open the window and climb into the classroom and turn on the lights and call into the computer again. No one seemed to mind.

Aaron Dinin:

And just to set the stage a bit better for the work you’d go on to do, can you describe what computers were like back then? This would have been, I guess, mid ’60s. So when you’re talking about sneaking into use a computer, you’re not talking about little desktop PCs, right?

Tom Truscott:

Yes. I think the computer wasn’t in Chapel Hill, it was in Greensboro. People didn’t have a personal computer. Your house didn’t have a computer, your college didn’t have a computer, typically most businesses did not. Computers were very expensive. They had their own buildings often and a staff to maintain them. In order to be able to afford them, they had lots of people using them. And the way they did that is they had lots of phone lines coming into that building, people could call in from their own business or school. They had a computer terminal, a teletype, sort of if you imagine a laptop except the size of a washing machine, and you have a telephone, imagine the old style with the rotary dial, there was also this special box called an acoustic coupler. And you would put the handset of the rotary dial phone into the acoustic coupler, but you’d first dial the computers number. You’d hear a whistle and put it into the coupler and the modems would whistle back and forth and then you’d be able to type on your teletype and the computer would respond. And that was how computing was done.

Aaron Dinin:

And why were you so interested in computers? What about them made you want to basically commit a felony in order to use one?

Tom Truscott:

I really like the idea of automation. Long before high school, I really wanted a machine that would do my homework for me. So actually that is sort of a quest of my life is to find the homework machine so that I can sort of set it going and it’ll do my work and computing was definitely in that category. Although it turned out to be more work to actually get the thing to do something, but still, the result is delighted.

Aaron Dinin:

I guess that’s fair. I honestly wish you had successfully invented a homework machine, I know I would have loved using it. So what happens after high school? How’d you keep feeding your hunger for computers

Tom Truscott:

I made sure that the college I went to, which was Duke University, did have a computer that we could use. At Duke, I took computer science classes to learn in a more serious way about how to use the machine. But early on, I was also doing chemistry and I had a chemistry lab partner, who was a good chess player. And I just mentioned to him that we could write a computer program that would beat the world’s chess champion. And he rather laughed at that. By the way, computers now can beat the world human champion but back then that was impossibly far away. And he thought that was a silly goal, but he became intrigued and he learned how to program computers. And we worked actually writing a computer chess program. And that actually was a major bit of work as an undergraduate. And it was also great fun. We’d traveled to San Diego for a computer chess tournament, came in third place. I guess that was the first and quite a few of there after.

Aaron Dinin:

The tournament Tom’s referring to here was the North American Chess Championships. As he mentioned, he and his team came in third place with the chess program they developed called Duchess. It’s a program that would go on to successfully compete in lots of notable national and international competitions, including winning the 1978 Jerusalem Computer Chess Tournament, and coming in third place in the 1980 World Computer Chess Championships in Linz, Austria. These chess programs were an outcropping of Tom’s early interest in computers and computer programming, even though at the time computers weren’t necessarily a well-regarded field of study.

Tom Truscott:

Computing even then was something of an odd subject. Like witchcraft, it’s best practiced at night because during the day the business people are using the machines and they’ll run more slowly. So I actually majored in physics and math. I actually also majored in computing. I just didn’t put that down.

Aaron Dinin:

However, as the computing field matured it opened new opportunities to Tom that allowed him to stay at Duke and continue pursuing his interests at the graduate level.

Tom Truscott:

I went straight from Duke undergraduate to graduate school. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. So I waited maybe a little late. Should I go into medicine? No, probably a good move on my part and on the patient’s part. Duke grad school gave me a fellowship and so I stayed at Duke and worked away. I was generally interested in artificial intelligence. A group at Duke was looking into natural language processing on our department computer and so I got somewhat involved with that. A number of interesting puzzles. Now we would call it computational complexity, but the question is how complex a program could one solve. A classic one is the traveling salesman problem where you have a map and the salesman needs to visit 50 different cities and there are different roads that the salesman can take. And the question is, what’s the shortest possible route that they could take? And one might think it’s obvious, and you can get fairly close to optimal just by guesswork on a map, but to really be perfect about it requires an enormous amount of computing, surprisingly large amount of computing. And the question is why, and is there some way around it. And the answer and by the way, in the case of traveling salesmen, is no, it’s actually seems to be inherently hard. Perhaps a quantum computer would save that for us.

Aaron Dinin:

How’d you go from those AI and quantum computing types of issues to Usenet? Was networking an important focus of the work going on inside the department, or was Usenet more of a side project?

Tom Truscott:

Maybe a reason that Usenet came about was because Duke computer science in particular was not in the, let’s call it the top tier of computer science departments. So maybe we had a chip on our shoulder, but we were not on the ARPANET nor were any of the universities in North Carolina that I know of. It was generally felt that to be on the ARPANET you needed political connections and at least $100,000. Hooking up was non-trivial. We could call into ARPANET. There was something called TIMENET and it was great fun to contact the sites that were on the ARPANET. But no, we were not. And so what are we going to do about that?

Aaron Dinin:

So where did the idea for Usenet come from?

Tom Truscott:

Well, I had a wonderful summer job at Bell Laboratories. It was a research organization, I guess they’re still in business now. They were very special back then and it was particularly special to me because the authors of the software that ran our mini computer worked there and I worked in that lab. They had just written a program that would make it easy for these Unix computers to talk to each other. And they had an electronic mail system and that was fun. We could communicate with other labs within Bell Labs. At the end of the summer I was back at Duke and cut off from all of that. So it’d be really nice to keep in touch, but we had this new software, this new copy Unix-to-Unix communication program. And coincidentally, with this new version of the Unix system, one of our local bulletin board systems, it was called items. It was very simple, but it was a way for anyone in the department to post a note and other people could see the note and reply and so on.

That broke because suffering compatibility, we needed to rewrite that. And so we had all these things were coming together and I was talking to James Ellis, the administrator of the mini computer. We’re just out in the hallway or something and talking about what can we do about this program and all the pieces were just there. We wanted a bulletin board facility. We wanted to stay in touch with Bell Labs. And by golly, we had all the pieces. We just had to write a little program and it actually was quite small.

Aaron Dinin:

Worth mentioning here, James Ellis was a fellow graduate student alongside Tom who unfortunately passed away in 2001 at the age of 45 due to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. James Ellis was Tom’s co-creator and much of the credit for Usenet belongs to him as well. Together, the two classmates developed the original Usenet software as a scaled out version of the software called items, I-T-E-M-S, a software they were using within their department to leave notes for each other. But rather than just having those posts be readable by people using a single machine, Tom and James envisioned a system where the posts could be shared to other computers. Usenet did this by leveraging the newly developed Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol, otherwise known as you UUCP. Basically, before most computers were continuously networked together via systems like the internet, the UUCP protocol would let computers dial up other computers via their modems, copy over information, and then disconnect. This was the foundation for Usenet. Here’s Tom describing how it worked.

Tom Truscott:

There would be a machine say at Duke, and then another one in Chicago, and then Los Angeles, and then the final one in San Diego, and you would call computer in Chicago and then maybe a day later, the computer in Chicago would call a computer in Los Angeles, and maybe a day later it would finally reach the destination in San Diego. Then it would go back. Now, it depends on how often the calls are made. And if you’re really lucky, the calls happened to be in an order such that it actually all happens in one day or overnight. I should mention that these calls were almost universally overnight because this was telephone back when AT&T the Bell System ran the world and phone rates were half price. These are long distance calls.

There was a time when you couldn’t call Canada for free. In fact, it was quite expensive, but at night I believe long distance rates were typically 10 cents a minute. And so you could get quite a few messages sent in a minute or two. So the way Usenet exploited the… Let’s imagine that we have an existing USB system that can send mail across the country. So Usenet will exploit that by having news software, the Usenet software, on each of these nodes and a message composed, say Duke would be broadcast to a list of known nearby Usenet sites. And then the Usenet processor in Chicago would do the same thing. It would retransmit a flooding algorithm. It wouldn’t spread across the network with some optimizations to avoid infinite loops and Duke doesn’t want to get under copy of the thing it just sent, for example. So over some period of time, and with the high probability, every message gets everywhere.

Aaron Dinin:

Day use for new messages to show up sounds primitive now, but in 1980 such a rapid platform for global many to many communications was revolutionary. I mean, think about it, at the time, where else was there a centralized repository that anyone from anywhere in the world could post to and exchange ideas? Usenet basically set the precedent for modern day message boards and internet forums. It was essentially the first digital social network with global broad-based public adoption. In other words, if we want to point to the origin of digital social networks, there’s a good argument to be made that much of what we do online now, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Reddit, Twitter, they all trace their origins back to Usenet. Of course, none of this happened overnight, but the adoption was surprisingly fast. The rollout began when Tom and James shared their software with a fellow student at the neighboring University of North Carolina, a few miles down the road from them in Chapel Hill.

Tom Truscott:

Usenet that would have been a lot of work if it never escaped Duke. So the first site that we use to co-develop the software really was with the University of North Carolina. And I should mention that one thing that made that easy is that we had a leased telephone line. It was a permanent telephone line. So there was a monthly fee, but there was no per minute calling fee and so we could use it as much as we wanted, which was great. We announced Usenet fairly soon after we came up with the idea. I’m not sure the software was quite even finished, but we printed off on our line printer 80 copies of an invitation to join a general access network. We didn’t have actually a name for it at the time. And there was a user group that was meeting in January of 1980 and James Ellis attended and handed out the copies. And from that, people contacted in and started signing up. It was a little slow at first. I mean, we did have ambitious goals. We were hoping to connect eventually every computer science department in the country, but it turned out if one looked at the growth more carefully, it was somewhat exponential. I mean, going from two nodes to four nodes doesn’t seem like much, but it is a doubling for a date and so on. At some point it really did take off.

Aaron Dinin:

Tom is being a bit modest here. It didn’t just take off, it got enormous and it got enormous in two important ways. First, within a few years Usenet literally spanned the globe. And remember, this was a time before it was easy for a piece of software to get everywhere in the world. In fact, let’s listen to Jonathan Abrams, founder of the pioneering social networking website, Friendster, and also the featured guest in Web Masters episode number 18, describe the extent of Usenet’s reach and scope.

Jonathan Abrams:

I definitely used Usenet. I mean, I think I first had access to it when I went to university in Canada and it reminded me a little bit of the BBSs that I used when I was a teenager with modems, but of course Usenet was worldwide. And it wasn’t just people in Toronto, it was people all over the world. And I remember there was the whole sort of ontology of how it was organized, comp this and all that. And it was actually extremely useful because there were these newsgroups on all these different topics. And you could find information sometimes about a computer programming language that your professor was teaching. And sometimes some professor at another university might be chitchatting with people on the newsgroup and you could find this information that… Most people in the world did not know that Usenet existed really, but the people who were on it, it was full of interesting information. And it was also kind of chaotic because there were so many different newsgroups and some of them were very academic and some of them were full of crazy stuff.

Aaron Dinin:

The growth of Usenet reached its peak by the late 1980s, when during the height of the Cold War, it even managed to penetrate Soviet Russia. Here’s Tom, again, explaining how he helped Usenet gets set up in Moscow.

Tom Truscott:

I remember when Moscow joined Usenet. This was sort of a big deal because this is back in the Cold War when there was the Soviet union. And there actually had been a April Fool’s joke one year where Kremvax and moskvax joined the Usenet. VAX was the name of a popular computer back in the day. So they talked about raising a glass of vodka as a toast to this new friendship. Well, that was a joke, but actually just a couple of years later, they really did join. And I believe it may have been called moskvax for that reason. And I actually helped because they were having some problem with logging into computers and it turned out that passwords weren’t being accepted. There was some incompatibility. Turned out there was a bug in the encryption program just a small typo. And it occurred to me that was probably what it was. So I suggested they could change this line of code in their software and it might work and that fixed it. So that was my contribution to international relations.

Aaron Dinin:

And the second way Usenet grew to an unprecedented size was in relation to the scope of the content it covered. Tom’s original intentions were for Usenet to be a community for computer science departments to share content related to, well, computers, but it quickly expanded far beyond that.

Tom Truscott:

When Usenet began, the idea was that there would be local categories for your machine, your organization, but if you wanted your messages to reach a broader audience, you’d put it in the category, net. something, N-E-T for network. And we suggested net.general is a good place for general announcements. People could create net. whatever it is they wanted. That was the initial formulation. Then there was net.cooking, net.SF lovers, science-fiction lovers, net dot everything. And actually, I should say the net. became sort of silly. It was sort of like the www on the front of web URLs. I mean, why bother? So a group, and I should say at this point it wasn’t me, but a group of involved netizens who wanted to work on the future of the network, they came up with what was called the great renaming that got rid of net and then there were sort of like in internet world, there were domain names .com .biz and so on, .edu. So instead there was comp for computation, yeah comp, and then rec for recreation and alt for things that were really beyond the pail.

Aaron Dinin:

This alt hierarchy is the largest section of Usenet. And it’s, well, what happens when you let people be people. It contains everything from newsgroups for fans of famous celebrities, to as you’d expect communities centered around things that are a bit less wholesome. Here I’ll let Alan Emtage, featured guest in Web Masters episode number 21 and creator of Archie, the world’s first internet search engine, explain what things were like.

Alan Emtage:

There was Usenet groups. They were a big thing. You subscribe to various groups and depending on what you wanted from anything from comedy to programming to porn, right? They would transmit porn by digitizing a photograph, and then you encoding it and splitting it up into 16 or 20 different pieces and then you have to reassemble it on the other line and you’d end up with a photograph, right? You’d end up with a digital photograph. That was porn in the 1986 internet.

Aaron Dinin:

As happens over and over again throughout history, people will use new technologies however they want. They don’t really care what those technologies were originally built for. And a platform like Usenet was particularly prone to being used in ways unimagined by its creators, because it wasn’t a single entity with a corporate structure or any leadership at its center. Instead, Usenet was launched as a distributed network that could grow in whatever ways its users wanted. For better or for worse, according to Tom, that was by design.

Tom Truscott:

So one might wonder if I was in charge of Usenet. And I think there are two answers. One is that I could have been. There are groups today, just as an aside, the inventor of the Python language is sort of the benevolent dictator of Python, but it’s purely a moral position. So was I the head? No. I in fact chose not to be. I delegated that opportunity. There are two ways that people could own or control Usenet. One is to write the software that operates it. And we did improve our version of news for a while, but as Usenet kept evolving, we weren’t that interested in meeting the needs of the ever expanding use of the system. By which I mean that the sheer volume of news that need filtering became an absolute necessity. You couldn’t possibly read all of it and it’d be silly to not provide that. And we didn’t provide a way to make sense of the fire hose of information. So other groups did, which was great for them and all power to them. But I did abdicate my position as leader.

Aaron Dinin:

So not being in control of this thing you created, when did you realize it was going to go in a completely different direction than you’d intended? And what’d you think about that?

Tom Truscott:

Early on, someone created a satirical post in net.suicide, and it was about this emergency meeting of the suicide club on the top of the chemistry building because finals are tomorrow. And it really bothered me. I was generally worried about ways that using it could be misused, but that would mostly be in terms of people breaking into the computers that people are exposing themselves. If the computer can log in, so could a hacker. I have to say, I was not at all concerned with the first amendment or issues like that, I just wanted the thing to be collegial and proceed well. So that was a troubling.

Aaron Dinin:

What you’re describing here are the same challenges contemporary social networks are still grappling with. In a way, is it fair to say Usenet was basically the first global digital social network? And if so, what do you think about that legacy?

Tom Truscott:

I guess that’s fair. It pains me, but yes. I’m sure social networks are important and that is absolutely what it became. I’m delighted that there are corners that still worry about whether P equal to NP and so on. But I think it’s also important that people can communicate their interests with others who have those interests. I would say my specific interest was to communicate with people on topics of interest to me and that was a bit narrow. I was certainly willing to generalize that to topics of interest to computer science departments. And it was a failing, if you will, not to realize that it would be best to encompass the entire range of human interests with the understanding that not all of those interests are benign and good. But that said, there aren’t many that are actually evil. Perhaps it’s an accident. I think some inventions can be sort of more bad than good in the sense that it’s easier to exploit them for bad things. I don’t think Usenet is actually in that category.

Aaron Dinin:

I mean, I definitely wouldn’t put Usenet in that category. In fact, lots of my research shows it’s the exact opposite. Usenet was responsible for helping bring awareness to some of the most important developments in internet history. For example, I was reading that Tim Berners-Lee announced the World Wide Web on Usenet. Marc Andreessen announced the Mosaic browser on Usenet and Linus Torvalds announced the Linux on Usenet, just to name a few important things. So that seems like an important legacy, right?

Tom Truscott:

I’m amazed. I guess I had somewhat forgotten that Linux was announced over Usenet and those other things. That’s great. There had to be some communication vehicle and it’s great that it was that and not at a conference. I mean, conferences are great. You can actually present a polished paper that people can then study and there are newsletters and so on. But if you want to get something out faster and get people started, get ahead of the game, it makes complete sense.

Aaron Dinin:

And in many respects, getting things out faster is the real legacy of Usenet because that’s the characteristic of digital media. Think about it, these days we take for granted that when important global events happen, we can find out about them almost instantly thanks to services like Twitter. We can learn more about them through resources like Reddit and Wikipedia. We can discover what our friends and family think on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and we can laugh about them thanks to communities on TikTok and Snapchat. But the expectations we have for all those social media services were set decades earlier by Tom Truscott. His invention, Usenet, was the first version of digital social media. It was the first global platform where anyone could post, share it, respond, and discuss the things they were most interested in with communities of other people around the world. Sure, it wasn’t what he set out to do, but that’s okay. As Tom’s story reminds us, you can control what you create, but you can’t control how people ultimately use it.

With that said, I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Web Masters I created just for you. And while I can’t control how you use it, I hope I can at least convince you to make sure you’re subscribed so you always get the latest episodes as soon as they’re released. And since I’m asking for favors anyways, please consider sharing this episode with someone you think might enjoy it too. I want to give a huge thanks to Tom Truscott for sharing the story of Usenet. During our conversation, he mentioned he doesn’t tend to talk about it much anymore these days, because it was something he built so long ago and evolved so far beyond what he had initially built, but he felt it was important to keep the memory of his co-creator James Ellis alive by sharing the story. So I want to be sure to honor that by thanking James as well.

I’d also like to thank our sound engineer, Ryan Higgs for piecing this episode together and then thanks to our sponsor Latona’s for their support. Remember, if you’re interested in buying or selling an internet business, be sure to check out latonas.com. If you’ve got any comments, thoughts, or feedback about this episode, you can find us on Twitter. We’re @WebMastersPod. I’m on Twitter too @AaronDinin, that’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. I also write lots of articles about startups and entrepreneurship over on medium.com. Search for my name there to find everything I’ve written, there’s a lot, and it should keep you busy until we release our next episode in just a few days. Until then, well, I guess it’s time for me to sign off.

[OUTRO]

Aaron Dinin:

I’ve read a few different versions of where the name Usenet came from. Out of curiosity, do you remember the exact origin?

Tom Truscott:

After the general access Unix network was running for a while people did want a name since no one seemed to be in control of the thing. And it was really up to the users what it was going to be, that it would be the Usenet. And it was also a play on the main Unix computer association at the time, which was called USENIX, the Unix Users Next. So Usenet, it just fit fairly well. James Ellis suggested that name and it stuck.

Aaron Dinin:

Yeah, that was probably a good choice. Usenet is a much catchier name than general access UNIX network.

Tom Truscott:

A computer science professor at Duke suggested that net, which was a popular term at the time was a little dull and maybe something like web, like UU web or web news, he was before his time.

Aaron Dinin:

Wow. That would have been something. I wonder what would’ve happened if you decided to use the word web in the name of your thing, would we still have a World Wide Web? I mean, would Tim Berners-Lee have called his invention that? That’s actually crazy to think about.

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