My old Carolina Home

Cue Randy Newman. For those of us d’un certain age, this is a poignant moment.

This week marks the end of an era for one of the earliest pieces of Internet history, which got its start at Duke more than 30 years ago.

On May 20, Duke will shut down its Usenet server, which provides access to a worldwide electronic discussion network of newsgroups started in 1979 by two Duke graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis.

Working with a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, they came up with a simple program to exchange messages and files between computers at Duke and UNC using telephone modems.

The “Users Network,” Usenet for short, grew into an international electronic discussion forum with more than 120,000 newsgroups dedicated to various topics, from local dining to computer programming languages. Each group had a distinctive name such as soc.history or sci.math.

Usenet also played an integral role in the growth of the popularity of the Internet, said Dietolf Ramm, professor emeritus of computer science. At the time, a connection to the Internet was not only expensive but required a research contract with the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency.

“ARPA had funded a few schools to begin the early stages of Internet, but most schools didn’t have that,” said Ramm, who worked with the students who developed Usenet. “Usenet was a pioneering effort because it allowed anybody to connect and participate in communications.”

When I was writing A Brief History…, Usenet archives provided a wonderful treasure-trove. They also provided a picture of the Net as it was before the arrival of AOL’s redneck hordes. When the groups and alt.drugs were started (after a hoohah) on April 3, 1988, for example, it was immediately felt necessary to start alt.rock-n-roll. One has to be consistent in these matters. Those were the days.

Thanks to Rex Hughes for spotting the announcement.