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The Era of Fragmentation, Part 4: The Anarchists

16 min read
https://technicshistory.com/2020/06/25/the-era-of-fragmentation-part-4-the-anarchists/

Between roughly 1975 and 1995, access to computers accelerated much more quickly than access to computer networks. First in the United States, and then in other wealthy countries, computers became commonplace in the homes of the affluent, and nearly ubiquitous in institutions of higher education. But if users of those computers wanted to connect their machines together – to exchange email, download software, or find a community where they could discuss their favorite hobby, they had few options. Home users could connect to services like CompuServe. But, until the introduction of flat monthly fees in the late 1980s, they charged by the hour at rates relatively few could afford. Some university students and faculty could connect to a packet-switched computer network, but many more could not. By 1981, only about 280 computers had access to ARPANET. CSNET and BITNET would eventually connect hundreds more, but they only got started in the early 1980s. At that time the U.S. counted more than 3,000 institutions of higher education, virtually all of which would have had multiple computers, ranging from large mainframes to small workstations.

Both communities, home hobbyists and those academics who were excluded from the big networks, turned to the same technological solution to connect to one another. They hacked the plain-old telephone system, the Bell network, into a kind of telegraph, carrying digital messages instead of voices, and relaying messages from computer to computer across the country and the world.

These were among the earliest peer-to-peer computer networks. Unlike CompuServe and other such centralized systems, onto which home computers latched to drink down information like so many nursing calves, information spread through these networks like ripples on a pond, starting from anywhere and ending up everywhere. Yet they still became rife with disputes over politics and power. In the late 1990s, as the Internet erupted into popular view, many claimed that it would flatten social and economic relations. By enabling anyone to connect with anyone, the middle men and bureaucrats who had dominated our lives would find themselves cut out of the action. A new era of direct democracy and open markets would dawn, where everyone had an equal voice and equal access. Such prophets might have hesitated had they reflected on what happened on Usenet and Fidonet in the 1980s. Be its technical substructure ever so flat, every computer network is embedded within a community of human users. And human societies, no matter how one kneads and stretches, always seem to keep their lumps.

Usenet

In the summer of 1979, Tom Truscott was living the dream life for a young computer nerd. A grad student in computer science at Duke University with an interest in computer chess, he landed an internship at Bell Labs’ New Jersey headquarters, where he got to rub elbows with the creators of Unix, the latest craze to sweep the world of academic computing.

The origins of Unix, like those of the Internet itself, lay in the shadow of American telecommunications policy. Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie of Bell Labs decided in the late 1960s to build a leaner, much pared-down version of the massive MIT Multics system to which they had contributed as software developers. The new operating system quickly proved a hit within the labs, popular for its combination of low overhead (allowing it to run on even inexpensive machines) and high flexibility. However, AT&T could do little to profit from their success. A 1956 agreement with the Justice Department required AT&T to license non-telephone technologies to all comers at a reasonable rate, and to stay out of all business sectors other than supplying common carrier communications.

So AT&T began to license Unix to universities for use in academic settings on very generous terms. These early licensees, who were granted access to the source code, began building and selling their own Unix variants, most notably the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) Unix created at the the University of California’s flagship campus. The new operating system quickly swept academia. Unlike other popular operating systems, such as the DEC TENEX / TOPS-20, it could run on hardware from a variety of vendors, many of them offering very low-cost machines. And Berkeley distributed the software for only a nominal fee, in addition to the modest licensing fee from AT&T.

Truscott felt that he sat at the root of all things, therefore, when he got to spend the summer as Ken Thompson’s intern, playing a few morning rounds of volleyball before starting work at midday, sharing a pizza dinner with his idols, and working late into the night slinging code on Unix and the C programming language. He did not want to give up the connection to that world when his internship ended, and so as soon as he returned to Duke in the fall, he figured out how to connect the computer science department’s Unix-equipped PDP 11/70 back to the mothership in Murray Hill, using a program written by one of his erstwhile colleagues, Mike Lesk. It was called uucp – Unix to Unix copy – and it was one of a suite of “uu” programs new to the just-released Unix Version 7, which allowed one Unix system to connect to another over a modem. Specifically, uucp allowed one to copy files back and forth between the two connected computers, which allowed Truscott to exchange email with Thompson and Ritchie.

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Undated photo of Tom Truscott

It was Truscott’s fellow grad student, Jim Ellis, who had installed the new Version 7 on the Duke computer, but even as the new upgrade gave with one hand, it took away with the other. The news program that was distributed by the Unix users’ group, USENIX, which would broadcast news items to all users of a given Unix computer system, no longer worked on the new operating ssytem. Truscott and Ellis decided they would replace it with their own 7-compatible news program, with more advanced features, and return their improved software back to the community for a little bit of prestige.

At this same time, Truscott was also using uucp to connect with a Unix machine at the University of North Carolina ten miles to the southwest in Chapel Hill, and talking to a grad student there named Steve Bellovin. Bellovin had also started building his own news program, which notably included the concept of topic-based newsgroups, to which one could subscribe, rather than only having a single broadcast channel for all news. Bellovin, Truscot and Ellis decided to combine their efforts and build a networked news system with newsgroups, that would use uucp to share news between sites. They intended to distributed provide Unix-related news for USENIX members, so they called their system Usenet. 

Duke would serve as the central clearinghouse at first, using its auto-dialer and uucp to connect to each other site on the network at regular intervals, in order to pick up it local news updates and deposit updates from its peers. Bellovin wrote the initial code, but it used shell scripts that operated very slowly, so Stephen Daniel, another Duke grad student, rewrote the program in C. Daniel’s version became know as A News. Ellis promoted the program at the January 1980 Usenix conference in Boulder, Colorado, and gave away all eighty copies of the software that he had brought with him. By the next Usenix conference that summer, the organizers had added A News to the general software package that they distributed to all attendees.

The creators described the system, cheekily, as a “poor man’s ARPANET.” Though one may not be accustomed to thinking of Duke as underprivileged, it did not have the clout in the world of computer science necessary at the time to get a connection to that premiere American computer network. But access to Usenet required no one’s permission, only a Unix system, a modem, and the ability to pay the phone bills for regular news transfers, requirements that virtually any institution of higher education could meet by the early 1980s.

Private companies also joined up with Usenet, and helped to facilitate the spread of the network. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) agreed to act as an intermediary between Duke and UC Berkeley, footing the long-distance telephone bills for inter-coastal data transfer. This allowed Berkeley to become a second, west-coast hub for Usenet, connecting up UC San Francisco, UC San Diego, and others, including Sytek, an early LAN business. The connection to Berkeley, an ARPANET site, also enabled cross-talk between ARPANET and Usenet (after a second re-write by Mark Horton and Matt Glickman to create B News). ARPANET sites began picking up Usenet content and vice versa, though ARPA rules technically forbid interconnection with other networks. The network grew rapidly, from fifteen sites carrying ten posts a day in in 1980, to 600 sites and 120 posts in 1983, and 5000 sites and 1000 posts in 1987.

Its creators had originally conceived Usenet as a way to connect the Unix user community and discuss Unix developments, and to that end they created two groups, net.general and net.v7bugs (the latter for discussing problems with the latest version of Unix). However they left the system entirely open for expansion. Anyone was free to create a new group under “net”, and users very quickly added non-technical topics such as net.jokes. Just as one was free to send whatever one chose, recipients could also ignore whatever groups they chose, e.g. a system could join Usenet and request data only for net.v7bugs, ignoring the rest of the content. Quite unlike the carefully planned ARPANET, Usenet self-organized, and grew in an anarchic way overseen by no central authority.

Yet out of this superficially democratic medium a hierarchical order quickly emerged, with a certain subset of highly-connected, high-traffic sites recognized as the “backbone” of the system. This process developed fairly naturally. Because each transfer of data from one site to the next incurred a communications delay, each new site joining the network had a strong incentive to link itself to an already highly-connected node, to minimize the number of hops required for their messages to span the network. The backbone sites were a mix of educational and corporate sites, usually led by one headstrong individual willing to take on the thankless tasks involved in administering all the activity crossing their computer. Gary Murakami at Bell Labs’ Indian Hills lab in Illinois, for example, or Gene Spafford at Georgia Tech.

The most visible exercise of the power held by this backbone administrators came in 1987, when they pushed through a re-organization of the newsgroup namespace into seven top-level buckets. comp, for example, for computer-related topics, and rec for recreational topics. Sub-topics continued to be organized hierarchically underneath the “big seven”, such as comp.lang.c for discussion of the C programming language, and rec.games.board for conversations about boardgaming. A group of anti-authoritarians, who saw this change as a coup by the “Backbone Cabal,” created their own splinter hierarchy rooted at alt, with its own parallel backbone. It included topics that were considered out-of-bounds for the big seven, such as sex and recreational drugs (e.g. alt.sex.pictures), as well as quirky groups that simply rubbed the backbone admins the wrong way (e.g. alt.gourmand; the admins preferred the anodyne rec.food.recipes).

Despite these controversies, by the late 1980s, Usenet had become the place for the computer cognoscenti to find trans-national communities of like-minded individuals. In 1991 alone, Tim Berners-Lee announced the creation of the World Wide Web on alt.hypertext; Linus Torvalds solicited comp.os.minix for feedback on his new pet project, Linux; and Peter Adkison, due to a post on rec.games.design about his game company, connected with Richard Garfield, a collaboration that would lead to the creation of the card game Magic: The Gathering.

FidoNet

But even as the poor man’s ARPANET spread across the globe, microcomputer hobbyists,  with far fewer resources than even the smallest of colleges, were still largely cut off from the experience of electronic communication. Unix, a low-cost, bare-bones option by the standards of academic computing, was out of reach for hobbyists with 8-bit microprocessors, running an operating system called CP/M that barely did anything beyond managing the disk drive. But they soon began their own shoe-string experiments in low-cost peer-to-peer networking, starting with something called bulletin boards.

Given the simplicity of the idea and the number of computer hobbyists in the wild at the time, it seems probable that the computer bulletin board was invented independently several times. But tradition gives precedence to the creation of Ward Christensen and Randy Suess of Chicago, launched during the great blizzard of 1978.  Christensen and Suess were both computer hobbyists in their early thirties, and members of their local computer club. For some time they had been considering creating a server where computer club members could upload news articles, using the modem file transfer software that Christensen had written for CP/M – the hobbyist equivalent of uucp. The blizzard, which kept them housebound for several days, gave them the impetus to actually get started on the project, with Christensen focusing on the software and Suess on the hardware. In particular, Suess devised a circuit that automatically rebooted the computer into the BBS software each time it detected an incoming caller, a necessary hack to ensure the system was in a good state to receive the call, given the flaky state of hobby hardware and software at the time. They called their invention CBBS, for Computerized Bulletin Board System, but most later system operators (or sysops) would drop the C and call their service a BBS. They published the details of what they had built in a popular hobby magazine, Byte, and a slew of imitators soon followed.

Another new piece of technology, the Hayes Modem, fertilized this flourishing BBS scene. Dennis Hayes was another computer hobbyist, who wanted to use a modem with his new machine, but the existing commercial offerings fell into two categories: devices aimed at business customers that were too expensive for hobbyists, and acoustically-coupled modems. To connect a call on an acoustically-coupled modem you first had to dial or answer the phone manually, and then place the handset onto the modem so they could communicate. There was no way to automatically start a call or answer one. So, in 1977, Hayes designed, built, and sold his own 300 bit-per-second modem that would slot into the interior of a hobby computer. Suess and Christensen used one of these early-model Hayes modems in their CBBS. Hayes’ real breakthrough product, though, was the 1981 Smartmodem, which sat in its own external housing with its own built-in microprocessor and connected to the computer through its serial port. It sold for $299, well within reach of hobbyists who habitually spent a few thousand dollars on their home computer setups.

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The 300 baud Hayes Smartmodem

One of those hobbyists, Tom Jennings, set in motion what became the Usenet of BBSes. A programmer for Phoenix Software in San Francisco, Jennings decided in late 1983 to write his own BBS software, not for CP/M, but for the latest and greatest microcomputer operating system, Microsoft DOS. He called it Fido, after a computer he had used at his work, so-named for its mongrel-like assortment of parts. John Madill, a salesman at ComputerLand in Baltimore, learned about Fido and called all the way across the country to ask Jennings for help in tweaking Fido to make it run on his DEC Rainbow 100 microcomputer. The two began a cross-country collaboration on the software, joined by another Rainbow enthusiast, Ben Baker of St. Louis. All three racked up substantial long-distance phone bills as they logged into one another’s machines for late-night BBS chats.

With all of this cross-BBS chatter, an idea began to buzz forward from the back of Jennings’ mind, that he could create a network of BBSes that would exchange messages late at night, when long-distance rates were low. The idea was not new. Many hobbyists had imagined that BBSes could route messages in this way, all the way back to Christensen and Suess’ Byte article. But they generally had assumed that for the scheme to work, you would need very high BBS density and complex routing rules, to ensure that all the calls remained local, and thus toll-free, even when relaying messages from coast to coast. But Jennings did some back-of-the-envelope math and realized that, given increasing modem speeds (now up to 1200 bits per second for hobby modems) and falling long-distance costs, no such cleverness was necessary. Even with substantial message traffic, you could pass text between systems for a few bucks per night.

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Tom Jennings in 2002 (still from the BBS documentary)

So he added a new program to live alongside Fido. Between one to two o’clock in the morning, Fido would shut down and FidoNet would start up. It would check Fido’s outgoing messages against a file called the node list. Each outgoing message had a node number, and each entry in the list represented a network node – a Fido BBS – and provided the phone number for that node number. If there were pending outgoing messages, FidoNet would dial up each of the corresponding BBSes on the node list and transfer the messages over to the FidoNet program waiting on the other side. Suddenly Madill, Jennings and Baker could collaborate easily and cheaply, though at the cost of higher latency – they wouldn’t receive any messages sent during the day until the late night transfer began.

Formerly, hobbyists rarely connected with others outside their immediate area, where they could make toll-free calls to their local BBS. But if that BBS connected into FidoNet, users could suddenly exchange email with others all across the country. And so the scheme proved immensely popular, and the number of FidoNet nodes grew rapidly, to over 200 within a year. Jennings’ personal curation of the node list thus became less and less manageable. So during the first “FidoCon” in St. Louis, Jennings and Baker met in the living room of Ken Kaplan, another DEC Rainbow fan who would take an increasingly important role in the leadership of FidoNet. They came up with a new design that divided North America into nets, each consisting of many nodes. Within each net, one administrative node would take on the responsibility of  managing its local nodelist, accepting inbound traffic to its net, and forwarding those messages to the correct local node. Above the layer of nets were zones, which covered an entire continent. The system still maintained one global nodelist with the phone numbers of every FidoNet computer in the world, so any node could theoretically directly dial any other to deliver messages.

This new architecture allowed the system to continue to grow, reaching almost 1,000 nodes by 1986 and just over 5,000 by 1989. Each of these nodes (itself a BBS) likely averaged 100 or so active users. The two most popular applications were the basic email service that Jennings had built into FidoNet and Echomail, created by Jeff Rush, a BBS sysop in Dallas. Functionally equivalent to Usenet newsgroups, Echomail allowed the thousands of users of FidoNet to carry out public discussions on a variety of topics. Echoes, the term for individual groups, had mononyms rather than the hierarchical names of Usenet, ranging from AD&D to MILHISTORY to ZYMURGY (home beer brewing).

Jennings, philosophically speaking, inclined to anarchy, and wanted to build a neutral platform governed only by its technical standards:

I said to the users that they could do anything they wanted …I’ve maintained that attitude for eight years now, and I have never had problems running BBSs. It’s the fascist control freaks who have the troubles. I think if you make it clear that the callers are doing the policing–even to put it in those terms disgusts me–if the callers are determining the content, they can provide the feedback to the assholes.

Just as with Usenet, however, the hierarchical structure of FidoNet made it possible for some sysops to exert more power than others, and rumors swirled of a powerful cabal (this time headquartered in St. Louis), seeking to take control of the system from the people. In particular, many feared that Kaplan or others around him would try to take the system commercial and start charging access to FidoNet. Of particular suspicion was the International FidoNet Association (IFNA), a non-profit that Kaplan had founded to help defray some of the costs of administering the system (especially the long-distance telephone charges). In 1989 those suspicions seemed to be realized when a group of IFNA leaders pushed through a referendum to make every FidoNet sysop a member of IFNA and turn it into the official governing body of the net, responsible for its rules and regulations. The measure failed, and IFNA was dissolved instead. Of course, the absence of any symbolic governing body did not eliminate the realities of power; the regional nodelist administrators instead enacted policy on an ad hoc basis.

The Shadow of Internet

From the late 1980s onward, FidoNet and Usenet gradually fell under the looming shadow of the Internet. By the second half of that same decade, they had been fully assimilated by it.

Usenet became entangled within the webs of the Internet through the creation of NNTP – Network News Transfer Protocol – in early 1986. Conceived by a pair of University of California students (one in San Diego and the other in Berkeley), NNTP allowed TCP/IP network hosts on the Internet to create Usenet-compatible news servers. Within a few years, the majority of Usenet traffic flowed across such links, rather than uucp connections over the plain-old telephone network. The independent uucp network gradually fell into disuse, and Usenet became just another application atop TCP/IP transport. The immense flexibility of the Internet’s layered architecture made it easy to absorb a single-application network in this way. 

Although by the early 1990s, several dozen gateways between FidoNet and Internet existed, allowing the two networks to exchange messages, FidoNet was not a single application, and so its traffic did not migrate onto the internet in the same way as Usenet. Instead, as people outside academia began looking for Internet access for the first time in the second half of the 1990s, BBSes gradually found themselves either absorbed into the Internet or reduced to irrelevance. Commercial BBSes generally fell into the first category. These mini-CompuServes offered BBS access for a monthly fee to thousands of users, and had multiple modems for accepting simultaneous incoming connections. As commercial access to the Internet became possible, these businesses connected their BBS to the nearest Internet network and began offering access to their customers as part of a subscription package. With more and more sites and services becoming available on the burgeoning World Wide Web, fewer and fewer users signed on to the BBS per se, and thus these commercial BBSes gradually became pure internet service providers, or ISPs. Most of the small-time hobbyist BBSes, on the other hand, became ghost towns, as users wanting to tap into the Internet flocked to their local ISPs, as well as to larger, nationally known outfits such as America Online.

That’s all very well, but how did the Internet become so dominant in the first place? How did an obscure academic system, spreading gradually across elite universities for years while systems like Minitel, CompuServe and Usenet were bringing millions of users online, suddenly explode into the foreground, enveloping like kudzu all that had come before it? How did the Internet become the force that brought the era of fragmentation to an end?

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Further Reading / Watching

Ronda Hauben and Michael Hauben, Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, (online 1994, print 1997)

Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community (1993)

Peter H. Salus, Casting the Net (1995)

Jason Scott, BBS: The Documentary (2005)

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