Usenet Big-8 Management Group Hosts AMA on Reddit
Last Updated: Jun 15, 2021
As part of their public outreach efforts to promote Usenet, the Usenet Big-8 Management Board hosted an AMA (ask me anything) session on popular forum site, Reddit, last May 28. This management board is responsible for the following:
- creates well-named, well-used newsgroups in the Big-8 Usenet hierarchies,
- makes necessary adjustments to existing groups,
- removes groups that are not well-used, and
- assists and encourages the support of a canonical Big-8 newsgroup list by Usenet sites.
The Big-8 recently reconstituted the Board after a three-year dormancy and has now been busy restoring and modernizing its infrastructure and as part of this reconstitution, current Board members Jason Evans (a technical training engineer), Tristan Miller (an artificial intelligence research scientist) and Rayner Lucas (a self-employed programmer, electronics hobbyist and retrocomputing enthusiast) answered several questions from the Usenet community on reddit.
Based on the reddit thread, the Big-8 management board answered questions that varied from their personal Usenet recommendations, historical information, tutorials and future plans. Some of the discussions worth highlighting are as follows:
Q: What apps would you recommend to get back into Usenet?
- A: Jason: Thunderbird is the most prevalent. Pan is gret on Linux.
Q: Which resources would you recommend for someone who hasn’t used Usenet before (clients, servers, groups, …). Do you see any future in bridges like nntpit? What should I do if I want to set up an internal NNTP server for my club/school/company? What should I expect if I want to set up an NNTP server that’s talking to other servers?
- A: Jason: I wrote some tutorials for complete newbies using Thunderbird since it is available for every OS.
- Tristan: I’m all for NNTP gateways like nntpit and Gmane, as they allow for reading threaded discussions in a sane(r) and more versatile interface. But these things should generally be run on a dedicated NNTP server that isn’t connected to the rest of Usenet, because the communities they bridge generally don’t follow the same rules of Netiquette.
- Jason: Take a look at the documentation for INN. Join newsgroups like news.admin.peering to get feeds from other people and news.software.nntp for help setting up the server.
- Jason: If you care about text only newsgroups, 20GB and 1GB of RAM will do plenty. A cheap VPS is really all you need.
Q: As far as I know all groups within Usenet big 8 are a textbase group. This means you cannot post files along with the text like Reddit for example. Do you plan to have a system or something that would make it easier for new users to interact with Usenet?
Q: I heard that to run a usenet server or service is expensive. That’s why nowadays most of the usenet backbone or infrastructure is owned by only several companies. What is your view as Usenet big 8 management board regarding this issue.
- A: Rayner: I agree that the text-only requirement of most Usenet groups is awkward when someone really needs to reference an image or other file. One downside of Usenet being open and decentralised is that it’s unbelievably hard to change an established way of doing things because of the sheer number of people using software that’s been written or configured under the old assumptions. I’d currently recommend hosting images on Imgur and posting a link. As for running your own NNTP server: you can do this cheaply with modest hardware and bandwidth, if you’re only interested in text groups. You can download the INN server software for free, and ask in news.admin.peering for other admins to peer with.
Q: Do the newsgroups log upload or download activity? If so, who is this information turned over to?
A: Tristan: Usenet is a decentralized network; each participating server is free to set its own logging and retention policies. Whatever provider you use may or may not be logging traffic from its own users.
A: Jason: I can tell you from experience that the new server that I use, INN, only logs basic information like what a post ID and who posted it to keep track of potential spammers. It doesn’t log IP addresses like a web server.
Q: What was the big/main idea behind the creation of Usenet and how long did it take for the creation of Usenet?
- A: Jason: It started as a research project between UNC and Duke University in late 1979. It was a way to get a private network between these schools who didn’t have ARPAnet access. In 1980, it was presented at the USENIX conference and took off from there.
Q: Any insights or thoughts about how communities/technologies can be built that would be resistant to spam without some kind of centralized control?
- A: Tristan: Back in 1998 some denizens came up with a proposal for Usenet II, which was intended to mitigate a lot of the spam issues without sacrificing (too much of) the decentralized nature of the original Usenet. Sadly, the plans never came to fruition. Tackling spam on Usenet has instead taken the form of cancelbots, moderated newsgroups, and (lately) waiting for spammers in general to lose interest.
Q: What do you think about Usenet mainly being known for piracy these days?
- A: Rayner: As a wise man once wrote, the street finds its own uses for things. I do think it’s strange that Usenet took off as a file-sharing platform, because it’s a ridiculously inefficient way to move bulk data. Everything needs to be text-encoded in some way, there’s no guarantee that all posts will make it to all servers, and posts get propagated all over the network regardless of whether any end-user specifically requests them or not. The only thing I can see that makes it good for piracy is its distributed nature, but even there things like Bittorrent do the job far more sensibly. Or so I hear.
Q: How difficult is it to stay relevant when you have tech giants like Facebook doing similar things?
- A: Tristan: Usenet’s transparency and lack of centralized control give it important advantages over newer forms of social media. It’s versatile, resilient, and resistant to censorship in ways that Facebook and Twitter can never be.
Future of Usenet
Q: The Big 8 hierarchy hasn’t had a group added in eight years, and for the last decade (at least) has had more group deletions than additions. Some areas, like rec.games, are painfully outdated in topicality. Do you foresee a future where a Big 8 group gets created again? If so, under what fantastical circumstances?
- A: Tristan: Anyone is free to propose the creation of a new group using the official procedure. We’ve in fact had one or two expressions of interest in the past year, but so far no one has followed through with a creation proposal. So it seems there are some people still thinking about creating new groups. If anyone is interested in doing so, we’d be happy to talk to them!
When this particular question was posted, several users raised issues on how difficult it is to create new groups or how “old-timers are vocally opposed to any sort of expansion unless there’s already a substantial volume of discussion about it on Usenet”. With that, Rayner Lucas of the Big-8 Management Board answered with, “Just as a personal opinion here (with the caveat that the others may not agree), I also think it would be good to streamline the group creation process. The current procedure makes a lot of assumptions that may no longer be true, such as Usenet might become unmanageably messy from the sheer volume of new groups or It will be clear when a new group is warranted because the users for it will already be discussing those topics somewhere else on Usenet. With that said, it’s still good to get some idea of whether there are enough people around to keep a conversation going in a new group. We’ll be considering some of these admin procedures we’ve inherited, and figuring out if they still make sense for today’s Usenet.”
Q: Do you see a future where Usenet evolves again and becomes a better and decentralized Reddit?
A: Jason: I think this sounds like a good idea. Things like this have been suggested in the past. Someone just needs to see them through. Usenet is open. We personally don’t have any plans to reinvent it, but we would love to see positive changes that keep the decentralized simple aspects of Usenet.
Rayner: Reddit certainly feels like it has a lot of the same spirit as Usenet to me too. As for whether Usenet will have a resurgence as a decentralised forum for conversations, that all depends on the users. We’re doing what we can to remind people that Usenet exists and make it easier for more folks to participate.
Q: How long does Usenet have left? By most measures it’s an inferior ‘product’
A: Jason: It will be around as long as there is at least one server left. It has years to go.
Rayner: Usenet will last for as long as people want to keep using it. As for whether it’s inferior to a centrally-controlled social network, I guess it depends what you want out of it, but I think the network will last longer if there’s a conscious effort to make things less mysterious for new users.
To read the full AMA, check out the Usenet Big-8 thread on reddit.