giganews blog

Corporate culture, personal experiences, and unique observations about Giganews, Usenet, Newsgroups, and Usenet related technologies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Worst. Top 10 List. Ever." ;-) 10 Things Started on Usenet

Usenet has long held a powerful influence over life on the Internet. Spanning nearly 3 decades, Usenet has had a lot of opportunities to inspire and foster many aspects of our online world. To give credit where credit is due, Giganews has compiled this list of the top 10 things started on Usenet.

While this list is nowhere near the complete history of Usenet's contribution to the Internet, it is an interesting look at the origin of some very familiar technologies, cultural icons, and communities.
  1. Worst. Episode. Ever: The Simpsons Comic Book Guy
  2. Yahoo! (The name, not the website)
  3. IMDb
  4. Emoticons, Sort of ;-)
  5. Scientology vs. The Internet
  7. PNG Image Format
  8. GNU
  9. Spam
  10. PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)

  1. Worst. Episode. Ever: The Simpsons Comic Book Guy

    In the mid 90s, rose to a very impressive level of popularity. Due to the popularity of the TV show, the newsgroup received frequent commentary and regular episode reviews from loyal participants. Writers, voice actors, and others directly involved with the production of the show eventually took note. became one of the first online forums where show runners could read and react to criticism directly from the fans.

    This situation didn't always foster good feelings, though. When fans began to feel that the show's creativity had declined, they expressed their opinions every week in the newsgroup. The most vocal posters began to declare each new episode as "the worst episode ever". It was not long until The Simpsons writers responded to their overzealous fans in the February 9, 1997 episode, titled "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show."

    The premise of the episode was that due to declining ratings, the Itchy & Scratchy team decided to add a third character named Poochie. Dedicated, longtime fans of the show were less than impressed with the change, leading to the following exchange between Bart and the Comic Book Guy:

    Last night's Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever! Rest assured that I was on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world.

    Hey, I know it wasn't great, but what right do you have to complain?

    As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

    What? They're giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.

    (pause) Worst episode ever.

    As a side note, while this episode was the origin of the "worst episode ever" catchphrase, the Comic Book Guy character appeared in episodes before this one, but his early purpose still seems to have been a way for the writers to mock obsessive fans on Usenet. Just take a look at this portion of the episode transcript for the "Radioactive Man" episode that aired on September 24, 1995:

    "Who's going to play Radioactive Man?" Bart asks. The owner (aka Comic Book Guy) says, "I will tell you in exactly seven minutes." He shuffles his wide behind back to his computer and says, "OK, here we are... alt.nerd.obsessive. `Need know star RM pic'," he types. Several geeks around the country (the artist formerly known as Prince among them) receive his message.

    -Read the Episode Capsule for the episode, which includes the reaction of newsgroup regulars (
    -Read an article examining the relationship between The Simpsons' crew and zealous Internet fans (

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  3. Yahoo! (The name, not the website)

    As graduate students in 1994, Jerry Yang and David Filo elected to rename their search engine project from "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web" to Yahoo!, which was "officially" jokingly expanded to "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle". This acronym is a fairly obvious poke at Usenet's hierarchical structure and the Usenet Oracle, which was a popular humor-based question and answer game in newsgroups of the time.

    -Read the complete history of Yahoo! (
    -Read more about the Internet Oracle (formerly the Usenet Oracle) (

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  5. IMDb

    The year was 1989 and rec.arts.movies was one of the more popular newsgroups around. Two separate posting projects would eventually blossom into the popular Internet Movie Database, or 'IMDb'.

    The first project was a post simply titled "Those Eyes" that, with the participation of all readers, identified actresses with beautiful eyes and categorized which movies they appeared in. As this thread grew beyond the size of a typical thread, newsgroup participants simply called it "THE LIST." The other project was the "Movie Ratings Report," where newsgroup participants were simply asked to rate movies on a 1-10 scale. Naturally, this list also grew far larger than any typical Usenet thread.

    Both of these lists were combined in 1990 by Col Needham. Needham also started an "Actor's List" offshoot of the original LIST, which itself became the "Actress List." Other regulars created a "Director's List" and work also began on a list of deceased actors and actresses.

    By this point, the goal of the list maintainers and newsgroup participants was to simply populate the lists as much as they could. By late 1990, the lists contained nearly 10,000 movies and TV shows. On October 17, 1990, Col Needham posted numerous Unix shell scripts that could search the lists, transforming them into a true database that would become IMDb. Finally, in 1993, after further expanding the database to contain more demographic information, the database moved onto the newborn World Wide Web.

    -See an example of the original "Movie Ratings Report" from September 1989 (
    -Read a more detailed history of IMDb at Wikipedia (

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  7. Emoticons, Sort of ;-)

    The origin of emoticons in online communications can be traced back to 1982 and the creation of the humble :-) and :-( emoticons. Staff members at Carnegie Mellon University began a joke conversation on their local BBS about the behavior of various objects in freefall. One Scott Fahlman proposed using :-) and :-( in future messages to indicate whether one was or was not joking.

    This conversation thread eventually worked its way from the local CMU BBS to ARPANET (precursor to the Internet) which naturally led to Usenet. The concept of emoticons took off in the newsgroups, leading to more complex emoticons and a mode of communication that has now become commonplace.

    -Read a reconstruction of the original, non-Usenet discussion (
    -Read the first Usenet discussion of emoticons (

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  9. Scientology vs. The Internet

    The alt.religion.scientology newsgroup was created in 1991. The newsgroup was created by skeptics to question Scientology and to discuss questionable behavior of Scientologists.

    The first notice that Scientologists did not approve of the newsgroup came in 1995, when a hired lawyer attempted to remove the newsgroup by sending a rmgroup command to Usenet administrators. The basis for this request was largely rooted in claims of copyright violations due to the use of the word "Scientology" and the publication of Scientologist documents in the newsgroup. This removal request actually had the opposite effect, and the newsgroup subsequently exploded in popularity.

    The Internet community has since become largely derisive of anything related to Scientology. For example, in early 2008, in an event largely similar to what occurred on Usenet a decade ago, the Church of Scientology sought to have a leaked promotional video removed from YouTube and instead stirred up a large backlash from the "Anonymous" Internet collective.

    -Read the Wikipedia entry detailing the history of alt.religion.scientology (
    -Read the Wikipedia entry detailing Scientology's relationship with the Internet (

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    Billed as "The Urban Legend Reference Pages," has a similar history to that of IMDb. David Mikkelson was a regular poster to the rec.folklore.urban newsgroup starting in the early 1990s. Under the username of "snopes," he would frequently discuss and debunk urban legends, as well as expose gullible "newbies" to urban legends, which the newbies would take as fact.

    (As an interesting aside, this latter practice was known as "trolling for newbies" and is the root of the Internet jargon for the negative practice of trolling, although "trolling for newbies" didn't really have a negative connotation.)

    In short time, Mikkelson met Barbara Hamel, another prolific rec.folklore.urban participant who lived nearby. The two married and eventually established as a centralized location for them to research, confirm, and debunk myths and urban legends of all types.

    -Read the Wikipedia entry for (
    -Read the oldest message by "snopes" archived on Google Groups (

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  13. PNG Image Format

    Launched in 1996, the PNG format for images is prevalent on the internet today, but did you know that it was created as a free, open-source replacement of the GIF format and initially developed on Usenet?

    In January 1995, programmers met in the newsgroup to propose and discuss the technical specifications of the new format, including its eventual name of PNG. The agreed-upon elements were collected into RFC 2083 and in March of 1997, the PNG image format was officially established.

    -Read the original "Thoughts on a GIF-replacement file format" thread at Google Groups (
    -Read RFC 2083, describing version 1.0 of the PNG format (
    -Read more about PNG at Wikipedia (

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  15. GNU

    GNU is an operating system created by Richard Stallman in 1984 that consists entirely of free software. GNU development tools were used to develop the Linux kernel (core operating system) in 1991. GNU is also symbolic of the creation of the GNU General Public License, which many unrelated products use for free distribution.

    Stallman's post to net.unix-wizards on September 27, 1983 not only formally announced the development of GNU, but also gave life to the free software movement that is well established on the Internet today.

    From his announcement:

    Why I Must Write GNU

    I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.

    So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.

    -Usenet article announcing GNU (
    -Read about the GNU General Public License (

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  17. Spam

    The concept of Spam as an unsolicited communication has existed almost since the most infant state of the Internet, but the actual term "Spam" to refer to such messages was first used on Usenet in 1993.

    The story is that Richard Depew, a Usenet administrator, had created a program called ARMM that would automatically browse newsgroups to find messages that needed moderation. ARMM had a bug that caused it to post 200 successive messages to the newsgroup news.admin.policy, a very visible and popular newsgroup. Joel Furr, who was something of a Usenet celebrity, referred to the automated messages as "Spam" and the term has stuck for all forms of unsolicited, repeated, and simply annoying communications.

    It should also be noted that Furr's choice of the word SPAM comes from a 1970 Monty Python sketch in which a café only offers SPAM items on the menu and the dialogue is dominated by the word "SPAM."

    -Read more about newsgroup Spam (
    -Read the Usenet article where Spam was first named (

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  19. PGP (Pretty Good Privacy)

    Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) was developed by Philip Zimmermann in 1991 to provide cryptographic authentication and privacy for online communications. The earliest releases of PGP were found in BBS and FTP depositories which offered limited distribution. PGP's existence was very quickly announced on Usenet, and due to the exposure to a wider audience, the software's popularity skyrocketed worldwide.

    Because PGP offers extremely strong encryption, it gained notable usage from nonconformists and civil libertarians in oppressive nations worldwide. This activity led to an actual criminal investigation of Zimmermann in 1993 on the grounds of "munitions export without a license," a charge which rose because PGP's encryption method was strong enough for it to be considered munitions according to US export laws. Although these charges were eventually dropped, Zimmermann at the time exploited legal loopholes by publishing the PGP source code as a printed book instead of compiled software.

    Today, PGP encryption no longer qualifies as non-exportable munitions and is used for privacy, encryption, security, and authentication in numerous applications and on countless networks around the world.

    -Read an early Usenet article discussing PGP (
    -"Why I Wrote PGP" by Philip Zimmermann (

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