In Conversation With:
The Founder of
The First Social Media Platform
Web Masters is a podcast that explores the history of the Internet through conversations and stories with some of its most important innovators. You can listen to the latest episode here and read more about the episode in the transcript here.
Tom Truscott, founder of Usenet, speaks with Aaron Dinin to discuss how he accidentally created the first social media platform.
Usenet is regarded as one of the first social media platforms, but it wasn’t intended to start that way.
Discussing why he was interested in computers in the first place, Tom explains:
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 was delightful.
Explaining the idea for Usenet, Tom says:
“Well, I had a wonderful summer job at Bell Laboratories. It was a research organization. They were very special back then and it was particularly special to me because the authors of the software that ran our minicomputer 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.”
Explaining how it works, Tom says:
“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. 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.”
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.
“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 pale.”
Usenet was responsible for helping bring awareness to some of the most important developments in internet history. 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.
To learn more about Usenet and its founder, Tom Truscott, listen to the episode here.
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