The Great Renaming 1985 - 1988

[LivingInternet Note: This document is the original, so many links no longer work, and have been moved into the text in square brackets]

“Those who mourn for ‘USENET like it was’ should remember
the original design estimates of maximum traffic volume:
2 articles/day”

-Steven Bellovin


Welcome to The Great Renaming FAQ. The problem with most FAQs is they are too long and are often unreadable. One should be able to print out a FAQ and read it over dinner. Thus this FAQ intends to give a concise, readable history of the 1986 Great Renaming of Usenet. The origins of the now mythical Usenet Cabal and the great “comp.women” debacle are also touched on. Although much of what happen so long ago has been lost in the mists of time, or become mythology, this FAQ hopes to be as accurate as possible.


The format of this FAQ takes a inspiration from David DeLaney’s Net.Legends FAQ, 2nd Ed. Thus the FAQ’s are not written, but alluded to. This FAQ answers the 5W&H of The Great Renaming and the Backbone Cabal. This information in this FAQ comes from a collection of posts and email the author has collected.

Much of its content comes from a November 1994 thread in comp.society.folklore. Also a large number of holes were pluged after I read a great history of the culture of the Net by Henry Edward Hardy []. This document is not entirely original, with some words coming from the sources because they gave a better explanation. Send all links, flames, faint praise or just a hello to Lee S. Bumgarner. Also, make sure to stop by his weblet [] while you are here. (Note, there may be a few spelling mistakes that I’ve not caught yet.)

In The Beginning…

According to the Net.Legends FAQ, Usenet’s collective memory lasts about a fortnight. Thus most people know little or nothing about where Usenet came from or how it got where it currently is. Given the seemingly never ending stream of new users, and the drop out or burn out of older readers, the earlier years of Usenet are starting to take on mythological qualities. Yet Usenet can only understand where it is going unless it knows where its been. This history deals with events immediately before the Great Renaming and ends with the death of the Backbone Cabal, and hopes to tell what really happen during Usenet’s more traumatic experiences.

The years between the creation of the Unix User Network in 1979 and the Great Renaming of 1986 were ones of great growth for Usenet. Over the years, a large enough group of core sites were organized and linked together to give most of North America access to Usenet.

During these early ye would aars of Usenet, UUCP [], a point-to-point connection protocol was Usenet’s only communication method. NNTP [], whichllow news traffic over ARPAnet [], (Internet‘s forefather) had yet to become widely used. The two systems were connected, but not as interdependent as Internet and Usenet are today.

Instead of looking to the user as an amorphous blob, Usenet had the form of a graph (in the graph-theory sense). “Network maps” were produced from time to time which looked like this. (The machine names are real, but the connections are drawn at random.)

 UUCP/USENET Logical Map - June 1, 1981 / mods by S. McGeady 11/19/81 (ucbvax) +=+===================================+==+ | | | | | | wivax | | | | | | | | | microsoft| uiucdcs | | | | genradbo | | | | | | (Tektronix) | | | | | | | purdue | | | decvax+===+=+====+=+=+ | | | | | | | | | | | pur-phy | | tekmdp | | | | | | | | | | | +@@@@@@cca | | | | | | | | | | | | | +=pur-ee=+=+=====+===+ | | | csin | | | | | | | | +==o===+===================+==+========+=======+====teklabs=+ | | | | | | | pdp phs grumpy wolfvax | | | | | | | | | | | cincy unc=+===+======+========+ | | | | bio | | | | | (Misc) | | (Misc) | | | | sii reed | dukgeri duke34 utzoo | | | | | | | | | | | | +====+=+=+==+====++======+==++===duke=+===+=======+==+=========+ | | | | | | | | | | | u110 | bmd70 ucf-cs ucf | andiron | | | | | | | | | | | | | red | | | | | pyux | | | | zeppo | | | | | psupdp---psuvax | | | | | | | | | | | alice | whuxlb | utah-cs | | houx | allegra | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | | +--chico---+ | +===+=mhtsa====research | /=+=======harpo=+==+ | | | | | | | | / | | | | hocsr | | +=+=============+=/ cbosg---+ | | | ucbopt | | | | | esquire | | : | | | cbosgd | | | : | | | | | | ucbcory | | eagle==+=====+=====+======+=====+ | | | : | | | | | | | | | +-uwvax--+ | : | | | mhuxa mhuxh mhuxj mhuxm mhuxv | | | : | | | | | | : | | | +----------------------------o--+ | : | | | | | | ucbcad | | | ihpss mh135a | | : | | | | | | | : --o--o------ihnss----vax135----cornell | | : | | | | | +=+==ucbvax==========+===+==+=+======+=======+=+========+=========+ (UCB) : | | | | (Silicon valley) ucbarpa cmevax | | menlo70--hao : | | | | ucbonyx | | | sri-unix | ucsfcg1 | | | | Legend: | | sytek====+========+ ------- | | | | - | /  + + Uucp sdcsvax=+=======+=+======+ intelga zehntel = "Bus" | | | o jumps sdcarl phonlab sdcattb : Berknet @ Arpanet ---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Now the thing is that on such a diagram you can choose to emphasize a set of lines forming a path through the hosts — say “utzoo – decvax – seismo – ihnp4”. The “backbone” was simply a group of hosts whose admins agreed to form such a connected set, and to devote whatever resources were necessary to carry all the Usenet traffic and to pass it on promptly (rather than, say, waiting for overnight when their machine was less busy, as other sites often did). Orginially organized by Gene Spafford [] in 1983 , the backbone was formalized by Spaf after the Great Renaming. Most posts arriving on any given machine had a backbone site in its path, because it was simply more likely to arrive earlier via the backbone than via any other link. Without the backbone, news would be i ncredibly delayed or just expire before it could be transmitted. This indeed happen at times when one of the key sites — e.g. “ihnp4”, through which almost 100% of the news flowed from west cost to east cost –went down.

A lot of people got feed because of the generosity of decvax (Bill Shannon and Armando Stenttner) and other sites. A Usenet feed depended greatly on who you knew and your phone budget.

The mythological “Usenet Cabal,” which is often referred to jokingly in passing was originally the “Backbone Cabal.” The Cabal was a group of site admins and their close friends who participated in a mailing list created to encourage stable news and mail softare. Nearer the Great Renaming, the approval of the Cabal was essential to the creation of a new newsgroup because of how the system was set up.

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A Net.God Gets Irritated

By 1986, Usenet had outgrown its original set up and it started to experience growing pains. .The original scheme of just three worldwide hierarchies — net.* for unmoderated groups, mod.* for moderated groups and fa.* for from ARPAnet — and the fairly haphazard way in which new names were developed was becoming difficult to ad minister.

The setup was bugging one particular net.god, future UUnet [] founder Rick Adams. Adams, site admin for “seismo,” at the Center for Seismic Studies [] in northern Virginia, was powerful for a number of reasons. Among them was its status as the only link between the US and Europe.

Transmitting news was quite expensive in those days, so the Europeans refused to pay for the fluff groups like net.religion and net.flame. Thus the discussion on the Great Renaming began. According to a post by Joe Buck, Adams proposed a “talk” hierarchy for the high flame groups. (As the GR progressed, it was generally understood that if a group was put in talk.* instead of soc.* it would not be as widely propagated.)

According to Buck, “The idea was that he could simply put ‘!talk’ in the configuration file for each connected site that didn’t want these groups,” After Adams threaten to stop participating in Usenet altogether due to resistance to his idea, the Backbone Cabal was given the job of the Great Renaming.

The Great Renaming started July 1986 and ended in March 1987, according to Henry Edward Hardy’s history. Among the people involved with the initial discussion on the mailing list were Chuq von Rospach and Gene Spafford. There was some concern that the Backbone Cabal, which was made up of a small group male computer experts in their 20’s and 30’s, would be deciding the newsgroups for the entire, div erse Usenet community. The Cabal and their cronies often reiterated a magic phrase: “Usenet works by the golden rule: whoever has the gold, makes the rules.” This was their way of saying they weren’t going to pay the long-distance transmission charges for groups they didn’t like.

Much of the debate centered on ways in which the wider Usenet community could somewhat support the backbone financially, so everyone could keep getting the groups they wanted. In the end, no one thought anything like that would work. Various people also proposed schemes for cutting down volume.

As the Great Renaming progressed, a current list of proposed new newsgroups was posted to several times along the way. However, protests by a few vocal people forced changes. So under the direction of the Cabal the Great Renaming happen.

The current comp, misc, news, rec, sci, soc, talk, (local) was created. Yet ironically, nothing really changed for a significant portion of sites, and almost all the sites except company ones still got a full feed. The connectivity, modem baud rates, stora ge capacity, etc improved so dramatically that very few university and public-access sties dropped the soc.* talk.* and later alt.* groups. For a few years after the GR, however these groups were not transmitted to Europe, although that changed after NNTP .

So the major effect of the Great Renaming was just to organize the groups better. Since the community in question was Usenet, there was bound to be some disagreement over the proposed general renaming of groups.

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The Birth of Alt.*

At some point, Net.Legend Brian Reid [], a member of the Cabal decided he didn’t like how things were going. So he John Gilmore and Gordon Moffett discussed the creation of an “Alternet” over dinner on May 7, 1987 at G.T’s Sunset Barecue in Mount View California. An “alternative” distribution system was organized by this group that didn’t use the “backbone” links. A new top-level hierarchy name “alt.*” was created for this distribution. In Henry Edward Hardy’s history, Reid is quoted as saying:

John’s home computer was “hoptoad”; my home computer was “mejac”. We set up a link between us, and each of us set up a link to amdahl, and we vowed to pass all alt traffic to each other and to nurse the net along. In those days one sen t out numerous newgroup messages in the hopes that one would “take”; by the end of May the groups alt.test, alt.config, alt.drugs, and alt.gourmand were active. At the time I also managed “decwrl”, so I quietly added “alt” to the list of groups that it carried.

Reid created the first alt.* group, alt.gourmand , because the Cabal wanted to put his recipe group under* Gilmore objected the Cabal’s dropping of net.flame and the refusal to create rec.drugs. (Moffett just wanted to help.) Alt.drugs was also been created around this time. (One of the big debates of the Great Renaming had been whether there should be a “drugs” newsgroup *anywhere,* This putative newsgroups was the example people used of a group that sysadmins would not be able to convince their bosses to support.)

Nearly a year later there was the rec/ debate This was the attempted creation of a sex group that caused alt.* to take off. There was a lot of sex-related traffic being carried in at the time, so when Richard Sexton jokingly suggested a and alt.rock-n-roll the afternoon of April 3, 1988. Reid sent the following to the Backbone Cabal when he did it:

That meant that the alt network now carried and alt.drugs. It was therefore artistically necessary to create alt.rock-n-roll, which I have also done. I have no idea what sort of traffic it will carry. If the bizzarroids take it over I will rmgroup it or moderate it; otherwise I will let it be.
-taken from Henry Edward Hardy’s Internet History.

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The Death of the Backbone Cabal

A number of simultaneous events rendered the Backbone Cabal irrelevant. The most important was the increase use of NNTP around this same time. Usenet’s use of Internet made it easer to ignore what the news admins thought. Acording to Reid [], the Backbone started to decline when he and Richard Sexton snuck the site “” into the backbone. It was arranged to get “gryphon,” a 386 PC in Greg Laskin’s living room in Los Angeles, to get news feed from “famous and important (NASA JPL)” backbone sites and thus put into the official backbone map.

Also, the new procedures set up after the Great Renaming led to a challenge by “readers” against the “privileged” positions of the admins. Early in Usenet’s life, one could create a group simply by posting to it, and a number of groups were created because of typos. Later a new group would be created after a subject had sufficient traffic on an existing group. Then backbone folks would figure out the name and create it. The Cabal was strongest right before the Great Renaming: backbone sites refused to carry groups they considered stupid.

The new procedure went something like this, according to Greg Woodbury. Someone proposed a newsgroup and then the Cabal talked about the potentials of/for the new group. The Cabal defined a name for the group, and asked for the views of other admins a bout the group and then finally if the group name was good enough they would create the group. The original system eventually became the proposal and “vote” scheme. Holding votes was a way to make people shut up if a group was unpopular.

The current voted format was laid down around right before the Great Renaming, but not used until 1987. Once the voting mechanism was in place, the individual opinions of the backbone-site admins no longer mattered much..

Lastly, Usenet’s changing make up was involved. Adams was given a loan by USENIX to set up a non-profit Usenet site. Eventually this became UUnet and thus as a commercial entity existing to distribute news, had every reason _to_ carry all of alt.*.

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V. The Last Days: The Great “comp.women” debacle

During the Cabal’s last days, its death was quicken by “comp.women” debacle, as it was later known. In summer, 1988, a newsgroup for woman was proposed. Its creation became the subject of a massive flame war because its supporters wanted to put it in the comp.* groups because this would insure a better propagation. Opponents noted that this hierarchy was devoted to far more technical things. After *much* discussion someone created a “comp.society.woman” out of exasperation. This person got a great deal of flamage for doing so, but the group came to life after it was created.

About a month or so later, the backbone having gone almost entirely silent, Spaf announced he was going to shut it down, it had become silent because very few people were using dialup UUCPnet links anymore. A few months after _that_, it was observed that the list had become /dev/null. The Backbone Cabal was dead, and the “Usenet Cabal” myth was born.

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Many thanks to the following, for without them this thing would not exist:

James “Kibo” Parry [],, David Lawrence (,, (John G Dobnick), “Bengt Larsson, (J. Porter Clark), Gregory G. “Wolfe” Woodbury, (, (Mark Brader) Ed.Falk@Eng.Sun.COM (Ed Falk), jgd@alpha1. (John G Dobnick), (Tom Lane), (Melinda Shore), (D. Glenn Arthur Jr.), (Mark Brader), (Ran Atkinson), (Tom Wilson), (Jay Maynard), (jamie andrews), Henry Edward Hardy

About the Author:

Lee S. Bumgarner, a jr at James Madison University, decided to write this FAQ because he felt Usenet had come to a point in its history where it needed to look back on where its been, to better understand where its going. He also hopes this FAQ’s format and style will be used as the basis for A Reader’s Guide to Usenet History and Culture. It would be a guide to Usenet life for and by Usenet readers. This Guide would replace this Current Net.Legends FAQ. (c) copyright Lee S. Bumgarner. Feel free to send it to anyone and everyone you feel would be interested, at not cost. Like anyone would want to do anything with this!


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