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Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott

Last Edit: 31/01/19

Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott are credited with conceiving of the idea of Usenet, which is a distributed discussion system that is currently found on the Internet. Usenet is one of the earliest examples of a 'social network', and is a forerunner to 'Forums' / 'Bulletin Boards' found on the World Wide Web. It could be suggested that Usenet predates the Internet: as it was an application designed to function on small private computer network connections used by Unix computer systems that could not access ARPANET -- the ARPANET computer network was a forerunner to the Internet and access was restricted to specific universities and research organisations -- and was referred to, by its designers, as "a poor man's ARPANET". RFC 977 (1986) highlighted the difference between ARPANET and Usenet: "There are popularly two methods of distributing news: the Internet method of direct mailing, and the USENET news system."

The general consensus is that Usenet was born in 1979, at Duke University, by graduate students Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott, and was conceived as being a service for Unix users who were excluded from accessing ARPANET; the Unix operating system was the most widely used by Internet users in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived of the idea of Usenet, the act of creating the first Usenet programs required the contribution of other graduate students, notable: Steve Bellovin, Stephen Daniel, and Gregory Woodbury. Usenet originally used Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) to transport data between dial-up modems. Usenet was initially (1980) available to anyone who owned a computer system with the Unix operating system, network equipment (modem), and a telephone line (land-line call cost).

RFC 977 (1986) was a succinct explanation of how Usenet content was stored and distributed: "Clearly, a worthwhile reduction of the amount of these resources used can be achieved if articles are stored in a central database on the receiving host instead of in each subscriber's mailbox. The USENET news system provides a method of doing just this. There is a central repository of the news articles in one place (customarily a spool directory of some sort), and a set of programs that allow a subscriber to select those items he wishes to read. Indexing, cross-referencing, and expiration of aged messages are also provided."

Usenet would expand throughout the 1980s, and was integrated into ARPANET and the Internet, using new application level protocols such as the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP), and Newsreader programs like Gnus. Due to the rise of modern social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and some Internet Service Providers dropping support for Usenet, there are fears that Usenet usage may be in terminal decline. Whatever the future is of Usenet, the idea envisioned in 1979 by Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott pioneered the idea of a 'free net' when access to computer networks was restricted to a privileged few.