If you are a computer user of a certain age, you most likely know all about trolls, flame-wars, and emoticons, but not from blogs or Twitter, but from the wild world of Usenet. Started by Duke University graduate students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis in 1980, Usenet became a hugely popular mode of public discourse on the early Internet, a place where all sorts of subcultures and specialized interests, including Pagans, found each other and were able to network. Now, in an age where most of Usenet’s traffic is spam, and many popular Internet providers blocking access to the service, Duke University is shutting down its Usenet server, citing low usage and rising costs.
This week marks the end of an era for one of the earliest pieces of Internet history, which got its start at Duke more than 30 years ago. On May 20, Duke will shut down its Usenet server, which provides access to a worldwide electronic discussion network of newsgroups started in 1979 by two Duke graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis … The “Users Network,” Usenet for short, grew into an international electronic discussion forum with more than 120,000 newsgroups dedicated to various topics, from local dining to computer programming languages. Each group had a distinctive name such as soc.history or sci.math.
This doesn’t mean that Usenet itself is disappearing, there will no doubt be other servers running for years to come, but it does signal the end of an era. One that directly attributed to the growth of modern Paganism online. Luckily, thanks to Google, the vast bulk of its 30-year history is archived and searchable. So if you want to travel back to 1990 and witness the creation of alt.pagan, you can do so. This, naturally, led to the famous alt.pagan FAQ, which helped quite a few “noobs” get a handle on things.
“This newsgroup is for the discussion of paganism and Witchcraft in their various forms and traditions; for sharing ideas for ritual and completed liturgy; for networking with others of a like mind and those who are not; for answering questions and disseminating information about paganism and Witchcraft (and, occasionally, for dispelling the misconceptions about same). It’s also for sharing within a larger community than one might find at home. While we are interested in traditional pagan practices, the alt.pagan community is fundamentally neopagan — our practices are modern, though they are based on ancient ideas or images.”
So here’s to Usenet, and the Pagans who cleared a path on the untamed Internet so that blogs like mine could exist and have an audience ready to engage it.