This article makes a lot of cool points, but I’m not sure it’s fair to say USENET failed. USENET was connected to ARPANET in 1980, 13 years before “Eternal September”. It was a major communication environment for a good fifteen years or so. Most technologies eventually get replaced by others. Temporary success is the best that software can aspire to.
USENET was no exception, and I think the shift to other platforms matches a shift in user profile, too. The move to web forums & co. was fueled, in part, by the fact that the baseline Internet access profile shifted, too. Late ’80s/early ’90s Internet was still largely dominated by tech professionals who had Internet access at work or tech students who had Internet access at their universities. By the late ’90s this was not quite true anymore. The kind of experience users expected changed because most of the users changed, and lots of the old users migrated along rather than be left in the lurch, the way lots of us now put up with Discord and Slack even though we mumble that there was nothing wrong with IRC in the first place, get off my lawn etc. etc..
(Fun anecdote: I distinctly remember lurking USENET channels around 2001 or so (admittedly, it was already quite dead by then) – that is, I went to an Internet Cafe and downloaded USENET archives from a local university. I had a friend working there who surreptitiously made them publicly available. That was the only way I could access them – I wasn’t going to uni, my ISP didn’t have a USENET server, and I couldn’t pay for access to one. By the time I could get an SDF account with USENET access, it was pretty dead).
My ISP was still carrying USENET until at least 2008. Outlook Express was originally called Internet Mail and News and supported USENET out of the box, not sure if / when it was removed, but at least post Vista (I found a reference to a CVE in Vista’s integrated mail reader’s NNTP support).
I suspect the thing that killed USENET was that it didn’t carry ads. Google tried to monetise it with a web-based client that they could use to profile users and feed them ads but there was a big incentive for companies to build platforms that had no easy opt out for seeing ads.
Though Usenet still lives on as one of the weirder piracy providers within the message overlays of NZBs and shady VPN providers, I’d hardly call it a faliure. Speaking in memetic: It was its time to go and it wasn’t a good boy, I’m told it was the best.
Usenet was my first real contact with Internet, shortly followed by FTP (/pub/incoming/../.nothing/.juarez) E-Mail and IRC. It felt like a natural transition from my day to day of FIDOnet and echomail. I was on a modem dial back to a local electrical grid utility’s glorious 64kbit on off hours thanks to an underhanded deal with a sysadmin in exchange for grunt work like crawling ducts pulling coax ethernet. Key with this workflow was ‘connect, synch and disconnect’ and not be perpetually online but sift through the harvest offline.
WWW felt on the whole relatively uninteresting at the time with neither the aesthetics and ambience of BBSes or the sense of forbidden knowledge. It had about the ‘sex appeal’ of FirstClass. It took the likes of Mfayzullin@komkon, +Fravia Search Lores and Node99 for young me to ‘get’ this other information narrative that the networked dynamic document offered.
I ran a private NNTP server from about 2001 to 2010, decommissioned due to zero backup practices and iffy hardware. This was not as regular ol’ Usenet, but as interface to the results of bots scraping phpBB and similar forums. With the recent Discord accord something else seems to be needed to trawl emerging webs and revise ‘search’.
Wow, I haven’t thought about FirstClass in over a decade. Thanks for the blast from the past!
A lot of government entities and schools used it around these parts for quite a while. It was an era of innocence one might say, but many had one client binary shared over samba to make updates easier on everyone.
This was a really bad idea as it created a temp store with very liberal permissions. One could simply sit and scrape that folder and slowly accumulate most everything from credentials to mail.
You can still access Usenet via Thunderbird, you don’t need a dedicated newsreader app.
I still do, via an account on Eternal September.