Usenet Sale: Sounds to Silence?
It's a massive database stuffed with reams of human conversation that is rummaged daily by Internet users worldwide. It's loaded with 500 million postings in 35,000 discussion forums. In five years, its digital waist-size has ballooned to over 1.5 terabytes –- or 1,500 gigabytes.
It is the Usenet archive [ http://www.deja.com/usenet ] of Deja.com -- and its fate is now in question because it is about to be sold.
More to the point, a change in fortune for the biggest Usenet archive on the Net raises the question: Does the archive have a secure future?
Deja officials confirmed a report published last week that the New York company is seeking a merger for its e-commerce-focused Precision Buying Service [ http://www.deja.com ]. Separately, the company has already reached a deal in principle for the sale of the Usenet half of its service.
A company official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the sale, but would not name the buyer of the archive or the price.
The Deja archive is by far the largest record of Usenet -- a 5-year-old collection of newsgroup discussions taking place through Usenet's worldwide communications network.
To check out the latest buzz on anything from Thai recipes to sex to urban legends, Net users can search Deja's archive and trawl discussions dating back to 1995.
Usenet experts, pioneer users -- as well as business executives who've tried to build businesses around online discussion -- think the 5-year-old record of Usenet still means a great deal to the Internet.
"I don't think it's lost its value," said Ariel Poler, CEO and co-founder of Topica [ http://www.topica.com ].
Topica provides a discussion archive of its own, storing the content of e-mail-based discussion lists. Topica users can browse and search the contents of e-mail lists using a Web interface -- just as Deja has done with Usenet discussions.
Poler thinks Usenet may yet harbor an untapped, Web-like potential for a new information business model.
Not yet, though. The Deja sale underscores the fact that no Net company seems to be able to successfully exploit the odd animal of Usenet.
"I still find good information there," Poler said. "I think it's a real shame that these companies ... such as Deja ... are not going to be doing it much longer."
Usenet was, in a sense, the Net before the Net. Special "store-and-forward" protocols enabled Usenet's unique form of conversation and collaboration to take place over connected Unix computers, whether those connections were full-time or not.
"Usenet is kind of special," said Richard Sexton, a pioneering user and newsgroup founder in the network's early days. "It's actually a protocol -- a fundamental (network) service, like e-mail and the Internet... . It's an institution."
Before the dawn of the commercial Internet in 1994, Usenet's reach was greater than the Internet itself, he said. But in its earliest years, access to Usenet required "Level 5 geek clearance," Sexton said. "The same people that could get a feed also could get marijuana."
For excited early adopters like Sexton, Usenet turned the directness of one-to-one e-mail into a potent forum for so-called "many-to-many" communications.
If Napster highlights the immense appeal of computers sharing files, the explosive growth of Usenet was its precursor -- a harbinger showing what people could do when they could share knowledge and opinions from computer to computer.
Deja.com gave Usenet a Web interface in 1995 and archived every Usenet discussion thread from that year forward. The name of the service, originally Deja News, changed when Deja re-launched itself as a product-shopping service last year, pushing the Usenet service to the back burner.
The company withdrew plans for an initial public offering earlier this year, and in September, cut back its 140-member staff by over a third -- a cash-saving precursor to the pending sale.
According to a company executive, the new owner will make the Usenet archive freely available, possibly under the same Deja name.
That is in contrast to another, far smaller Usenet archiving service, Remarq [ http://www.remarq.com ]. That company, purchased earlier this year by Critical Path, has converted its much-smaller Usenet archive to a pay-for service aimed at corporate networks.
Poler said Topica has previously been in discussions with Deja about the archive but is not the pending buyer. He did say, however, that he wishes Topica had the resources to archive Usenet, in addition to e-mail lists.
"We don't (archive Usenet postings) because we find that there's better information in the e-mail lists, and there's still a lot that we need to do in that space," Poler said. "We want to remain focused."
But does the uniqueness of Usenet necessarily mean that it becomes more valuable when archived?
"A lot of the stuff is of wide interest only as current traffic," said pioneering Usenet archivist Henry Spencer. While at the University of Toronto, Spencer archived much of the content of Usenet from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. He and his collaborators, who stored the data on tape-based storage systems, dropped the project as it became too unwieldy and time consuming.
"The interest (in Usenet content) falls off very quickly with time as you start going back into it," Spencer said. "So it's difficult to justify putting significant amounts of money into preserving the old stuff that hardly anybody -- except maybe the few enthusiastic historians -- ever looks at."
Newsgroups have also had their share of problems. Over the years, spam overran many discussion groups.
In a reaction to that problem and a perceived breakdown in the topical hierarchy of Usenet, Sexton and other Usenet enthusiasts attempted to begin anew. They founded a brand-new hierarchy of topics in something they called Usenet II.
Deja's archive experienced its own controversies along the way. The presence of users' own words and ideas stored in a commercial archive have raised various copyright concerns.
The company has always contended that there is no violation of copyright, and the bulk of Usenet enthusiasts primarily support the archive as a valuable resource. But users like Sexton can't help but note that it is his and many others' words changing hands with the sale of the archive.
The Deja executive insisted the Usenet service remains a profitable business. The new owner will be better equipped to grow the service in the context of a larger information service, he said.
Deja has presented several ideas to its next owner on how the archive could be made into a bigger business, mainly by rolling the content into the resources and services of a larger information service.
Yet Deja's own transformation into a commerce-oriented business in May 1999 made its own statement about the viability of a service built around Usenet archiving. The Deja executive said the move was not abandoning the Usenet side of the business, but simply attempting to expand on it.
Wherever the archive finds itself down the road, Usenet enthusiasts don't want to see it die.
If it doesn't become a commercial success, archivist Spencer could imagine a university communications department taking up stewardship.
"It's a real shame to see that stuff go," Spencer said. "Not because it's of immense, immediate practical value, but because I think in some areas it sheds a fair bit of light on how some of this culture developed -- the cultural history of computer networking.
"A lot of it is already gone for good. The more of it we can preserve the better."