Contextualizing the Usenet Archives

For my first detailed post about the Transgender Usenet Archive project, I wanted to provide a bit more background about online trans spaces during this time period and Usenet overall. While some of this information may already be familiar to some folks, hopefully, this post will also give some more context for the cultural moment the archive occupies and the technical particularities that inform how posters used newsgroups.

“The gender community is in the midst of two revolutions right now,” Stephanie Rose wrote in the inaugural 1991 issue of transgender journal Chrysalis Quarterly. The first revolution was in transgender politics, where individuals were increasingly adopting an umbrella identity, “transgender,” in order to reflect their growing sense of shared political consciousness. The second, while more “covert,” was no less important: “the computer revolution.” Trans users, according to Rose, “[stood] to gain more from [the computer revolution] than any other social groups out there,” as new communication platforms like bulletin board systems, or BBSes, allowed users to communicate securely and semi-anonymously with each other. Addresses for trans-specific BBSes begin appearing in trans magazine TS-TV (later Transgender) Tapestry as early as 1988, and their number increased over the next few years. However, coverage of online trans forums in trans media during this period framed communicating online as a “technical” endeavor for the “computer literate” who “[knew] the lingo,” or in one evocative turn of phrase, were “the ‘hackers’ in our community.”

Bryant Gumbel is confused by the Internet (1994).

Bryant Gumbel is confused by the Internet (1994).

By the mid-1990s, these attitudes shifted alongside a wider cultural movement to make the Internet accessible to a variety of individuals. In the same vein as niche-specific Internet explainer video Moms on the Net (1997), these were all-in-one internet introductions, going over getting access, describing necessary hardware like modems, explaining internet terminology and “netiquette,” and offering guidance on how to find and join trans-relevant groups. Transgender journal Cross-Talk in particular ran an 8-issue series from June 1994 to January 1995 entitled “The Information Highway and You” which provided not only information but some contextualization of “early” transgender presences on the Internet.

In a marked shift from the focus on tech-savvy “hackers” a few years earlier, authors now offered evidence of their own ignorance as proof anyone could use the internet. In a section of her article subheaded “Expertise,” one author told her readers (in all-caps for emphasis) “I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT COMPUTERS.” For a monthly fee, relay services like Cross Connection offered bundled access to a variety of services like e-mail, BBS and Usenet access, as well as archives of LGBT community publications, documents on trans issues, and GIFs. Though some users still connected to BBSes, they were increasingly interested in national “net groups” like Usenet. According to Cross Connection’s administrator, “users virtually abandoned the local [BBS] forums” when wider net access was introduced (Cross-Talk, Oct 1994, 38).

Usenet offered users the chance to make national and international connections, but Usenet newsgroups differed from BBSes in several important ways.1 While trans BBSes often had a small set of dedicated, often trans-identified administrators who handled technical and social issues, Usenet represented a wider network whose administration was distributed across a variety of servers and their respective sysadmins. Because the network was decentralized, no one sysadmin could maintain total control over the network at large.

Social norms in trans newsgroups largely mirrored Usenet’s wider political culture at the time, which prized free speech as a core value. Any punitive action administrators took was focused on protecting the integrity of the network, targeting “only those actions that threaten the network’s ability to function as a forum for deliberative debate” (Pfaffenberger 2003, 21). As such, few newsgroups were actively moderated, with most being only occasionally retromoderated for spam or other abuse.2 By and large, trans newsgroups reflected the larger network culture. Newsgroup charters or FAQs emphasized that while groups were unmoderated, posters were to abide by a set of designated prohibited behaviors which restricted these two core freedoms.

Unlike discussion sites we’re familiar with today, newsgroups did not have membership or signup requirements. Instead, one’s Usenet ‘identity’, so to speak, was tied to one’s email address—which could be anonymized or spoofed. Users also used distinct signatures to differentiate their posts or link to their social presence on other platforms. Cross-posting, or posting a message to a variety of possibly-unrelated newsgroups, was fairly common and allowed messages to appear simultaneously in a variety of different discussion “spaces.” While this function led some of the earliest notable online “spam,” it also meant users and threads would move across and between groups—which was key for propagating topics and ideas amongst the various transgender-related newsgroups. This movement could, at times, lead to moments of culture clash, since each newsgroup had its own distinct culture and norms, detailed in their charter or FAQ.

Beyond its political culture, one of Usenet’s most recognizable features was the prodigious amount of content users produced. In 1992 Purdue computer science professor and influential early Usenet sysadmin Gene Spafford described Usenet as being like “a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea—massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it.” Yet the amount of users actually producing this content was fairly limited. The poster to reader ratio on newsgroups was often skewed, with an “invisible crowd” of readers for any given newsgroup vastly outnumbering the amount of active posters (Smith 1999). Transgender-specific Usenet groups followed this model, with a core set of highly active posters and an unknown network of readers. As one author said of trans newsgroups in 1995, “there is very little of help in them. Mainly they seem to be a couple of individuals scoring points off each other.”

Newsgroups’ popularity amongst trans users began to decline starting in the mid-2000s, as first other discussion platforms (message boards, journaling services like Livejournal) and then now-familiar social media platforms grew in prominence. The demographics for transgender users online were shifting as well, as the population got increasingly younger. For these users, Usenet was rarely part of their daily media diet, and they focused on building connections through platforms they already used. Now, Usenet functions largely as an archive of this particular moment in trans politics, offering a window into what the key issues of the day were.

1. Nancy Baym’s book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community offers one of the best in-depth investigations of an active newsgroup during this mid-1990s period.
2. Amongst LGBTQ-related groups, was one of the few newsgroups that did have active moderation.