Jim Ellis, one of the founders of the Usenet system which predated and helped shape the Web, died Thursday of non-Hodgkins lymphoma at his home in Pennsylvania. He was 45.
The newbies among us might not be familiar with Usenet, a massive information-sharing service where files were swapped, friends and enemies were made, and just about every topic imaginable was discussed. It served as the model for modern message boards and for a long time was the coolest thing happening on the Internet.
In 1979, as a graduate student at Duke University, Ellis helped design the system, linking computers at Duke to some at the University of North Carolina. Within just a few years, it spread worldwide. By 1993, there were 1,200 newsgroups, and the system reflected an increasingly diverse and chaotic online community. Users would post messages and encrypted files in a series of newsgroups built into a hierarchy of interests, such as rec.collecting.stamps and comp.os.linux. The infamous alt. groups were home to the wilder topics, from alt.religion.kibology to alt.pave.the.earth.
In time, as with many communities, it got crowded and went into decline. By 1999, an estimated 37,000 newsgroups were in operation and legitimate postings had largely been drowned out by ads, spam, and flame wars.
But the impact of Ellis' creation on our modern Internet can't be dismissed. For his contributions, Jim Ellis received the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer Award in 1993 and the Usenix Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
An archive of Usenet postings dating back to 1995 is hosted by Google at groups.google.com.
Have fond (or foul) memories of Usenet? Think it's still thriving? Share your thoughts at the Listening Postinformationweek.com/forum/informationweek