Is Usenet choking on spam?

Make tons of money sitting on your couch! See nude pictures of every conceivable type of person engaging in every conceivable type of sex act!

Make tons of money sitting on your couch! See nude pictures of every conceivable type of person engaging in every conceivable type of sex act! And did we mention they're nude?

Wander the virtual discussion halls of Usenet these days, and that's the kind of advertising-tainted conversation you're likely to hear.

With messages on certain newsgroups consisting predominantly of spam, it's easy to get the feeling that what was a platform for vibrant, intense global conversation has turned into a giant infomercial for get-rich-quick schemes and pornography.

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Some observers and members of the Usenet community -- one of the oldest on the Internet -- decry what they fear will be the slow death of Usenet, noting that the massive proliferation of useless messages is making some users turn away from the medium.

But others point out that in spite of the drawbacks, the Usenet conversation, which literally comprises every imaginable topic, is far from over.

As with e-mail, users have to tune out quite a bit of background noise to get to what they want to hear. And just as in other forms of public discourse, the denizens of Usenet are learning that freedom of speech comes with a price, some users maintain.

Rich Tietjens, a software technician who serves as a moderator for three newsgroups devoted to Atari computers and electric cars, said that lately between 85 and 90 percent of articles submitted by users for posting on his newsgroups are the Usenet equivalent of spam mail -- advertisements for bulk e-mail marketing products, pornographic Web sites, and the like.

"It's definitely cutting down on the number of groups people follow," Tietjens said. In some cases, newsgroups that were once populated by dozens of regular users have dwindled to near-vacancy, partly in reaction to the spam onslaught, he said.

He posts only five to 10 new messages per day on his groups, he said.

Solicitations are us

The newsgroup is a perfect example of the problem: Of 30 messages posted Thursday, just two pertained to the online service. The rest were solicitations for a variety of dubious-sounding products and services.

One writer on the alt.culture.usenet newsgroup this week voiced frustration with a recent influx of obscene messages having nothing to do with the issues the group was formed to discuss.

"I think that the real purpose of Usenet is just to connect with people and to hear other views," he wrote. "That purpose is not too well known by all these people who [post] ads for their porn sites." While at one time such postings were met with angry responses, "now everybody does it," he wrote. "It is a shame that such a good thing is lost."

But other observers, such as Steve Atkins, moderator of two drama and theater newsgroups, said spam needs to be kept in perspective.

The majority of newsgroups are home to serious and thought-provoking conversation, Atkins maintained. "I see virtually no spam on Usenet," he said. "One or two posts in a thousand, maybe." The groups he frequents employ a spam filtering technology called "Spam Hippo" to remove most unwanted messages, and the technology is widely available to newsgroup moderators, Atkins said.

"In the future, Usenet will continue evolving to remain useful," Atkins said. "Spam and other annoyances might be dealt with by technical solutions, social solutions, or a combination of the two."

With non-spam messages posted to Usenet averaging 350,000 per day, most newsgroups "still provide their original function of being a place where like-minded people can gather to ask questions, provide answers, provoke discussions, trigger heated arguments, flirt, gossip, heckle, and fight," he said.

Deja News fights back

Unwanted messages provide a particular challenge to Deja News, the company that operates a Web site devoted to cataloguing the massive Usenet conversation. (On Deja News, which operates like a search engine, users can search for Usenet postings on any topic.)

With spam messages on the rise, company officials are seeking ways to deliver only the most useful content to users.

"There's definitely been an uptick in the amount of spam out there," said David Wilson, VP of marketing for Deja News, in Austin, Texas. "The spammers may be unethical, but they're not dumb. They hit some of the most popular newsgroups because they know that's where the eyeballs are."

"Usenet can provide incredible value and utility to people, but it's very scattered," Wilson said. "There are so many points of access and so little control."

While there's no way to completely block unwanted messages, the company's new artificial intelligence spam filters are blocking out about 90 percent of the offensive messages from Deja News search results, Wilson said.

And two weeks ago, the company rolled out a personalized product similar to those offered on other search engines. With My Deja News, users can get direct delivery of new messages of interest to them, he said.

Searching for that information is no small feat: Deja News' database holds more than 300GB of data, some 250 million archived messages, Wilson said. New messages are numbering 900,000 per day, with the pace of posting doubling each year.

As its use increases, the challenge for newsgroup moderators, as well as for Deja News, is to make sure Usenet "doesn't spin out of control," he said.


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