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The Creation of rec.humor.funny

The Creation of rec.humor.funny

This is the story of rec.humor.funny, an online comedy publication which began as a USENET newsgroup and is a contender for the title of "world's longest running blog."

The history of rec.humor.funny starts with the history of USENET, and involves one of the first cases of attempted censorship on the net (which, of course, backfired on the censors) and the creation of the first company founded to do business over the Internet. It includes forays into the online service world and the eventual fading of USENET as the soul of the Internet.

Where USENET came from

In the early days of the Internet, E-mail was the primary means of communication and community. Many mailing lists sprang up and people had discussions around the USA and eventually around the world.

In 1979 two programmers named Ellis and Truscott sought to build a system that would combine a number of computer communication functions. One was online discussion, as found in mailing lists and the earliest BBSs, and which had been found on early online communities like Plato and Compuserve. The other was the "news of the day" function found on most mainframes, which everybody saw when they logged on.

They created software for what they called USENET, a "user's network" and as people traded tapes of the software and made connections, it quickly grew to be the "soul" on the Internet. It was the "place" where people met and communicated, the center of its community, and where things happened. Discussion areas on USENET were called "newsgroups" (thanks to the origin in publishing computer system news) and soon there were hundreds, and eventually thousands.

As the network grew, newsgroups ranged from serious computer discussion to very non-serious discussion. One of the most popular newsgroups, known as net.jokes, was used to publish and read jokes. (In the old naming system, "net" indicated it was net-wide.) Net.jokes soon became a very high volume newsgroup, not just with jokes, but with people arguing about them, being offended by them, flaming one another and arguing about the flaming. It also had a lot of jokes repeated again and again, and of course, many that just weren't that funny to just about anybody.

Nonetheless, with my interest in comedy I read it. USENET had a facility for "moderated" newsgroups which had an moderator overseeing posting. While there was no security, the convention was that nobody else could post, and all postings were sent to the moderator first for approval. However, there were few moderated groups and they were all in a special hierarchy.

By 1986, the old naming structure was getting overloaded, and a plan went out for a renaming of all the groups. We created 7 hierarchies, and net.jokes was renamed rec.humor, "rec" standing for recreational. I set out to create a moderated newsgroup for comedy. Most of the moderated newsgroups up to that date gave the moderator a fairly thankless task of simply approving posts and keeping order. My plan instead was to exercise an editorial judgment, and only accept jokes I actually liked. The result would be just 1 or 2 postings a day (instead of several hundred) but each one would at least crack a smile.

This was somewhat controversial. USENET has always had an anything-goes attitude, and editing smacked of censorship. I would not be stopping anybody from posting what they wanted in rec.humor or elsewhere, of course, but in my group my word would be law.

When I proposed the group, the renaming was underway and I was encouraged to wait for it to be done. In addition, I liked the idea of calling the group "rec.humor.funny." This name was itself satirical; to many rec.humor, which was supposed to be funny, was far from it. This would, I boldly claimed, be the funny bits. It left in the air the suggestion that the rest was rec.humor.unfunny.


Also new at that time was a system for "voting" on the creation of newsgroups. To create a group, you needed to hold a vote, and get 100 more yes votes than no. This was intended to test both that you had more support than opposition, and also to test that you had at least 100 supporters. Because it looked like democracy, it also made people who were whining about newsgroups go away when they could not pass those tests, since you can't argue with the will of the people. (In spite of this the voting system remains the source of much flamage and controversy. I myself proposed an alternate system for doing trials of proposed newsgroups to see if people liked them which I had to abandon for lack of time.)

There wasn't a lot of support for rec.humor.funny in the vote, however. I was moderately well known on the net, having helped bring it to Canada and having written some minor software tools on it. I had also written a number of well regarded original jokes in rec.humor. However, the vote in 1987 "failed" in that it got around 60 yes votes and 1 no vote.

However, some members of the "cabal" -- operators of the big systems on which the network depended -- liked the idea to go ahead and ignore the new voting system and give it a try.

August 7, 1987: Creation

On August 7, 1987, I created the newsgroup and began posting to it. At first, I did this by reading rec.humor and other related newsgroups and saving the jokes I thought the best. This is very similar to what a lot of blogs do today, posting links to the most interesting things their editors have seen on the net. It was also similar to one of the earliest moderated newsgroups, one called mod.ber, which in 1983 had its editors post pointers to the most interesting threads of discussion on the net. You can see some of those jokes or browse all the best from the archives.

The decision to go against the voting was a good one. By September RHF, as people usually refer to it, was the 20th most widely read group on the net. Rec.humor however, was at #7, thanks to its age. By October, RHF was in 7th place, 2 ahead of rec.humor, with 24,000 readers. By December it was 3rd out of 300 groups, and by August of 88 it was #2, and by January of 1989 it hit #1, where it stayed.

The meteoric rise in 1988 was not simply my doing, however. That final bump can be credited in part to the attempt in late 1988 to ban rec.humor.funny. You can follow that link for the full story, which I wrote many years ago. Like most attempts at censorship, it backfired. Indeed, as a result of the ban, it ended up giving RHF a readership which surpassed the daily circulation of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, the newspaper which was the source of all the trouble.

This was, in hindsight, an early taste of the decline and fall of print newspapers at the hands of the net. In another prior article, I documented how RHF lead to the creation of ClariNet the world's first dot-com company, and in particular online newspaper.

I also started a series of books based on the best jokes from RHF, which I published for family in 1987, and then to the net audience in 88, 89, 90 and 91, getting fancier with each edition. A few years later, a compendium best-of book known as The Internet Jokebook was published by the book arm of the Computer Literacy Bookstore chain. It only sold modestly.

The books I did were also controversial, giving the appearance of commercial activity and profit on USENET. With the amount of labour and minimal margins, I can't imagine I made minimum wage.

In 1989, I expanded RHF to move onto the "GEnie" online service, giving it the name the "TeleJoke Round Table." RHF could be read there, and I built an E-mail gateway between regular Internet/UUCP mail and GEnie so I could read mail in one mailbox and get submissions from both areas. GEnie resisted Internet integration until the very end however, and that was probably responsible for its downfall. (Though in the end, all the services except AOL would fall to the Internet.)

The creation of ClariNet did not leave me more spare time. By 1992, with RHF readership estimates approaching 200,000, I had to stop editing it. I recruited Maddi Hausmann, a regular contributor to the newsgroup, to take over the reigns. I still hosted the newsgroup, using the software tools I had built for it, along with the servers of ClariNet. She picked the jokes for 3 more years, as the world wide web started becoming important. USENET continued to grow during that period, and indeed in some ways has grown ever since, but after the excitement of Netscape and the dawn of various cool web sites, USENET's mindshare would begin a decline from which it would never recover.

By June of 1995, the last USENET readership report was released, estimating 460,000 readers for rec.humor.funny. That month, the reigns would be passed again, this time to Jim Griffith, who had been a contributor and also the moderator of a different newsgroup. He would be editor for longer than Maddi and I put together.

RHF's time as the most widely read publication on the Internet was an exciting one. I don't know exactly when, but sometime in 1994 I expect Yahoo managed to supplant it, and by some measures still has that title. Keeping the volume small and hopefully high quality seemed to do the trick.

I've written somewhat elsewhere of USENET's decline, which can be attributed to many things, most of all its stagnation in the face of major innovation in the browsed web. Yet oddly, even in spite of efforts like RSS to return "serial" posting and reading to the net, USENET persists because some of the things it did 20 years ago still are not done well on web sites. That this is still the case baffles me. I believe there is a spectrum of online media, that I call serial vs. browsed and the web these days ignores or kludges the serial in favour of the browsed.

Today RHF is readable on netfunny.com, and has an RSS feed, but many still choose to read it with a USENET reader, and contribute by E-mail as they have for 20 years.

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