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Alt Hierarchy History

Brian Reid, Usenet Backbone Administrator, Liberated Alt Hierarchy
- Brian Reid

If an article is received with a Newsgroups line listing some valid newsgroups and some invalid newsgroups, a site should not remove invalid newsgroups from the list. Instead, the invalid newsgroups should be ignored.

- RFC 850; Standard for Interchange of USENET Messages; Mark Horton; June 1983.

The alt hierarchy enables the Usenet community to exercise complete freedom of speech.

The issue of free speech and the Usenet have been intertwined from its creation, since the newsgroups were carried by a wide variety of military, academic, and corporate sites, each with their own usage policies. In a bit of an Internet theme, like the similar development of mulitple IRC networks the establishment of the "alt." category established a right to freedom of online expression cuased by a reaction against over-control at the center.

The first attempt to control Usenet speech resulted in the creation of the "talk.*" hierarchy, where all controversial newsgroups and postings were supposed to be allocated. This wasn't successful mainly because it was a controlled form of free speech. Someone could say what they wanted in the talk newsgroups, but the groups themselves were still controlled by the backbone administrators. Interestingly, with the increase in message traffic in the late 1990's, the talk newsgroups saw a resurgence in use for the discussion of controversial subjects just as they were originally intended.

The introduction of genuine free speech on the Usenet began with the creation of the "alt." hierarchy, sparked by the creation of The alt hierarchy now has many more newsgroups than any other hierarchy. All other Usenet hierarchies require you to follow a definite procedure to create a new group in that category. However, a newsgroup in the alt hierarchy can be created by anyone. The resulting set of newsgroups form a truly global democratic system, since each group in the alt category survives only if people show an interest in it.

The best description of the creation of the "alt." category, is given by someone who was there - Brian Reid, as described below:

"The famous barbecue at which the alt net was created was held at G.T.'s Sunset Barbecue in Mountain View California on May 7, 1987. John Gilmore and I were both unhappy with the decision making process of the 'ordinary' net. John was distressed because they wouldn't create rec.drugs, and I was distressed because they wanted to force me to adopt the name '' for my recipe newsgroup. Gordon Moffett of Amdahl also sat with us. He had no specific beef or goal, but he wanted to help. John's home computer was 'hoptoad'; my home computer was 'mejac'. We set up a link between us, and each of us set up a link to amdahl, and we vowed to pass all alt traffic to each other and to nurse the net along. In those days one sent out numerous newgroup messages in the hopes that one would 'take'; by the end of May the groups alt.test, alt.config, alt.drugs, and alt.gourmand were active. At the time I also managed 'decwrl', so I quietly added 'alt' to the list of groups that it carried.

Nearly a year later, there was a vote taken about '' and although it passed, Gene Spafford refused to create it. I therefore created '' on April 3, 1988, and sent the following message to the USENET 'backbone' cabal:


From: (Brian Reid)
Message-Id: <>
Date: 3 Apr 1988 1754-PST (Sunday)
Subject: Re: final results
In-Reply-To: Gene Spafford / Sun, 03 Apr 88 18:22:36 EST.

To end the suspense, I have just created
That meant that the alt network now carried and
alt.drugs. It was therefore artistically necessary to create
alt.rock-n-roll, which I have also done. I have no idea what
sort of traffic it will carry. If the bizzarroids take it
over I will rmgroup it or moderate it; otherwise I will let
it be.

Brian Reid
T5 (5th thoracic)

'T5' is the name of a vertebra (the 5th thoracic vertebra). This was my attempt to remind these people that I was an official voting member of the backbone.

At the time I sent that message I didn't yet realize that alt groups were immortal and couldn't be killed by anyone. In retrospect, this is the joy of the alt network: you create a group, and nobody can kill it. It can only die, when people stop reading it. No artificial death, only natural death.

I don't wish to offer an opinion about how the net should be run; that's like offering an opinion about how salamanders should grow: nobody has any control over it, regardless of what opinions they might have."

- Brian Reid; in Hardy, Henry's The History of the Net; 28 Sept 1993.