Almost Anarchy: A Brief History of Fidonet, a Project That Doesn’t Care About Winning Over the Internet

Endless streams of advertising, dubious design decisions, pages weighing tens of megabytes – today's web has disadvantages. We are used to putting up with them for the opportunities that the Internet offers. And in the 80-90s, many refused to compromise and went to a completely different network, Fidonet. We will tell you how it attracted people and where it is used today.

Photo – marc falardeau – CC BY / Photo modified

In the 80s, the Internet was full of electronic bulletin boards (Bulletin Board System, BBS). These were early versions of online forums that allowed you to post on specific topics. One user of such systems was Tom Jennings, a programmer, anarchist, and minority rights activist. He wanted to create his own solution, which would be cheaper and more accessible than the Internet capabilities available at that time. As Jennings himself later wrote in the history of Fidonet, his only desire was to see if such a system could work.

The first members of the new network were Jennings himself and his friend John Madil, who lived on different US coasts. Technically, the solution was a point-to-point network and communication was established directly between the two participants. They prepared their letters offline, and sent them at night, when telephone communications were cheaper.

Contrary to popular legend, the name of the network did not come from the name of the dog Jennings. The creator of Fidonet did not have a dog at all, and the word fido means a simple mongrel.

Photo – Blake Patterson – CC BY / Photo modified

Under this scheme, with virtually no changes, Fidonet worked further, successfully combining online mode with offline. The only thing that has changed in subsequent years is the structure of the network itself.

With more than fifty nodes, Tom provided city administrators with the ability to manage networks geographically. And Fidonet from linear became tree-like.

Fidonet Structure

  • Point – A simple user who is not actually considered a member of the network does not have functional responsibilities and voting rights.
  • Knot (or node) – the minimum Fidonet element that takes care of message delivery. Sysop nodes (system operators) controlled the nodes, they were also responsible for all the content passing through their node and points, which opened access to the online space.
  • Network – a group of nodes, united by a geographical principle (usually a city).
  • Region – A larger group, which may include an entire country or go beyond its borders. For example, in 1995, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states had their own regions, and the nodes of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were part of the Russian one.
  • Zone – the largest unit of the network. The creators of Fidonet divided the world into six zones: 1 – North America; 2 – Europe and the territory of the former USSR; 3 – Australia and Oceania; 4 – South America; 5 – Africa; 6 – Asia.

The sysop title combined status and great responsibility. As we said above, these people were responsible for the content that enters the network through their site. The Russian-language manual on Fidonet even mentioned that sysops could read the personal correspondence of users to make sure there were no violations – any commercial content that was banned on the network.

Photo – frankieleon – CC BY / Photo modified

The main duty of the sysop is to ensure the delivery of accumulated personal letters every day at the appointed time. For this, a so-called “postal hour” (Zone Mail Hour, ZMH) was established in each zone. During this period, all nodes were required to stop file transfer, block access to conferences, and answer calls. In addition to ZMH, in some cases there were local “postal hours”, which were agreed upon within the cities.

Participants in local communities themselves chose the person responsible. The nodes selected the node coordinators, the regions had their own coordinators, the zones had their own, and at a larger level, interzonal curators worked. The coordinator of each level was responsible to the superior for everything that happens in his area of ​​authority. All fundamental rules were spelled out in the "Politics". Jennings reduced all the basic requirements for people to think about their actions and not interfere with each other's life, but over time, the coordinators began to make amendments and updates.

As a result, the current, fourth version of Politics, Jennings called the "smelly pot of shit" (smelly old crock of shit), seeing there attempts to limit freedom of speech.

Fidonet in Russia: a new network came to us already in 1990 – the first node was launched on September 21 in Novosibirsk. A week later, the node appeared in Moscow. In those days, the Internet was for most completely inaccessible technology. But telephone communication, on the contrary, remained cheap, which served as the popularity of the network.

How to communicate on the network

All fidoshy content was divided into personal (netmail) and public correspondence (echo conferences), and there was also data exchange (file echo conferences). The first version of the network, in which there were only two participants, allowed only the exchange of personal letters. When there were more users, this mechanism turned out to be very uncomfortable: if you wanted to send a message to several recipients, you had to repeat the process for each of them. Echo conferences have solved this problem.

Photo – kevin – CC BY / Photo modified

They allowed to publish content to a wide audience. In order not to ruin the sysops (recall, the exchange of data was via telephone wires), the message delivery was progressing gradually – each node sent letters to the nearest nodes, and they sent further along the chain.

From its earliest days, Fidonet was a non-profit project that influenced the atmosphere in the community. Users were forbidden to conduct commercial activities – often it was this kind of content that sysops looked for in letters. For the mate and insults in most echo conferences relied ban. Participants could be reprimanded for offtopic, unnecessary quotes, and generally for verbosity – the demand for traffic was also laid down in the very “DNA” of Fidonet.

Partly due to such strict rules and the specifics of the then online audience, Fidonet published a lot of interesting, competent content. Many users say that they have never received such a pleasure from communication, as in this network. And experts call Fidonet one of the most successful hierarchical structures built on anarchist principles: all power to users, a minimum of prohibitions, and everything that is not prohibited is allowed.

Sunset era

Fidonet reached its peak of popularity in the mid-90s, when the network numbered 40 thousand nodes (it is impossible to calculate the number of points for technical reasons). After that, he began to lose to the Internet the struggle for users. Modems have become cheaper, communication is more affordable, content is “multimedia”. Unlike Jennings and his followers, the mass audience was not averted by advertising. In addition, by the end of the 90s, the leisurely pace of Fidonet completely stopped responding to ideas about the speed of communication. Jennings himself stopped participating in the development of the project in the second half of the 90s due to discrepancies with network administrators.

Photos – Blake Patterson – CC BY

On the other hand, Fidonet has come a traditional way for so many human communities. An enthusiastic project had many winning qualities that brought him an army of fans. These people built their own order and lived in it for several years.

With the change of generations of users, the mood inside Fidonet also changed – old-timers wrote that the times are not the same, and newcomers began to bully and engage in trolling.

However, you should not completely put an end to Fidonet. Technology FTN-networks (Fido Technology Network) is used to deliver specific data, for example, for communication between banks or law enforcement agencies. Data is transmitted over the Internet, but with the preservation of the specifics of Fido (point-to-point, session-based principle of communication, hierarchical organization).

Fidonet itself today is inhabited by bots and a small number of enthusiasts who are still disgusted with the Internet. You can still open your point, for which you need to find the right one (in Moscow there is an echo-conference N5020.POINT for such searches). If you wish, you can even run the node and feel like a real techno-anarchist.

P.S. At, we have an IaaS provider blog. There we write about data protection, the architecture of cloud services, virtualization and share personal experiences.

P.P.S. What we did not talk about: this material does not claim to be complete in terms of disclosing all the details of the history of Fidonet, the nuances of building a network and the principles of communication of community members. But we are happy to take into work those details with which you consider it necessary to supplement the story (write in the comments), and prepare a sequel.

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