The backbone cabal was an informal organization of large-site news server administrators of the worldwide distributed newsgroup-based discussion system Usenet. It existed from about 1983 at least into the 2000s.
The cabal was created in an effort to facilitate reliable propagation of new Usenet posts. While in the 1970s and 1980s many news servers only operated during night time to save on the cost of long distance communication, servers of the backbone cabal were available 24 hours a day. The administrators of these servers gained sufficient influence in the otherwise anarchic Usenet community to be able to push through controversial changes, for instance the Great Renaming of Usenet newsgroups during 1987.
As Usenet has few technologically or legally enforced hierarchies, just about the only ones that formed were social. People acquired power through persuasion (both publicly and privately), public debate, force of will (often via aggressive flames), garnering authority and respect by spending much time and effort contributing to the community (by being a maintainer of a FAQ, for example; see also Kibo, etc.).
Mary Ann Horton recruited membership in and designed the original physical topology of the Usenet Backbone in 1983. Gene "Spaf" Spafford then created an email list of the backbone administrators, plus a few influential posters. This list became known as the Backbone Cabal and served as a "political (i.e. decision making) backbone". Other prominent members of the cabal were Brian Reid, Bob Allisat, Chuq von Rospach and Rick Adams.
In Internet culture
During most of its existence, the cabal (sometimes capitalized) steadfastly denied its own existence; those involved would often respond "There is no Cabal" (sometimes abbreviated as "TINC"'), whenever the existence or activities of the group were speculated on in public. It is sometimes used humorously to dispel cabal-like organizational conspiracy theories, or as an ironic statement, indicating one who knows the existence of "the cabal" will invariably deny there is one.
This belief became a model for various conspiracy theories about various Cabals with dark nefarious objectives beginning with taking over Usenet or the Internet. Spoofs include the "Eric Conspiracy" of moustachioed hackers named "Eric"; ex-members of the P.H.I.R.M.; and the Lumber Cartel putatively funding anti-spam efforts to support the paper industry.
The result of this policy was an aura of mystery, even a decade after the cabal mailing list disbanded in late 1988 following an internal fight.
- Usenet posting: "backbone sites needed", by Mark (now Mary Ann) Horton, 15 February 1983
- Usenet posting: "proposed USENET backbone", by Mark (now Mary Ann) Horton, 21 March 1983
- Usenet History email: "Usenet backbone", by Gene Spafford, 17 October 1990
- "TINC". The Jargon File. Retrieved August 15, 2020.
- "backbone cabal". TechWeb. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-09-07.
- Henry Edward Hardy, 1993. The Usenet System, ITCA Teleconferencing Yearbook 1993, ITCA Research Committee, International Teleconferencing Association, Washington, DC. pp 140–151, esp. subheading "The Great Renaming" and "The Breaking of the Backbone Cartel".