Usenet is basically an electronic bulletin board. It consists of a set of “newsgroups” with names that are classified hierarchically by subject. “Articles” or “messages” are “posted” to these newsgroups by people on computers with the appropriate software — these articles are then broadcast to other interconnected computer systems via a wide variety of networks. Some newsgroups are “moderated”; in these newsgroups, the articles are first sent to a moderator for approval before appearing in the newsgroup. Usenet is available on a wide variety of computer systems and networks, but the bulk of modern Usenet traffic is transported over either the Internet or UUCP.
Usenet has made a unique contribution to the world of computing. It was the first attempt to create a network beyond local BBS communities (which themselves were fairly new). At a time when the ‘internet’ was a network of privately operated ARPANET sites, Usenet offered a network for the general public.
Although most of the communication on Usenet was technically oriented, casual conversation was also popular, and more and more machines joined the network. To keep up with demand and handle growing amounts of data, the underlying software powering Usenet was updated and rewritten numerous times by the same people that participated in the newsgroups.
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Usenet was not only an important technical development; many social aspects of online communication were introduced, refined, and became de facto standards thanks to Usenet. Emoticons, flame wars, trolls, signatures, and even slang acronyms (BRB, LOL) found their first common usage on Usenet.
Compared to other technologies, computers have evolved (and are still evolving) at a whirlwind pace. Consequently, the history of computing has been muddied by innovations that quickly become obsolete, concurrent developments that solve the same issues, and developers discarding documentation of simple projects that became extremely successful.
Due to these issues, the archive provided by Usenet is a fine source of primary information from the most recent decades of computing. Usenet’s history is not just relevant to social networks, but to many high-tech concepts and innovations.
Newsgroups are arranged in subgroups which makes them easier to list. A newsgroup name starts with a subgroup header followed by one or more descriptive words, separated by “.”
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) are an important part of USENET culture. These list and answer the kinds of questions that beginner’s ask, and provide a good introduction to each group. They are often an excellent source of information on the subject matter of the group.
You will need special software to access USENET. Click here for a complete list.
Usenet is many things, here’s a brief list of what it isn’t:
- Usenet is not an organization. No person or group has authority over Usenet as a whole. No one controls who gets a news feed, which articles are propagated where, who can post articles, or anything else. There is no “Usenet Incorporated,” nor is there a “Usenet User’s Group.” You’re on your own.
- It is not a democracy. Since there is no person or group in charge of Usenet as a whole — i.e. there is no Usenet “government” — it follows that Usenet cannot be a democracy, autocracy, or any other kind of “-acy.”
- It is not fair. After all, who shall decide what’s fair? For that matter, if someone is behaving unfairly, who’s going to stop him?
- Usenet is not a right. Some people misunderstand their local right of “freedom of speech” to mean that they have a legal right to use others’ computers to say what they wish in whatever way they wish, and the owners of said computers have no right to stop them.
- It is not a public utility. Some Usenet sites are publicly funded or subsidized. Most of them, by plain count, are not. There is no government monopoly on Usenet, and little or no government control.
- It is not an academic network. It is no surprise that many Usenet sites are universities, research labs or other academic institutions. Usenet originated with a link between two universities, and the exchange of ideas and information is what such institutions are all about. But the passage of years has changed Usenet’s character. Today, by plain count, most Usenet sites are commercial entities.
- Usenet is not an advertising medium. Because of Usenet’s roots in academia, and because Usenet depends so heavily on cooperation (sometimes among competitors), custom
dictates that advertising be kept to a minimum. It is tolerated if it is infrequent, informative, and low-hype.
- It is not the Internet. The Internet is a wide-ranging network, parts of which are subsidized by various governments. It carries many kinds of traffic, of which Usenet is only one. And the Internet is only one of the various networks carrying Usenet traffic.
- It is not a UUCP network. UUCP is a protocol (actually a “protocol suite,” but that’s a technical quibble) for sending data over point-to-point connections, typically using dialup modems. Sites use UUCP to carry many kinds of traffic, of which Usenet is only one. And UUCP is only one of the various transports carrying Usenet traffic.
- Usenet is not a United States network. It is true that Usenet originated in the United States, and the fastest growth in Usenet sites has been there. Nowadays, however, Usenet extends worldwide. The heaviest concentrations of Usenet sites outside the U.S. seem to be in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.