Long before web forums, blogs, Twitter, and in many cases, the web itself, Usenet was where the internet gathered to shoot the breeze about anything and everything under the sun.
Strategy games. Cars. New ways to kill Wesley Crusher. The list of newsgroups was endless, and anyone could jump in and take part in the conversation. Although having thick skin didn't hurt.
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For most people, Usenet vanished a decade or so ago. Web forums slid in with their avatars, post counts, ranking systems and organised administrators, and the rest is history.
However, behind the scenes, many of the classic groups still live on. Whether it's simply the community simply not wanting to move, the reliability of a Usenet group versus a website that could have the plug pulled on it at any point, or simply the benefit of having neutral ground to talk on, they're still there. And in many cases, they're the best place to head if you really want to dig into a topic. TechRadar returned to Usenet for a poke around...
This post courtesy of Google
We started our return trip courtesy of Google, which bought itself a Usenet archive called Deja News back in 2001 and came up with a hybrid of Usenet and its own web forums by the name of Google Groups. Many of the older Usenet forums are firmly locked down, but there are plenty still up and running.
GOOGLE GROUPS: Google offers the easiest way into Usenet, but its linear conversation model and mix of Google and Usenet groups can be more confusing than doing it the hard way
RAIF – rec.arts.int-fiction – is just one of the active ones. This is where you go if you want to write interactive fiction/text adventure games. There are dedicated sites for this, such as the homes of various languages to help you do it, but this is where you'll find all the genre's luminaries hanging out to shoot the breeze, announce their latest projects, and help out with technical problems.
Another active group is rec.games.roguelike.nethack, for discussing Nethack in all its phenomenal complexity. It may look like a simple game, built of basic ASCII art and randomly generated dungeons, but there's a reason its players say "The DevTeam Thinks Of Everything."
Overrun with spam
Despite this, what really jumped out was the amount of spam in most groups we looked at. Usenet was where spam started infecting the internet, thanks to a couple of lawyers flogging green cards back in 1994 (the first spam was in 1978, but this was the first major commercial go at it).
Digging through the chaff proved annoying, especially after years of being used to web forum administrators playing Whack-A-Mole with these people.
Still, what quickly became obvious was that if people are still on Usenet, it's because they genuinely want to be. You can get some great information, helped by the fact that most Usenet communities are small enough for people to know everybody else.
The fix to the spam problem was to step away from Google in favour of a dedicated client. We grabbed the 30 day trial of Forte Agent, although Thunderbird and Windows Mail, amongst others, will handle news as well.
The trickiest part is that in addition to the software, you need a server to connect to, and most ISPs have long since stopped offering them. Here are some potential Usenet server starting points. We jumped onto aioe.org, and had immediate access to a decent chunk of the ones we wanted. Your experiences may vary.
PAID UP: Commercial Usenet servers offer by far the most complete archives, but at a cost. What you happen find in them, that's your own business
When hunting for servers, you'll quickly notice that many of the commercial ones seem fixated on bandwidth – very odd, for a service built around text, right?
In practice, Usenet has long had two main audiences – the people who want to chat, and dodgy downloaders. There are legitimate downloads out there, too, but nothing like the amount of pirated software, pornography (legal and otherwise), movies, and other dodgy goodies for people to download.
Given the amount of stolen content online, the obvious question is why the widespread piracy on Usenet has largely managed to avoid the anger of copyright owners around the world.
In short, it hasn't. It just hasn't been worth the effort. There have been lawsuits, including an MPAA suit against a few Usenet indexers back in 2006, and an RIAA assault on Usenet.com in 2007, but nothing like the attacks on Napster, The Pirate Bay, and other high profile services. Much better to chase after something with a central authority, and active name-recognition to mainstream users.
Still, we don't want to harp on too much about this side of things. What we were glad to see was that even after all these years, the Usenet conversion still rolls on.
It might not have the same instant gratification as jumping into a web forum, but in many cases, it's where the real experts still hang out to chat, and where people are still more than willing to help out.
That said, in most cases it's better to be pointed towards a group than go in search of it. Unless a community has settled there for the long-haul, you'll usually find far more action out there on the wider web.