Before the internet and the world wide web became widespread and easily accessible to the public, there was something called Usenet, a distributed discussion network that people could access from their computers. The network was established in 1980 by two graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. It was an easy way to exchange files and messages between different computers just as we do with the web today.
One of the most important aspects of Usenet is called a newsgroup. It is a location on the Usenet network where people can talk about a particular subject by posting on a news server. Technically, it's a repository for messages posted from users across different locations within the Usenet system. The news server is the software that manages storage and routing for messages.
Before the world wide web made it easy to access websites, newsgroups were one of the most popular internet services. They still exist today but have much fewer users than mainstream social sites like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook.
- We feature the best Usenet providers
How does a newsgroup work
There are two types of newsgroups; binary and text. These two have no technical difference but the differentiation enables users and servers to minimize bandwidth usage. A text file is a non-executable digital file containing only text, while a binary file is a non-text file that stores binary data, e.g., images, videos, audio, etc.
A newsgroup usually focuses on a specific interest or topic, but some allow users to post about anything they deem on-topic. Any message sent for publication on the newsgroup is known as a post. The administrator of the news server decides how long to keep posts on the server before deleting them, and this period is known as retention. Different servers can have different retention periods for the same newsgroup; some may keep posts up for weeks, while some can keep them up for years.
A file uploaded on a newsgroup will spread to many other servers, where an unlimited number of users can download them to their own computers. This occurs because newsgroups are widely distributed. Users download files from a local news server, which guarantees fast speed.
Usenet was designed to transfer to text files rather than binary files but it proved effective for the latter. However, transmitting binary files over Usenet occasionally caused data loss. To work around this, some developers created programs that encoded binary file data to text characters, transmitted them over Usenet, and decoded them back to binary data on the downloader's computer.
There was also a limit placed on the size of posts to prevent large binary files from being sent as single posts. To work around this, developers created newsreaders that split large binary files into several posts on one end and on the other, group the split files into a single file for a user to download. These workarounds have enabled Usenet users to exchange terabytes of files each day.
A few newsgroups are moderated such that assigned individuals must approve any post before it gets published. Some news servers are free to access and some require payment to access them. The free servers are usually slower and less reliable than the paid ones. The free ones also tend not to provide secure SSL connections and have a short retention period of between 10 and 100 days.
Newsgroups and the Usenet network may not be in vogue, but they represent one of the best ways to connect with people on the internet. We’ve explained what a newsgroup is and how it works and we provided examples of Usenet providers that enable you to access newsgroups. There’s nothing stopping you from becoming a Usenet user today.
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Stefan has always been a lover of tech. He graduated with an MSc in geological engineering but soon discovered he had a knack for writing instead. So he decided to combine his newfound and life-long passions to become a technology writer. As a freelance content writer, Stefan can break down complex technological topics, making them easily digestible for the lay audience.