What is Usenet? 5 things you didn’t know about it

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If you’ve ever watched a live stream, downloaded through P2P file-sharing, connected to Tor, posted or responded to a discussion on a bulletin board, or got in a heated Reddit thread, then Usenet is for you. 

To those under 25, chances are you’ve never even heard of Usenet, but to the classic computer nerds of yore, Usenet’s the original social network. In the most basic sense, Usenet is a cross between a discussion forum and the ultimate file-sharing platform, but it’s still something else entirely.

Because Usenet is shrouded in secrecy, there’s an unwritten community rule very similar to Fight Club. The first rule of Usenet is: you do not talk about Usenet. That’s because Usenet is not as defunct as users want you to believe. In this article, we are taking an at-a-glance look at Usenet to see just what goods the community is keeping tightly under wraps.

1. Usenet newsgroups predate the web

Before you accessed websites on the internet through a web browser, there was Usenet. It was an era when computing required the command line, and a computer weighed as much as a human being.

The alt.hypertext Usenet newsgroup is where Sir Tim Berners-Lee – then a humble contractor for one of the largest nuclear research labs in the world – first detailed his idea for what we know today as the “www” in a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) string; for example <https://www.techradar.com/>.

His initial internet project, appropriately called WorldWideWeb, aimed to help employees at the European Organization for Nuclear Research share data with one another instantly.

On August 6, 1991, at 14:56 GMT, he wrote:

“The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to allow links to be made to any information anywhere. The address format includes an access method (=namespace), and for most name spaces a hostname and some sort of path…”

2. Usenet was originally made for academia

The Usenet landscape is like your old hometown: it's familiar, but it looks nothing like it used to. While audio and video content has given new lifeblood to Usenet, it might be a surprise to learn that it was first built for university students, in text-only form.

In 1979, two graduate students at Duke University built the Usenet platform as a means to exchange messages and files through a network with colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill. Then, similarly to The Social Network, Usenet spread through college campuses.

In 1993, AOL (remember AOL!?) began to offer Usenet access to its customers. The influx of AOL users became a majority, while academic users shrunk to a minority, and thus the culture was changed forever.

3. Usenet is home to many web culture references

Many of the terms we use online and occasionally 'IRL' were first popularized in Usenet newsgroups. How many of these are you guilty of using?

Spam: Before the 90s, Spam was just a canned meat and a Monty Python reference. But today, it's the colloquial word for junk email advertising (and potentially still, physical junk mail advertising). The idea of Spam was first introduced en masse on Usenet in 1994 by the law firm Canter & Siegel. The firm posted in all of the Usenet newsgroups (a much more realistic feat in 1994) for its legal services relating to the green card lottery. The message: "Green Card Lottery – Final one?" A new kind of advertising had been born.

FAQ: A website and message board staple, the 'Frequently Asked Questions' acronym was introduced by NASA and adopted by Usenet newsgroups early on. The premise back then was similar to what it is now, only FAQs had to be reposted frequently to avoid getting buried in discussions. Not like Reddit or 4chan where FAQs can have static, ‘stickied’ posts. Over time, ‘.answers’ newsgroups like tv.answers, misc.answers, and sci.answers were added to collect the FAQs for cross-posting and easy access.

Emoticon: Your ability to substitute a bum for a peach can be traced back to Usenet. No, really. Before we had emojis, we called them ‘smileys’ and ‘emoticons’. The basic combinations for happy and sad –  :-) and :-( – were invented in 1982 by Scott Fahlman from Carnegie Mellon University. He and fellow computer scientists chatted a lot through Usenet newsgroups, and they needed a way to differentiate jokes and sarcasm. We'd say it worked, so the smiley can be considered a ‘discovery’ by computer scientists :-).

ROFL: A cousin of LOL, ROFL (‘Rolling On the Floor Laughing’) and its many forms have early roots in Usenet. The expression ROFL (without the T for "the") was first used in a 1989 Usenet post to rec.ham-radio, and ROFLOL was used in a post to the group alt.rock-n-roll in 1992. Today, it often precedes LMAO.

WTF: An incredibly popular acronym among teens and adults alike, WTF can be traced back to Usenet as well. Its first recorded instance was in the net.micro.mac titled ‘Ramblings’ on May 18, 1985. While the use of WTF rapidly grew, it’s always maintained a sense of ambiguity. Additional takes on WTF, in which the ‘w’ can stand for ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘where’, and ‘who’ have been in use since the mid-to-late 80s.

4. Usenet was text-only until the late 90s

Technically Usenet is still plaintext-only (we’ll discuss that shortly) but it wasn’t until after 1997 that binary content was transferred through the platform. As any file attachment limit can attest to, image, video, and audio files take up space. Binary data files, often called ‘binaries’ in the Usenet community, comprise that same space-taking content. That is, binary data is anything that is non-text. So, how does one put non-text files on a text-only platform? With some translating.

Encoders translate binary files to text-only code for easy sharing in, let’s say, the alt.binaries.boneless newsgroup. Then the person who wants to view the binary must convert the encoded text back to its natural form. The technology behind the encoding has improved over the years to make it more user-friendly, but the overall process is much the same.

5. Despite ‘vintage’ packaging, Usenet is here to stay

While much of the framework is hidden beneath a metaphorical layer of dust, Usenet is still thriving. The platform is reliable, safe, and easily integrates with third-parties; that allows it to withstand the tests of time. That’s because of the way files are shared and stored. Unlike other P2P file-sharing methods, binary files on Usenet are broken into multiple components before they’re sent to a decentralized network.

Most importantly, Usenet is actually a safer way to access video content than sketchy live stream sites, torrents, and the like. Unlike these other services, premium Usenet services will provide you with free SSL encryption which is essentially the same thing as OpenVPN, except you don’t have to download any software or connect to a client like you would with a traditional VPN service.

Just because Usenet was originally made for command line folks doesn’t mean the easy click-and-drag search style is unwelcome. If the look and feel of Usenet is over your head, that’s okay, too. Nowadays, Usenet providers offer all-in-one software that allows you to search, preview, filter, and download content the way you naturally would on the web.

If you’ve ever been the type to scroll through WinMX, Limewire, torrents, and the dark web, it may be time to give Usenet a shot. Sure, it’s a little clunky at first, and it’s not very beautiful to look at, but to some people, that’s just part of its charm.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.