What is Usenet? 5 things to know about newsgroups

While Usenet slipped under the radar for many, the computer enthusiasts of yesteryears know it as the revered origin of social networking. Its combination of text-based discussion forum and binary posting platform makes Usenet extraordinary in its own right.

Cloaked in secrecy, Usenet follows an unspoken rule reminiscent of Fight Club: the first rule of Usenet is that you do not talk about Usenet. This clandestine nature stems from the fact that while largely unknown, Usenet's existence is far from obsolete. In this article, we embark on an illuminating journey into the world of Usenet, providing a glimpse into the hidden treasures this community passionately safeguards.

1. Usenet newsgroups predate the web

In the era when browsing the internet was a command line affair and computers weighed as much as humans, Usenet emerged as a groundbreaking platform. During this time, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, from one of the world's largest nuclear research labs, introduced his revolutionary concept in the alt.hypertext Usenet newsgroup and layed the foundation for what we now recognize as the "www" in a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) string, such as https://www.techradar.com/.

Berners-Lee's pioneering internet project, aptly named WorldWideWeb, sought to facilitate instant data sharing among employees at the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

On August 6, 1991, at 14:56 GMT, he penned the following words:

"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 Usenet was originally made for academia

While the inclusion of binary posts like audio and video has kept Usenet vital today, its origins lie in a text-only form, primarily serving university students.

In 1979, two graduate students at Duke University conceived Usenet as a means to exchange messages and files through a network with colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill. 

Usenet quickly gained traction across college campuses and became a vital conduit for academic communication.

Usenet changed significantly in 1993 when AOL, a prominent internet service provider at the time, began offering Usenet access to its customers. This move introduced a large number of non-academic users to Usenet, fundamentally expanding the user base. The influx of AOL users shifted the culture of Usenet, as academia was no longer the primary driving force behind its content and discussions.

The introduction of binary posts further expanded the range of articles available on Usenet. While Usenet may no longer resemble its original form, it continues to be significant and an active platform for thousands of communities. Its evolution reflects the dynamism of online communication and highlights how technological advancements and shifts in user demographics can shape the culture and functionality of digital platforms.

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

1997 was another milestone year for Usenet when binary content was first transferred through the plaintext-only platform. Binary data is any content that is non-text, like images, video, and sound, which use a lot more network resources and server storage space than Usenet had ever used before. So, how does one put non-text files on a text-only platform? With some translating.

Encoders convert, or translate, binary files into text-only code. To access and view the binaries, the encoding process is reversed to restore the files to their original form. Over the years, the encoding technology has improved to enhance user-friendliness, but the fundamental process remains largely unchanged.

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

Despite its obscurity, Usenet continues to thrive as a fast, reliable, and secure platform. It’s resilient because of the unique way in which articles are shared and stored. Unlike other data transfer protocols and methods, Usenet breaks down binary posts into multiple components before distributing them across a decentralized network.

Premium Usenet providers all include SSL encryption, which functions similarly to OpenVPN but without requiring additional software downloads or client connections typically associated with traditional VPN services.

If you’ve read this far, why not give Usenet a shot. While it may appear a little clunky at first and lacks a visually appealing interface, for many, this unpolished charm is part of Usenet’s appeal. Also, nowadays, Usenet providers offer all-in-one software that makes searching, previewing, filtering, and accessing Usenet posts the way you naturally would on the web.

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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.