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What is USENET?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

USENET, short for users network, is one of the oldest networks served by the Internet. Originally designed at Duke University in 1979 and developed at Duke and North Carolina Universities a year later, its purpose was to exchange text messages between nodes (computers connected to the network). USENET has grown to encompass a wide variety of forums or newsgroups numbering in the tens of thousands.

Newsgroups are similar to the bulletin board systems (BBSs) of the 1980s. Posts or messages sent to the newsgroup appear threaded in sequential order. A new thread begins when a member starts a new discussion topic. All members can read all threads and participate by adding their own replies or simply lurking.

Woman doing a handstand with a computer
Woman doing a handstand with a computer

The main difference between USENET and a BBS is that a BBS commonly had a single, dedicated server utilized by people living in the immediate geographic area. USENET operates with a decentralized network of global news servers that share messages with one another in order to propagate posts worldwide. Participants can therefore discuss topics with people in other parts of the world.

Newsgroups have an organized hierarchy and each has a dedicated topic. Each newsgroup is named after its topic with a charter available for newcomers to read. The charter lays out the purpose of the newsgroup in a paragraph or two. For further rules and bylaws of the newsgroup a FAQ is available for frequently asked questions.

Some newsgroups are moderated while most are not. A moderator receives every post directly before sending it on to the newsgroup. The moderator’s job is to weed out posts that don’t conform to the charter and FAQ. This includes posts that break USENET netiquette by spamming, flaming, attacking, berating or hassling members. Unmoderated groups have no control over the posts that appear to the group, and must tolerate or ignore troublemakers and spam.

A USENET newsreader makes it easy to navigate USENET, find newsgroups of interest, and participate in discussions. Many newsreaders also double as an email client.

Binary newsgroups are strictly for posting binary files. Binary files are non-textual files, most often programs, graphics, music or multimedia content in compressed formats such as RAR files. Binary files are uploaded by members and available for download to any interested party. Binary newsgroups also have dedicated topics that relate to the types of binaries uploaded to the group.

USENET was the precursor to Web forums where discussion takes place at websites between registered members. An advantage of USENET newsgroups is that it is much easier to have an in-depth discussion with multiple participants, as newsreaders automatically quote text from multiple parties in the order the conversation occurred, rolling the discourse into a single, differentiated post. This makes it fast and easy to interject your own responses in context. Web forums, by contrast, are well suited for chatting, but quickly become tedious when quoting more than one or two levels deep.

To participate in USENET one needs access to a news server. Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer a news server free with standard Internet access. If an ISP does not provide a news server, USENET newsgroups can be accessed from websites like Google Groups. Alternately, one can purchase USENET service from a third party such as Giganews, SuperNews or Easynews, to name a few. Free public news servers also exist but many have poor propagation or only allow reading and not posting. Others have only a small selection of newsgroups available.

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