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Usenet

Usenet (User's Network) is an ancient digital discussion network -- a forum -- that existed long before the World Wide Web. At the time it was very popular, it was THE place to be, but nowadays it's been forgotten by the mainstream, sadly hardly anyone remembers it.

Back in the day there were no web browsers, there was no web. Many users were also not connected through Internet as it was expensive, they normally used other networks like UUCP working through phone lines. They could communicate by some forms of electronic mail or by directly connecting to servers and leaving messages for others there -- these servers were called BBSes and were another popular kind of "social network" at the time. Usenet was a bit different as it was decentralized -- it wasn't stored or managed on a single server, but on many independent servers that provided users with access to the network. This access was (and is) mostly paid (to lurk for free you can search for Usenet archives online). To access Usenet a newsreader program was needed, it was kind of a precursor to web browsers (nowadays newsreaders are sometimes built into e.g. email clients). Usenet was lots of time not moderated and anonymous, i.e. kind of free, you could find all kinds of illegal material there.

Usenet invented many things that survive until today such as the words spam and FAQ as well as some basic concepts of how discussion forums even work.

Usenet was originally ASCII only, but people started to post binary files encoded as ASCII and there were dedicated sections just for posting binaries, so you co go piiiiiiiiirating.

It worked like this: there were a number of Usenet servers that all collaborated on keeping a database of articles that users posted (very roughly this is similar to how blockchain works nowadays); the servers would more or less mirror each other's content. These servers were called providers as they also allowed access to Usenet but this was usually for a fee. The system uses a NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) protocol. The articles users posted were also called posts or news, they were in plain text and were similar to email messages. Other users could reply to posts, creating a discussion thread. Every post was also categorized under certain newsgroup that formed a hierarchy (e.g. comp.lang.java). After so called Big Renaming in 1987 the system eventually settled on 8 top level hierarchies (called the Big 8): comp.* (computers), news.* (news), sci.* (science), rec.* (recreation), soc.* (social), talk.* (talk), misc.* (other) and humanities.* (humanities). There was also another one called alt.* for "controversial" topics (see especially alt.tasteless). According to Jargon File, by 1996 there was over 10000 different newsgroups.

Usenet was the pre-web web, kind of like an 80s reddit which contained huge amounts of historical information and countless discussions of true computer nerds which are however not easily accessible anymore as there aren't so many archives, they aren't well indexed and direct Usenet access is normally paid. It's a shame. It is possible to find e.g. initial reactions to the AIDS disease, people asking what the Internet was, people discussing future technologies, the German cannibal (Meiwes) looking for someone to eat (which he eventually did), Bezos looking for Amazon programmers, a heated debate between Linus Torvalds and Andrew Tanenbaum about the best OS architecture (the "Linux is obsolete" discussion) or Douglas Adams talking to his fans. There were memes and characters like BIFF, a kind of hilarious noob wannabe cool personality. Some users became kind of famous, e.g. Scott Abraham who was banned from Usenet by court after an extremely long flame war, Alexander Abian, a mathematician who argued for blowing up the Moon (which according to his theory would solve all Earth's issues), Archimedes Plutonium who suggested the Universe was really a big plutonium atom (he later literally changed his name to Plutonium lol) or John Titor (pretend time traveler). There are also some politically incorrect groups like alt.niggers lol.

{ I mean I don't remember it either, I'm not that old, I've just been digging on the Internet and in the archives, and I find it all fascinating. ~drummyfish }

Where to browse Usenet for free? Search for Usenet archives, I've found some sites dedicated to this, also Internet archive has some newsgroups archived. Google has Usenet archives on a website called "Google groups" (now sadly requires login). There is a nice archive at https://www.usenetarchives.com. Possibly guys from Archive Team can help (https://wiki.archiveteam.org/index.php/Usenet).

See Also


All content available under CC0 1.0 (public domain). Send comments and corrections to drummyfish at disroot dot org.