A look into Usenet, the original wild west of the internet
If you’ve hung around the internet for any length of time, you’ve probably come across the word “Usenet” a couple of times. Depending on the context, you may have heard it described as a near-mythical hacker’s proto-internet, a good place to find free files or a forum with complicated names like alt.binaries.boneless. If you took the time to read the Wikipedia article, you were faced with a meandering history that covers everything from network diagrams to “The Eternal September” and “The Great Renaming.”
There are gigabytes of interesting information about it out there on the Internet, but summing up what Usenet is in a single sentence is a challenging proposition. It’s a decentralized forum designed for textual communication within categories called “newsgroups.” It’s also a popular place to store and share files that users may or may not have the rights to. It’s the original internet community, existing before P2P file sharing apps, Reddit, 4chan, and vBulletin fan forums. Usenet was the internet before the internet was the internet; it’s a piece of digital history that still accessible and useful today.
Here’s the thing about getting started on Usenet: you have to pay for it. In the ’90s many ISPs provided access directly to Usenet alongside internet services but technological changes and legal battles have led almost all of them to cut access entirely. If you want to log on today, you’ll have to purchase access from one of the dozens of Usenet providers available. Major providers like Newshosting, EasyNews, Usenet Storm, and Astraweb offer packages that range from less than $5 to around $30 per month. Each service and package will have advantages and disadvantages.
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Key traits to look for in a Usenet provider include file retention, data caps, security, and parallel connections. Users looking to download files should pay particular attention to data caps and security. Data caps will set a monthly limit on how much you can download, but unlimited packages are also available on almost all providers. At a minimum, security features should include SSL encryption and a no-logging policy. Encryption protects your connection during access and a no-logging policy protects you by not keeping track of what you download.
File retention refers to the length of time a Usenet provider will keep files on their servers. You should look for at least one year of retention, but if you’re interested in older files some providers offer retention rates of up to four years. Many providers distinguish between their text and binary (software/media) retention. Text retention tends to be higher due to the small file size and lack of copyright issues, so if you’re shopping for a high-retention provider be sure the number they advertise includes all groups or that they specialize in alt.binaries like UsenetStorm.com.
Once you’ve signed up with a Usenet provider you’ll need a newsreader (or newsgroup readers). Think of a newsreader as a web browser for Usenet; you’ll use it to search, read content and handle file downloads. Due to the way Usenet file storage is structured (something we’ll talk about below), large files are broken into many small files. We download these files using something called the NZB standard. An NZB points to the location of file parts across Usenet; your newsreader will read this file and use it to download the pieces and assemble them into your finished file. Not all newsreaders will support this kind of downloading. Those looking for a free option can check out SABnzbd or platform-specific alternatives like Hellanzb on Mac and Alt.Binz on Windows.
If you step away from the NZB search engines and choose to download and browse Usenet directly, you’ll notice that the “threads” are organized under newsgroup names like alt.binaries.pictures. These names contain the hierarchy of the newsgroup and are the backbone of how Usenet categorizes content. Every single upload to Usenet belongs to a newsgroup and is categorized under one of these names. The names contain all newsgroups above it in the hierarchy starting with the highest; a hypothetical racing fan newsgroup might exist at alt.binaries.multimedia.racing. There are 9 main hierarchies you need to be aware of today: The Big 8 and the infamous alt.* hierarchy.
The Big 8 hierarchies cover, you guessed it, eight topics:
comp.* (computing), humanities.*, misc.* (miscellaneous topics including education and classifieds), news.*, rec.* (entertainment), sci.* (science), soc.* (society) and talk.* (controversial discussions).
Groups are added to or removed from the Big 8 based on a system of public discussion, nomination, and voting. The Big 8 Management Board works to “create well-named, well-used newsgroups,” make adjustments to and remove existing groups, and assist in the creation of a canonical list of Big 8 groups. The Big 8 represents a fulfillment of the original vision of Usenet: a system of community-moderated boards dedicated to discussion.
If you’re looking for the mythical hacker file-sharing Internet, head over to the alt.* (alternative) hierarchy. Alt.* includes everything from the discussion of adoption and poetry to file sharing (alt.binaries) and famed hacker newsletters. There is no centralized control of the hierarchy and anyone capable of creating a group can do so. However, there is public discussion of new groups at alt.config that helps newsgroup creators create successful newgroups and integrate them into the hierarchy. The alt.* hierarchy is responsible in large part for Usenet’s legal troubles and its somewhat shady reputation.
Hierarchies exist outside of alt.* and the Big 8, but this outline covers mainstream Usenet. Explaining why the hierarchies are arranged this way requires discussing the history and creation of the platform itself.
Usenet History 101
Duke University students began experimenting with what they called “netnews” in 1979. This software utilized Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP) to connect Duke computer science department members to each other and to other universities. When this experiment succeeded in replacing their current collaboration tools (long-distance phone calls and postal newsletters), they continued work on the project and released it to the public as “A News.” A News organized content into three hierarchies: fa.* for content From ARPANET, mod.* for curated discussions and net.* for unmoderated groups. Developments in the A News Software (and successors B News and C News) made some changes to the structure but Usenet continued on with roughly this structure until The Great Renaming of 1987.
Originally designed solely for textual conversations, the face of Usenet changed thanks to the development of Uuencode by Mark Horton in 1980. Uuencode took a binary file and encoded it as a series of text files. This made binary files compatible with Usenet’s upload requirements and transformed Usenet from a discussion board into a filesharing hub.
The Great Renaming of 1987 was organized by B News maintainer Rick Adams. Adams worked with administrators from the “backbone” of Usenet providers to create seven hierarchies: comp.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.* and talk.*. The alt.* hierarchy came into existence soon afterward to avoid the moderation of the mainstream groups. Later, humanities.* would turn the Big 7 into the Big 8 during an academic traffic surge in 1995.
“Usenet Culture” would come to an end under a wave of new users in what’s referred to as the “Eternal September”, which was the September 1993. Before the Eternal September, Usenet users largely came from academic networks. Freshmen would arrive in droves every September and would either acclimate to the Usenet culture (also known as “netiquette”) or slowly fade from the service. In September of 1993, America Online began offering Usenet access to all subscribers. This endless influx of new users buried Usenet culture under mass usage and helped coin the term AOL’er as an insult.
Since the Eternal September, Usenet has faced a host of obstacles: the ever-growing bandwidth and storage weight of piracy, legal pressure from copyright lawsuits and law enforcement investigations, blacklisting by most ISPs and the retirement of the original Duke University server in 2010. Still, Usenet lives on today; the providers seek legal cover behind their status as a “telecommunications provider” that isn’t responsible for user-generated content and the users continue anonymously swapping stories and software in the far corners of the internet. With a little money and a little work, you too can experience The Internet That Was. Whether you’re looking for files to download or want to experience the Internet community that gave us terms like “flame war”, “thread”, and the “Meow Wars”, it’s worth putting in the time to dig into Usenet.