Usenet is a distributed Internet discussion system that evolved from a general purpose UUCP network of the same name. Users read and post email-like messages (called "articles") to a number of distributed newsgroups, categories that resemble bulletin board systems in most respects. The medium is sustained among a large number of servers, which store and forward messages with one another. Usenet is of significant cultural importance in the networked world, having given rise to, or popularized, many widely recognized concepts and terms such as "FAQ" and "spam".
Usenet is one of the oldest computer network communications systems still in widespread use. It was established in 1980 following experiments in the previous year, over a decade before the general public was admitted to the Internet and the World Wide Web was introduced. It was originally conceived as a "poor man's ARPANET", employing UUCP to offer mail and file transfers, as well as announcements through the newly developed news software. This system, developed at Duke University, was called USENET to emphasize its creators' hope that the USENIX organization would take an active role in its operation (Daniel et al, 1980).
Today, almost all Usenet traffic is carried over the Internet. The current format and transmission of Usenet articles is very similar to that of Internet email messages. However, whereas email is usually used for one-to-one communication, Usenet is a one-to-many medium.
The articles that users post to Usenet are organized into topical categories called newsgroups, which are themselves logically organized into hierarchies of subjects. For instance, sci.math and sci.physics are within the sci hierarchy, for science. When a user subscribes to a newsgroup, the news client software keeps track of which articles have been read.
When a user posts an article, initially it is only available on that user's news server. Each news server, however, talks to one or more other servers (its "newsfeeds") and exchanges articles with them. In this fashion, the article is copied from server to server and (if all goes well) eventually reaches every server in the network. The later peer-to-peer networks operate on a similar principle; but for Usenet it is normally the sender, rather than the receiver, that initiates transfers. Some have noted that this seems a monstrously inefficient protocol in the era of abundant high-speed network access. Usenet was designed for a time when networks were much slower, and not always available. Many sites on the original Usenet network would connect only once or twice a day to batch-transfer messages in and out.
Today, Usenet has lost importance compared to mailing lists and weblogs. The difference from mailing lists, though, is that Usenet requires no personal registration with the group concerned (subscription is necessary only to keep track of which articles one has already read, and that information need not be stored on a remote server), that archives are always available, and that reading the messages requires no mail client, but a news client (included in most modern browsers).
ISPs, news servers, and newsfeeds
Most Internet service providers, and many other Internet sites, operate news servers for their users to access. In early news implementations, the server and newsreader were a single program suite, running on the same system. Today, one uses separate newsreader client software—a program which resembles an email client (and is often integrated with one) but accesses Usenet servers instead.
Not all ISPs run news servers. A news server is one of the most difficult Internet services to administer well, because of the complexity and data throughput involved. Some ISPs outsource news operation to specialist sites, which will usually look just the same to a user as if the ISP ran the server itself. Many sites carry a restricted newsfeed, with a limited number of newsgroups. Commonly omitted from such a newsfeed are foreign-language newsgroups and the alt.binaries hierarchy which largely carries software and erotica and, in the 21st century, accounts for over 99% of the article data.
For those who have access to the Internet, but do not have access to a news server, Google Groups () allows reading and posting of text news groups via the World Wide Web. Though this or other "news-to-Web gateways" are not always as easy to use as specialized newsreader software—especially when threads get long—they are often much easier to search. Users who lack access to an ISP news server can use Google Groups to access the alt.free.newsservers newsgroup, which has information about open news servers.
There are also Usenet providers which specialize in offering service to users whose ISPs do not carry news, or which carry a restricted feed. One list of such providers is available at Jeremy Nixon's list of Usenet providers. There is even a newsgroup for the discussion of news providers specialized in the binary newsgroups—alt.binaries.news-server-comparison.
Usenet is a set of protocols for generating, storing and retrieving news "articles" (which resemble Internet mail messages) and for exchanging them among a readership which is potentially widely distributed. These protocols most commonly use a flooding algorithm which propagates copies throughout a network of participating servers. Whenever a message reaches a server, that server forwards the message to all its network neighbors that haven't yet seen the article. Only one copy of a message is stored per server, and each server makes it available on demand to the (typically local) readers able to access that server. Usenet was thus one of the first peer-to-peer applications, although in this case the "peers" are themselves servers that the users then access, rather than the users themselves being peers on the network.
One difference between Usenet and newer peer-to-peer applications is that the one can request the automated removal of a posting from the whole network by creating a cancel message, although due to a lack of authentication and resultant abuse, this capability is frequently disabled. Copyright holders may still request the manual deletion of infringing material using the provisions of World Intellectual Property Organization treaty implementations, such as the U.S. Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act.
The major set of worldwide newsgroups is contained within eight hierarchies, operated under consensual guidelines that govern their administration and naming. The current "Big Eight" are:
- comp.*: computer-related discussions (comp.software, comp.sys.amiga)
- misc.*: Miscellaneous topics (misc.education, misc.forsale, misc.kids)
- news.*: Discussions and announcements about news (meaning Usenet, not current events) (news.groups, news.admin)
- rec.*: Recreation and entertainment (rec.music, rec.arts.movies)
- sci.*: Science related discussions (sci.psychology, sci.research)
- soc.*: Social discussions (soc.college.org, soc.culture.african)
- talk.*: Talk about various controversial topics (talk.religion, talk.politics)
humanities.*: Fine arts, literature, and philosophy (humanities.classics, humanities.design.misc)
(Note: the asterisks are used as wildmat patterns, examples follow in parentheses)
See also Great Renaming.
The alt.* hierarchy is not subject to the procedures controlling groups in the Big Eight, and it is as a result less organized. However, groups in the alt.* hierarchy tend to be more specialized or specific—for example, there might be a newsgroup under the Big Eight that contains discussions about children's books, but a group in the alt hierarchy may be dedicated to one specific author of children's books. Binaries are posted in alt.*, making it the largest of all the hierarchies.
Many other hierarchies of newsgroups are distributed alongside these. Regional and language-specific hierarchies such as japan.* and ne.* serve specific regions such as Japan and New England. Companies such as Microsoft administer their own hierarchies to discuss their products and offer community technical support. Some users prefer to use the term "Usenet" to refer only to the Big Eight hierarchies, others include alt as well. The more general term "netnews" incorporates the entire medium, including private organizational news systems.
Usenet was originally created to distribute text content encoded in the 7-bit ASCII character set. With the help of programs that encode 8-bit values into ASCII, it became practical to distribute binary content. Binary posts, due to their size and dubious copyright status, were in time restricted to specific newsgroups, making it easier for administrators to allow or disallow the traffic.
The oldest widely used encoding method is uuencode, from the Unix uucp package. In the late 1980s Usenet articles were often limited to 60,000 characters, and larger hard limits exist today. Files are therefore commonly split into sections that require reassembly by the reader.
With the header extensions and the Base64 and Quoted-Printable MIME encodings, there was a new generation of binary transport. In practice, MIME has seen increased adoption in text messages, but it is avoided for most binary attachments. Some operating systems with metadata attached to files use specialized encoding formats. For Mac OS, both Binhex and special MIME types are used.
In an attempt to reduce file transfer times, an informal file encoding known as yEnc was introduced in 2001. It achieves about a 30% reduction in data transferred by assuming that most 8-bit characters can safely be transferred across the network without first encoding into the 7-bit ASCII space.
Internet jargon and history
Many terms now in common use on the Internet—so-called "jargon"—originated or were popularized on Usenet. Likewise, many conflicts which later spread to the rest of the Internet, such as the ongoing difficulties over spamming, began on Usenet.
The first newsgroup experiments occurred in 1979. Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis of Duke University came up with the idea as a replacement for a local announcement program, and established a link with nearby University of North Carolina using Bourne shell scripts written by Steve Bellovin . The public release of news was in the form of conventional compiled software, written by Steve Daniel and Truscott.
As the mesh of UUCP hosts rapidly expanded, it became desirable to distinguish the Usenet subset from the overall network. A vote was taken at the 1982 USENIX conference to choose a new name. The name Usenet was retained, but it was established that it only applied to news. The name UUCPNET became the common name for the overall network.
In addition to UUCP, early Usenet traffic was also exchanged with Fidonet and other dial-up BBS networks. The Network News Transfer Protocol, or NNTP, was introduced about 1985 to distribute Usenet articles over TCP/IP as a more flexible alternative to informal Internet transfers of UUCP traffic. Since the Internet boom of the 1990s, almost all Usenet distribution is over NNTP, obsoleting the earlier dictum that "Usenet is not the Internet."
Early versions of Usenet used Duke's A News software. At Berkeley an improved version called B News was produced by Matt Glickman and Mark Horton. With a message format that offered compatibility with Internet mail and improved performance, it became the dominant server software. C News, developed at the University of Toronto, was comparable to B News in features but offered considerably faster processing. In the early 1990s, InterNetNews was developed to take advantage of the continuous message flow made possible by NNTP versus the batched store-and-forward design of UUCP. Since that time INN development has continued, and other news server software has also been developed.
Web-based archiving of Usenet posts began at Deja News with a very large, searchable database. In 2001, this database was acquired by Google.
AOL announced that it would discontinue its integrated Usenet service in early 2005, citing the growing popularity of weblogs, chat forums and on-line conferencing. The AOL community had a tremendous role in popularizing the Usenet some 11 years earlier, with all of its positive and negative aspects. This change marked the end of the legendary Eternal September.
Over time, the amount of Usenet traffic has steadily increased. A small sampling of the growth follows:
The architecture of Usenet is sometimes characterized as anarchic or as civic/democratic. Some see it as a global community or collection of online communities. While the views vary, one shared perspective among the users is of Usenet as an alternative medium to institutionalized mass communication, more open to participation from a wider variety of the general public.
Usenet can be a tool boosting an individual's ability to communicate, free from governmental and other organizational restraints. Seven major features that stand out are:
- In its origin, Usenet was the alternative to ARPANET (the precursor of today's Internet), created by those who could not join ARPANET. (It is not true today.)
- Usenet is open to a variety of users. It does not require user registration , institutional affiliation , or a specific fee like other communication systems. Users, with proper knowledge, can post their own messages as well. The system does not require any identification and accepts pseudonyms.
- The content is not censored very much. Much of the process of receiving, posting, and circulating messages is automated, and the sheer number of messages makes censorship very difficult, except for categorical banning of potentially problematic newsgroups or the entire Usenet.
- Creation of new newsgroups is possible for anybody with proper knowledge in certain parts of Usenet, namely within the alt hierarchy.
- Some point out that some newsgroups are helpful in their own way because of the resources of a variety of participants. For reasons which some may not be able to understand, many participants are willing to answer questions on subjects ranging from software troubleshooting, and other technical issues, to such topics as pros and cons of different medical treatments for a rare disease.
- Virtually all messages posted to the Usenet system are archived and made available in publicly-searchable databases on the World Wide Web. This allows for a great depth of historical records of news, information, and of the behaviour of individuals who choose to attach their real name to messages.
- The structure of the network is somewhat anti-hierarchical, one might argue. There is no center through which all articles go. Various news servers are connected with each other and the circulation of the articles is done in a fashion that is very similar to a bucket-relay . There is no essential set of newsgroups that a news server must carry. Some newsgroups are locally maintained. Consequently, it is very hard, if not utterly impossible, to construct a complete list of newsgroups for a given moment, let alone postings from a given week.
To some, these features are indications of what our society could become, or would likely become, when interactive information networks such as Usenet and the Internet become the dominant means of communication.
These analogies of the social aspect of Usenet are not necessarily compatible with each other. Anarchism tends to emphasize individual freedom and the 'anything goes' principle, community values, mutual ties and cooperation. Democracy usually requires a binding collective decision, running counter to anarchic principle. A correct interpretation is not clear even among those who study it.
There exist various indications that those analogies are either one-sided or wrong. The reality of how Usenet is used might be not as simple as some might imagine from the above descriptions. However, others claim that what functions online can also work offline. If democracy is not compatible with the anarchistic nature of Usenet or Internet in general, then it is bad for democracy.
Communication on Usenet may be perceived by some (critics or users) as not very constructive, or worse yet, undesirable. In certain newsgroups it is frequently excessively aggressive, as some people engage in flame wars. The discussion might seem unproductive, with endless disputes. It may contain offensive language and very objectionable opinions on sensitive issues related to racism, gender role, etc. The non-offensive messages might be "spam," or unsolicited off-topic postings such as advertisements for pornography sites. A group may be flooded with messages by a very limited number of participants, being not very open and friendly to newcomers. In addition, the most active parts of the Usenet include exchange of pornographic files (especially pictures) and music files (especially in MP3 format). Newsgroups with more mature audiences, however, tend to avoid nasty exchanges, focussing on discussing more productive things, such as the newsgroup topic.
In addition, the said freedom in the alt hierarchy is limited in that unless a newly created newsgroup meets certain conditions and goes through certain procedures, it will not be carried by many news servers, potentially resulting in a wasted effort. In general, the seemingly anarchic system is indeed not without some administrative-level controls. These carriers exert influence on newsgroups' birth and survival as well. Nevertheless, if a critical mass of users requests that their server administrators allow for the creation of a new newsgroup, the creation process is more likely to succeed.
It is also noticeable that there is an obvious hierarchy in the way newsgroups are organized. While some of the other interfaces for online communication support much less hierarchical organization of information, such as the World Wide Web, Usenet is not one of them.
The more general criticisms that apply to Usenet and many other kinds of online communication include the statement that Usenet is mostly a text-based medium, empowering the literate and articulate, while being less accessible to others. The counterpoint to this argument is that being text-based makes Usenet more accessible to visually impaired computer users who use text-reading software to navigate through the Internet. The issue of the digital divide, namely that some people simply do not have access to the Internet, is another reason one might point out that Usenet is not entirely democratic or open.
"Come to think of it, there are already a million monkeys on a million typewriters, and Usenet is NOTHING like Shakespeare!" — Blair Houghton
"Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea — massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it." — Gene Spafford
"ALT stands for 'Anarchists, Lunatics, and Terrorists'." — Eric Ziegast
"To new readers of this newsgroup: welcome to sci.math, where mathematics is sometimes different than it is elsewhere." — John Baez commenting on a flurry of responses from Ludwig Plutonium to Andrew Wiles unique post on the status of FLT.
This article is partly based on the infoAnarchy wiki.