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 and BDSM
The Usenet group alt.sex.bondage was a very important BDSM communication forum in the first half of the 1990's, before the WWW was widespread. As the unmoderated portion of the "alt.sex" hierarchy began to fill with relentless spam, eventually soc.subculture.bondage-bdsm was created as a replacement.
- More information about Usenet
- Google Usenet archive
- Everything2 write up about Usenet
- 20 Year Usenet Timeline - selection of memorable and historic Usenet postings
- Netscan - Microsoft Research Usenet Social Accounting Search Engine - measurements of Usenet newsgroups, authors and threads since September 1999
- Replayer, a set of free tools including a searchable archive of small binary postings.
- Premium Usenet Providers a comparative guide to commercial news services
- newsreaders.com a directory of Usenet information, software, and service providers