When it comes to the concept of communicating in forums, sharing information, or exchanging data and files through connected computers, think of Usenet as “the Grandfather of them all.” Long before internet forums, message boards, or social media, people accessed Usenet to communicate with different people in the same manner that those other mediums are used today.
Originally started in 1979, Usenet actually pre-dates the web by a decade. At first, it was simply used as a way to communicate news and announcements between the University of North Carolina and Duke University, whose campuses are separated by only eight miles.
It was named after the Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP) suite for exchanging data, which was originally performed over a dial-up connection. In the early days, that was the most common way that the system disseminated information over the internet.
Newsgroups, And More
Despite the age, Usenet is still an excellent medium and resource for gathering, reading, and discussing information from all over the world. Millions of people use it to post articles and messages to newsgroups, which are then transmitted to a whole host of other systems, allowing it to be consumed in different ways by huge numbers of people.
Similar to how you access the web through the use of a web browser, Usenet uses a client-server system, meaning you use some type of client software running on your computer to make requests to a server that’s running elsewhere.
Your Usenet software is most often referred to as a newsreader, and it connects to a remote news server which contains the information, posts, or data that other users have shared within various newsgroups. The servers on Usenet essentially update each other at regular intervals to mirror the information each system has stored and make the same data available to everyone on every server.
This differs from a bulletin board service (BBS) or web forum because you’re not actually logging in to one central location. Rather, you’re logging in to a collection of servers that aggregate, communicate, and store information through these news feeds. Simply put: there’s no centralization with Usenet.
Like with other mediums, you can access information from a variety of subjects based on your interest or a particular topic of discussion. These topics are referred to as newsgroups. Nearly all of the ones that are for files are referred to as alt binaries, because of their naming structure (for example: alt.binaries.pictures), and some access providers specialize in these binaries newsgroups.
When individuals submit and exchange articles or files on Usenet, they tag them using universally recognized labels, to categorize that information for people interested in that. For instance, there are newsgroups for anything ranging from news, current events, technology, travel and food, media, relationships, science fiction, the environment, and many things in between.
Few people realize that this early medium of communication is actually the place where common internet terms like “spam” and “flame” originated. These were common terms on Usenet many years before they really showed up on the web.
Usenet For File Sharing
While the original intent of Usenet was to exchange text-based information, it eventually evolved to where users could distribute binary files. As the popularity of Usenet rose, users eventually figured out that they could take binary files, turn it into text, and then post it to Usenet.
That would allow other people to download whatever that content happened to be, decode the file, and have an exact copy. Depending on the size and the nature of the file, they were sometimes split up into multiple parts and sometime thousands of parts. As one might imagine, things eventually got to the point where Usenet became more about file sharing than about the original concept of information sharing and discourse.
Even with all the other ways people all over the world can communicate with each other, Usenet’s basic ability to allow users to share anything freely and without censorship has allowed it to experience incredible growth for 2 decades.
Of course, in recent times, internet users have made torrents the preferred way to distribute files, but because of the crackdown on torrent indexes and BitTorrent websites, these users have been exploring different ways to exchange data legally, without getting lumped in with all the bad apples.
That’s led to things coming full circle, with people migrating back towards Usenet, which never went anywhere even though the modern Internet appeared to have moved on.
How big has this migration back to this old and proven technology been? Between 2000 and 2010, the number of uploads to Usenet servers went up from just under one million per day to just under 15 million per day. And then, between 2010 and 2017, that number went from just under 15 million uploads per day to over 64 million uploads per day.
But here’s the key distinction with other platforms: Usenet is not peer-to-peer, as was the case with popular software programs, like Napster and Limewire, that were eventually shut down. And with torrents, you’re essentially accessing portions of a file (torrents) from a variety of sources (users), that come together to form the file you’re interested in.
With Usenet, you’re still downloading multiple pieces of one file, but they’re all coming from Usenet servers. The information you’re sharing is not a direct swap with another person on the internet and there are no quotas or upload requirements.
If you upload a file, it’s automatically shared with hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, and can be downloaded an unlimited number of times. The only restriction for a person to access it is based on their connection to Usenet and the bandwidth of their internet service provider.
Some might complain that Usenet is not free, as opposed to torrents. The prices for the various providers that allow you to access Usenet vary based on how long you want servers to keep files, how fast you can download, how secure the download is, and how much you can download each month.
However, the small amount of money you might have to pay will provide you with a strong return on investment when you consider the upsides:
If you have a secure connection, not only will the content you access and download be untraceable, but the data you consume with your internet connection cannot or will not be attributed to Usenet downloads. While internet service providers (ISP’s) can detect downloads via torrents, and bottleneck your data rates as a result, that’s not the case with Usenet.
Easier Access To Content
To start off, unlike with torrents, you’re not required to share the files you download from Usenet. So, you’re free to share what you like, and consume what you like. And when you decide to download something that strikes your interest, you’re not dependent on how many seeds or peers you’re accessing the content from.
Volume Of Content
Because it is essentially a large repository of information, it can be looked at the same way in terms of files and content. As the popularity of Usenet has grown, servers have been able to keep more and more content online for a longer period of time. Some files can remain stored for several years.
This compares very favorably to torrents because, with the latter, older content quickly gets cycled out and is unsupported by the people sharing these files.
Assuming you have a secure connection (use SSL, all providers include it), then everything you download from Usenet is completely private. Most Usenet providers do not log what content you are accessing or downloading.
As is the case with any type of technology, there are always a few “cons” to consider.
For one, like with most types of software, there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to using the software applications that allow you to access Usenet. Some of the news reader applications that you’ll need are not quite as user-friendly as, say, your basic web browser.
You’ll need to poke around and/or do some internet research on how to do things like finding and downloading any files you might be looking for.
One of the main downsides to Usenet — which someone is sure to come up with a solution to, at some point — is that it’s not accessible via mobile devices. It’s estimated that nearly half of all internet traffic comes from some type of mobile device, meaning that the full extent of information and content that could be available through the medium is off limits to a large number of users.
There are currently web-based interfaces that do allow users to browse files in news groups and see what’s available for them to access, and even bookmark that information for when they’re back on their main computer. These are good, but they are not quite as good as accessing on a computer with full featured software.
It is fair to say that most users do try to ensure the software keeps a low profile because they don’t want to expose how much content is available on the service — especially content that’s copyrighted, and thus illegal to share. For those people with those motivations, the last thing they want is for this resource to come under any additional scrutiny.
But assuming you’re interested in using Usenet for less nefarious purposes, it’s an excellent way to access a wide swath of information and content at higher speeds, and with more security than anything else can provide.