An Internet Enigma: The History of Usenet

Long the domain of passionate professionals and dedicated internet sleuths, Usenet has been a tour de force across the World Wide Web for decades. It remains a highly active bastion of free speech, with over 20,000 newsgroups regularly providing interesting information to users, but it’s not widely discussed outside of IT professionals and researchers. Today, we’ll shed some light on this fascinating facet of the internet so that you can better appreciate its continued significance in modern society.

What Is Usenet?

Before we delve into Usenet’s history, it’s important to understand exactly what this service is. Usenet is a decentralized network composed of Usenet companies that allow users to access a central server hub. These providers store information, and users pay to download the information stored therein through a client app called a newsreader. There are also indexers, which allow you to search for interesting newsgroups that match your hobbies or find specific articles on a given topic. Once you find what you want, you download it to read and enjoy later; you can also upload responses or original content for others to review. 

Usenet has grown from being primarily about computer science to having newsgroups for nearly every topic imaginable, including cryptocurrency, medicine, and philosophy. If you’re curious about it, there’s probably a newsgroup dedicated entirely to that topic!

Usenet’s Origins

Usenet was first dreamed up in 1979 by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, two Duke University computer science graduates; it was launched the next year. At the time, ARPANET, launched in 1969 and passed to the Department of Defense in 1975, was the only true digital network, focused primarily on advanced research projects, especially those for military and government usage. 

Truscott and Ellis developed Usenet as “the poor man’s ARPANET,” allowing those outside of the echelons of government to communicate with one another. Originally, much of the content was geared toward computer scientists, though widespread adoption of the system expanded its usage and, thus, its topics.

Some of the first newsgroups included computer languages, artificial intelligence, and a miscellaneous section for various topics unrelated to computers.

The Great Renaming

By 1987, Usenet’s user base had grown prodigiously; its overarching categories were deemed too vague, as many had branched into irrelevant sections. Rather than throttle usage, Usenet leaders decided to expand and better systematize the newsgroups by developing eight different sections called the Big 8. These eight newsgroups are comp, for computer science; humanities, for art and literature; misc, for smaller niche subjects; news, for information about Usenet as a whole; rec, for entertainment and hobbies; sci, for other sciences; soc, for culture and society; and talk, for controversial subjects like politics and religion. Each of these is then broken into smaller subgroups; for example, discusses Artificial Intelligence while talk.politics explores different political systems and noteworthy political events. 

The magic of the Big 8 hierarchy is that it allows for easy categorization of the many subjects people discuss, which can then be broken down into smaller and smaller newsgroups based on more specific categories. This allows users to avoid being flooded with too many downloads when they want to get up to date on their favorite newsgroups while also allowing a great deal of customization on what kind of conversations they follow.

Usenet’s Contributions to Internet Culture

Usenet has been a launchpad for many things we take for granted today, cementing its status as a significant element of society as a whole. Firstly, the popularity of Usenet showed that there was commercial promise to the Internet: rather than simply being a way to transmit information amongst government officials, it could be a place where people from all corners of the world came together to talk to one another.

The concept of open-source information grew here from the newsgroup comp.source, where computer scientists would upload code for one another to complete their projects; we can thank Usenet for things such as Linux, which likely would not have been developed had it not been for this novel idea.

On a smaller note, much of internet culture has been influenced by Usenet; for example, basic netiquette emerged from Usenet users’ enforcement of politeness, privacy, and civil discourse. Terms like “don’t feed the trolls” emerged here to encourage users not to engage with users simply out to derail conversations – an edict many of us should still heed today!

Usenet is not just an interesting fragment of Internet history; it remains a vibrant community full of fascinating discussions on every topic under the sun. You can join this digital public square all by signing up for a Usenet provider, learning how to use indexers, and downloading digests from your favorite newsgroups. In time, you’ll find Usenet an indispensable part of your day, bursting with information you can’t find anywhere else.