Usenet is a means of online communication on the Internet, whereby one user can post a comment seen by all visitors to a "newsgroup", who could then post comments in reply. In existence since the late 1970s, it facilitates communications among newsgroups in a public manner.
In some respects, Usenet is an early version of today's Wikis.
There is no "ownership" of Usenet - only the provider of the Usenet server (traditionally an ISP, but see below) can restrict or control your use of the system. "Moderated" newsgroups exist, but only convention enforces this status. Anyone can easily create a Usenet newsgroup, provided as many other servers as possible are willing to add it to their list.
Usenet is not part of the World Wide Web - it runs on a separate protocol called NNTP, though Web interfaces such as Google Groups exist. "Newsgroups" are actually more like tags on blogs (the single Usenet system) than separate discussion groups.
Hierarchy and conventions
What is known as the "Big 8" creates and removes groups of the following types:
- comp.* Computer topics, both hardware and software.
- news.* Administration of the Big 8, as well as about Usenet and Netnews in general, and related topics.
- sci.* Science and technology.
- humanities.* The humanities.
- rec.* Recreational topics, including music, sports, games, outdoor recreation, hobbies, crafts, ...
- soc.* Socializing, society, and social issues.
- talk.* Endless discussion, largely about politics.
- misc.* A mixture of newsgroups that don't fit the other 7 hierarchies. Many are about the practical aspects of everyday life.
They do not moderate these groups, and only convention followed by Usenet providers prevents the creation of "Big 8" groups, moderated nature of groups, and refusal to carry such groups.
In opposition to the Big 8 system, the following hierarchies have been created over the years:
- alt.* Anyone can create a newsgroup, though convention encourages discussion in the newsgroup alt.config first
- free.* Anyone can create a newsgroup, no such convention exists
There are also minor hierarchies created for other purposes, such as pa.* (for the state of Pennsylvania) and microsoft.* (created by Microsoft and formerly an official means of discussion-based technical support)
Spam and the Eternal September
Prior to the opening of the Internet to commercial activity in the 1990s, the Internet was academic and professional in nature. New students at colleges would be taught the proper way to act when being given access to Usenet. When AOL began to offer Usenet as a benefit, it was called "the Eternal September", as non-professional use by "the common man" began.
Spam, "cross-posting" messages to unrelated groups, trolling, and flame wars became problems, as there is no built-in technical restriction on Usenet. This uncensored nature enabled posts containing mental illness and racism to exist as well. Eliminating unwanted posts requires the use of "killfiles", which are difficult for non-technical people. As a result, the use of Usenet for discussion purposes has greatly declined in favor of a growing amount of easier commercial alternatives (such as blogs and social networking).
Rise of binary newsgroups
Later on in the 1990s, Usenet "binary groups" were created. Unlike the traditional "text groups", these groups (usually under the alt.* hierarchy and having names beginning with alt.binaries.*) were used for the exchange of files. This led to abuse with regards to piracy.
In a 2008 investigation by New York's then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, it was discovered that some of these groups contained child pornography. At the time, Usenet service was usually offered as a benefit included with ISPs. Fearing liability over this as well as ongoing copyright infringement in other binaries groups, ISPs began to remove the alt.* hierarchy from their servers, restrict the amount of groups to the Big 8 hierarchies, or cut the benefit altogether.
As use of Usenet for discussion purposes had greatly declined due to its technical nature and problems with spam, many ISPs began to remove the benefit altogether. As few groups (less than 1%) contained child pornography, many feel ISPs were financially motivated due to declining popularity of the text groups. Still Usenet remains available free through other providers, such as the Web interface provided by Google Groups, and other providers such as Eternal September. Binary groups, provided by companies such as Giganews, usually require a subscription-based commercial service.
While most of the activity on Usenet occurs in the binary groups, many prefer the lack of censorship provided by Usenet discussion groups, despite its technical nature and problems with spam. As a result, Usenet has a cult following which continues to this day.
Popular conservative newsgroups
As these groups are not moderated or controlled, one is likely to find liberalism and heated debates.
- Big 8
- Google Groups Web interface to Usenet, also contains posts backdated through the early 1980s
- Eternal September Free NNTP-based Usenet service providing text groups
- ISPs cutting benefits
- Analysis of child porn claims Press release from provider Giganews