While Usenet has slipped under the radar for many, computer enthusiasts of yesteryear know it as a respected source of social networking. The combination of a text message board and a binary messaging platform makes Usenet unique in its own right.
Hidden in secrecy, Usenet follows an unwritten rule reminiscent of Fight Club: The first rule of Usenet is that you don’t talk about Usenet. This secret nature is due to the fact that, while largely unknown, the existence of Usenet is far from obsolete. In this article, we embark on an enlightening journey into the world of Usenet, giving you an insight into the hidden treasures this community is passionate about preserving.
1. Usenet newsgroups predate the web
At a time when Internet browsing was done via the command line and computers weighed as much as humans, Usenet became a game-changing platform. At that time, Sir Tim Berners-Lee of one of the world’s largest nuclear research laboratories introduced his revolutionary concept to the Usenet newsgroup alt.hypertext and laid the foundation for what we now recognize as “www” in the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), such as https://www..com/.
Berners-Lee’s pioneering Internet project, aptly named WorldWideWeb, was intended to facilitate the instantaneous exchange of data between employees of the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
On August 6, 1991 at 14:56 GMT, he wrote the following words:
“The WorldWideWeb (WWW) project aims to make it possible to link to any information anywhere. The format of the address includes the access method (=namespace), and for most namespaces, the hostname and some path…”
2. Usenet was originally created for academia
While the inclusion of binary posts such as audio and video made Usenet important today, its origins lie in a text-only form, primarily serving university students.
In 1979, two graduate students from Duke University invented Usenet as a means to exchange messages and files over the network with colleagues at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Usenet quickly gained popularity on college campuses and became an important channel for academic communication.
Usenet changed significantly in 1993 when AOL, then a leading Internet service provider, began offering its customers access to Usenet. This move introduced a large number of non-academic users to Usenet, essentially expanding the user base. The influx of AOL users changed the culture of Usenet as academia was no longer the main driving force behind its content and discussion.
The introduction of binary posts further expanded the range of articles available on Usenet. While Usenet may no longer resemble its original form, it is still a significant and active platform for thousands of communities. Its evolution reflects the dynamics of online communication and highlights how technological advances and changes in user demographics can shape the culture and functionality of digital platforms.
3. Usenet is home to many references to internet culture
Many of the terms we use on the Internet, and sometimes “IRL”, were first popularized in Usenet newsgroups. How many of them are you guilty of using?
spam: Before the 1990s, Spam was just canned meat and a reference to Monty Python. But today, it’s a colloquial word for junk mail advertising (and potentially still physical junk mail ads). The idea of spam was first massively introduced on Usenet in 1994 by the law firm Canter & Siegel. The company posted on all Usenet newsgroups (a much more realistic feat in 1994) for its green card lottery legal services. Message: “Green Card Lottery – Last?” A new type of advertising was born.
Frequently asked questions: A website and bulletin board staple, the acronym “Frequently Asked Questions” was introduced by NASA and early adopted by Usenet newsgroups. The premise then was similar to what it is now, only the FAQs had to be posted frequently to avoid getting bogged down in discussions. Not like Reddit or 4chan where FAQs can have static, “sticky” posts. Over time, “.answers” newsgroups such as tv.answers, misc.answers, and sci.answers have been added to collect FAQs for messaging and easy access.
emoticon: Your ability to replace a peach with a peach comes from Usenet. Not really. Before there were emojis, we called them “smileys” and “emojis”. The basic combinations of happy and sad – 🙂 and 🙁 – were invented in 1982 by Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University. He and other computer scientists talked a lot on Usenet newsgroups and needed a way to tell jokes from sarcasm We’d say it worked, so the smiley can be considered a “discovery” of computer scientists :-).
ROFL: LOL’s cousin ROFL (“Rolling On the Floor Laughing”) and its many forms have early Usenet origins. The phrase ROFL (without the T for “the”) was first used in a 1989 Usenet post for rec.ham-radio, and ROFLOL was used in a post for the alt.rock-n-roll group in 1992. often precedes LMAO.
WTF: An extremely popular acronym among teens and adults alike, WTF can also be traced back to Usenet. Its first recorded instance appeared in a net.micro.mac titled “Ramblings” on May 18, 1985. While the use of WTF grew rapidly, it always retained a sense of ambiguity. Additional WTF takes where the “w” can stand for “what”, “why”, “where”, and “who” are used from the mid to late 1980s.
4. Usenet was text-only until the late 1990s
1997 marked another milestone for Usenet when binary content was first uploaded via a plain text-only platform. Binary data is any content that is not text, such as images, video, and audio, which consumes far more network resources and server space than Usenet has ever used before. So how do you put non-text files on a text platform? With some translation.
Encoders convert or translate binary files into text code. To access and view binary files, the encoding process is reversed to restore the files to their original form. Over the years, the coding technology has been improved to increase ease of use, but the basic process remains largely unchanged.
5. Despite the “old” packaging, Usenet will stay
Despite its obscurity, Usenet continues to thrive as a fast, reliable, and secure platform. It is resilient due to its unique way of sharing and storing articles. Unlike other protocols and data transfer methods, Usenet breaks down binary messages into multiple components before distributing them on a decentralized network.
All Premium Usenet providers include SSL encryption, which works similarly to OpenVPN but does not require additional software downloads or client connections typical of traditional VPN services.
If you’ve read this far, try Usenet. While it may seem a little clunky at first and lacks a visually appealing interface, for many, this unpolished charm is part of Usenet’s appeal. Additionally, today, Usenet providers offer all-in-one software that allows you to search, view, filter, and access Usenet posts naturally on the web.
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