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Using Usenet: A Brief Guide to the Internet’s First Surviving Network

Using Usenet: A Brief Guide to the Internet’s First Surviving Network

The use of the internet has become widespread and integrated into every facet of modern life, with a variety of applications across multiple industries and settings.

Even before the 2020 pandemic, the rapid, constant evolution of technology was pushing our culture further and further into the digital world: the open and continuous access to information that the internet provides, as well as the various platforms it now hosts that exist for our entertainment and socialization needs, make the net a necessary tool for most home, school, and business settings. Its utility, however, is dependent on this unrestricted right to access it, and that right has come under threat as net neutrality laws are lifted, giving internet service providers (ISP) free rein to impact users’ access to their networks.

While there’s no such thing as a network entirely free from oversight, there are services that predate the internet that are not beholden to corporations or third parties interested in limiting your internet access. The existence of Usenet is a closely guarded secret by the people who still use it, a series of communities joined by shared interests that populate an ancient but still thriving network. Yet, the doors to this hidden paradise still stand open for those looking for an alternative to the increasingly corporatized series of ISP-controlled networks.

But what is Usenet, and how can you access it?

Exhuming Usenet: How Was it Founded?

Usenet was created roughly 10 years before the foundation of the World Wide Web by Jim Ellis and Tom Trescott at Duke University, with the duo intending it as a replacement for a local news system. With Steve Bellovin, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, constructing the software that became the foundation for the network, the three came up with an idea to exchange information from computer to computer using UNIX to UNIX copy protocol, or UUCP. While the first iteration of the network only linked three computers together at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and Duke Medical, Usenet quickly grew in both popularity and accessibility, becoming a bona fide network of its own with thousands of forums and hundreds of thousands of users.

And while when Usenet started, it relied on connections to existing networks to help facilitate passing information from one device to another, it now exists as its own separate network, with few ties to the World Wide Web.

Newsgroups and Newsreaders: How Usenet Works

Usenet works like Reddit, being a network of interconnected discussion forums where users can join boards with topics they are interested in and connect with other users. These boards are called “newsgroups,” and they are often broken down much like social media boards on other sites, with forums for open discussion of relevant topics and subsections related to specific sub-topics. Newsgroups can be moderated or unmoderated (there not being a specific model most newsgroups follow), and while most new newsgroups have to go through an approval process before being established, new newsgroups can be created easily, should you not find a forum that covers your interests.

The browser you use to access a Usenet forum is called a newsreader, and it’s typically very different from standard web browsers like Google Chrome or Safari, as those browsers exist to access a different network: you’ll need a browser that’s specifically equipped to browse Usenet.

Why Use Usenet?

Usenet is one of the safest places to explore your interests and hobbies as well as a social scene without ads tracking you or ISPs selling your data to the highest bidder. In some ways, Usenet is the last bastion of what made the internet truly special: people getting together, sharing their interests, and moderating themselves. If that sounds like something you want to be a part of, take a look: Usenet is a whole new frontier to explore.

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