Usenet: How It Evolved From Messages To Downloads [Geek History]

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usenet historyBefore the web came along, another Internet communications system was in widespread use among those who had Internet access – Usenet. Usenet started as a sort of bulletin board system, which allowed people to post messages in various categories and discuss their favourite topics. Somewhere along the line, Usenet’s major use became the distribution of binary files. People now access Usenet mainly for the content they can download, which is not always free of copyright.

Why did thing change so drastically? How did a repository of regular conversations diverge into hosting such a large quantity of digital media? Well, that’s an interesting tale. Let’s take a look at where it started and how a few simple changes transformed the service.

How Usenet Began: A Quick History Lesson

Usenet was first discussed in 1979 and then implemented as Netnews by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis in 1980 at a university in North Carolina. It started as a bunch of shell scripts using the Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP) to transport data between the three networked computers. It was quickly re-written for public release as the A News and again in 1982 as the B News. In 1987 it was again re-written as the C News, but this time incorporated the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP).

usenet history

It all started as a sort of online social forum. Discussions on Usenet are organised into categories, which reside in a hierarchial structure. For instance, rec.arts.movies newsgroup is the category “Movies” residing in the category of “Arts” which resides in the top-level hierarchy of “Recreation“.

The Turning Point Towards Binaries

Slowly, after Usenet had been used for simple text conversations for years, some smart cookies realised that binaries could be added to Usenet. All it took was to convert the binary data (8-bit) into 7-bit ASCII (plain text) and paste the text into the message. Now, that’s a really simple way of putting it, because these binaries could be HUGE in plain text and were therefore far from simple to co-ordinate. A binary file in ASCII format would normally need to be spread over many messages.

usenet history internet

Newzbin was not only one of the first websites to index Usenet, but it was also the creator of the .nzb format. The .nzb file format was designed to make sense of binaries uploaded in plain text across multiple messages. As this NCB file format made it easy to download binaries via Usenet, this habit became more popular with users.

The Rising Popularity Of Binaries On Usenet

As with many products and services in history, one of the main reasons downloading binary files on Usenet became really popular was because of illegal media and porn. The nature of Usenet is such that the identities of people downloading material is concealed. Usenet doesn’t keep logs (although some servers might) and no-one besides the original server can see who is uploading or downloading the files (unlike with torrents).

So, with plenty of interesting media to download and no worries about being caught, many people decided Usenet was the ultimate way to download illegal files or porn for private consumption. In the late 90s, Usenet became well known for hosting binary files and still is loved by many today for the same reasons. At much the same time, the Internet in general became accessible to the public and the World Wide Web became popular as a communication method. So, Usenet usage as a general chat forum declined as a result, while at the same time its popularity as a binary file haven increased.

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Usenet Today & In The Future

Today Usenet is mostly a paid-for service as the Newsgroup Service Providers (NSPs) each host an incredible amount of data which needs to be accessible by many people at once. All that storage and bandwidth for transfers need to be paid for by someone, so that cost is passed on to the customers.

Most people these days use Usenet for finding and downloading binary files, so they make use of online indexes to search for files and use a Usenet NZB client to make downloading the binary files easier. Of course, some people still use Usenet for text-based discussions and there are newsreader clients and hybrid clients available for use too.

It’s also possible to access newsgroups today via the web through many different web2news front ends, such as Google Groups. Many web browsers will give access to newsgroups when using news: protocol links.

Obviously each Newsgroup Service Provider and web2news front end will have different ideas about which newsgroups should be allowed and which should be filtered. Some will filter out all of alt.binaries.* as they can’t afford to host the files or don’t want to be associated with potential illegal activity. Others may filter according to morals or requirements of their host country.

usenet history internet

Despite individual filters though, the concept of the Usenet should live on for many years to come. This is because there’s no centralised point for the service and all it takes is at least two servers sharing the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) to keep it alive. In fact, the decentralised control could well lead to a resurgence in use as people are beginning to long for internet services which are not controlled by governments or huge companies.

usenet history

More Reading

If you want to check out some more of our writing about Usenet, read these:

How do you use Usenet? Do you stick to conversations or do you love the binaries? Do you think Usenet discussions will make a comeback due to privacy and censorship concerns?

Image Credit: Dale Mahalko, Benjamin D. Esham, Benjamin D. Esham

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Comments (9)
  • usenet search

    In my opinion usenet is the best development that was ever done and the oldest stil existing network as I think. All other networks are not popular anymore, so I hope it will exist for a long time.

  • Jeremiah Iliffe

    That was great, these sorts of articles are my favourites

  • Timothy Ford

    I always enjoy these posts!

  • James Bruce

    I feel like you skipped a huge piece of Usenet history, as if there was a sudden jump from binaries and then NZB. In between that was the wonder of .PAR files, since retention time used to be quite short and all the .RAR file parts wouldn’t be available. One .par file could be used to replace ANY .rar part, regardless of which number of order it was. Even if you were missing parts 05 through 10, as long as you had 5 more par files the full set could be reconstructed. Magic! Definately an important part of usenet history I think…

    • Angela Alcorn

      True, but it with limited words to explain how it got to here, that wasn’t one of the important steps, really. :)

  • Myst Gunn

    Interesting article, although I use a combination of google-fu + torrent + forums + file locker sites to find the things I’m looking for. :p

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.