Usenet - The First File Sharing System
Startup Review

Usenet – The First File Sharing System

Usenet: It’s like the Fight Club of the file sharing and Internet world.  The first rule about Usenet is to not talk about Usenet.

At least, it certainly feels that way to a vast majority of Internet users who have never heard of it before.

Then there are those who claim, “Everyone’s heard of it but nobody uses it,” supposedly because it is “outdated.”

Whatever the case may be, for being so unknown and “antiquated”, Usenet is certainly taking off in popularity.   Really, it’s maintained steady growth over the last 20 years, but in the past 5, it has increased exponentially.

Today, on average, 27 Terabytes or 65 million uploads of new information are posted every single day. 

But what exactly is Usenet and why has it retained such a strong underground following all these years? Why is it suddenly becoming visibly popular, and how is it still relevant?

That and more is what we hope to answer for you here.

What Usenet is – A Brief Definition

Usenet is a nearly 40-year-old file sharing system.  It was truly the first file sharing network.  It predated the Internet, it predated email, and it’s massive.

Imagine a giant bulletin board with sections devoted to specific topics where people can pin relevant messages or pictures, thus sharing them with whoever else sees the board.  This is essentially what Usenet is, and those sections are called newsgroups.

Just like someone needs a web browser to access a website, you must have Usenet software to access Usenet.   Instead of there being websites and pages, though, Usenet has newsgroups, which function like the topic areas on the bulletin board mentioned above.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of them (more on this soon).

What began as a type of Internet bulletin board where people could upload text messages to specific forums or newsgroups, has become the fastest file sharing network around, containing the latest and hottest downloads, audio, video, picture, multimedia files, etc.

History of Usenet

The history of Usenet is interesting, if purely because of how old yet relevant it still is – an uncommon combination in the tech world.

Its original intent was to enable fast text communication.  In its original design, it allowed for text conversations similar to those on a community bulletin board.  Someone could post a message, and someone could reply.

Eventually, these conversations got grouped into categories called newsgroups.  Each newsgroup represented a topic of discussion.

In the beginning, the medium was used primarily by the early computer nerds and scientists to share news and research (that is why the forums were called newsgroups).  But that changed once someone figured out how to upload more than just text.

Since Usenet was originally developed as a text sharing forum, there was originally no way to share audio or image files.  But in the 80s, a grad student at UC Berkeley developed a way for binary files to be uploaded as text on to Usenet, which opened the door for file uploads and attachments of all types.

Users could now post and view (if they had a newsreader) audio and visual content on Usenet.    This is when it became the very first file sharing network, predating all others.

After this, the platform’s popularity exploded.  Even though newsgroups now covered every topic under the sun, including things that definitely did not qualify as “news”, the newsgroup title stuck.

However, the massive shift to uploading images, video, and audio resulted in a new category of newsgroup called the alt binaries.  These groups were also categorized into topics and were devoted to videos, images, and audio files covering everything imaginable.

Oddly enough, through all these years, despite the massive amounts of content and the unsavory, illegal nature of some of the content and newsgroups, no single company, provider or server manages it or has authority over it.

The network spans hundreds of servers around the world.  Each server successfully mirrors the content of the others, while staying independent of each other and free of regulation.  This freedom is admittedly a part of its appeal to many.

What You Need 

While Usenet is unregulated and not owned or managed by a single source, you do still have to pay to access it, and you need the right tools.

  • Provider: Because Usenet is so massive and requires a lot of bandwidth and storage, you have to pay for a provider if you want full, unfettered access to all of the files it has to offer.

Again, in that way, it is similar to paying for an Internet provider.  While you can occasionally find a free source, they will only have a fraction of Usenet content available.  Fortunately, you can find Usenet providers for as little as $5 – $30 a month.  Astraweb has always had some of the best pricing, but there are now comparable alternatives to Astraweb.

  • Newsreader: Besides getting a provider, you will also have to purchase software called a newsreader. Without one, you will only see code and be unable to actual view the files.Readers that are any good will cost money.  However, certain providers will include newsreader software with their service, since many new users dislike the idea of purchasing software to use something they haven’t checked out yet.

    Be aware, though, that often when a provider includes a newsreader software program, the reader is typically only compatible with the provider who offers it.  There are a few exceptions.

    Some newsreaders also provide Usenet search engine services, to make navigating the massive amounts of files easier.   Newsgroups are not as organized and easy to navigate as the web, so this is a definite plus.

Is Usenet Smart-Device Compatible?

 

While not wide spread yet, some providers have now developed applications that allow you to access Usenet from your smart device.  This has been difficult in the past because smart devices do not yet have the ability to use the newsreader software.

Some providers have gotten around this by creating a web-based interface for things like smart devices.  It provides limited access, but access just the same.  Using software gives you much greater access to Usenet content.  However, if you find it too confusing, or you are on your smart device and can’t use the newsreader software, then the web interface is a great option.

Why Is Usenet Still Used?

 There are many good explanations for this, especially for the techies who spend a lot of time looking for and downloading files.

So let’s look at the benefits of Usenet to better understand the appeal:

  • Incredibly fast: One of the things die-hard Usenet fans love it for is its incredible speed. As soon as a new download is up, they run at full speed immediately, and downloads are lightning fast.  Download speeds as fast as 3 Gbps have been recorded!  If you are familiar with Torrents, this will blow it out of the water.
  • Encrypted: Many providers encrypt all activity with similar encryption as that of banks. This means there are no trackers of your activity, no logs of what newsgroups you’ve visited or downloads you’ve made. 
  • Anonymous: Downloads are anonymous and non-traceable. For the person who does not want their activity known, they can keep it all secret here.
  • Unregulated: Somewhat surprisingly, Usenet to this day remains unregulated. While some IPSs will restrict what Usenet newsgroups they make available themselves, that is it and they can’t control what your paid Usenet provider has available.  No one dictates what can or cannot be put into Usenet.
  • Uncensored: Since there is no regulatory body managing Usenet, that also means the content that is shared is completely uncensored. Anything goes.
     
  • Largest number and variety of files: With the amount of daily activity and the longevity of the files that are shared (1,600+ days), it is easy to understand that Usenet has a library of files that surpasses all other file sharing networks. Again, if you are familiar with Torrents, be prepared to have your socks knocked off.

 

Obviously, perhaps not everyone would consider all these to be beneficial.  While the lack of regulation is nice and draws a lot of users, it also means that there can be a lot of things in Usenet that you would rather not see.

Bottom line, the pros can also have their cons.  If you decide to delve into the system, just be careful and be prepared.
 

Interested?

 The information provided above gives you a basic introduction into the world of Usenet.  If your curiosity has been peaked and you think you want to give it a try, refer to some step-by-step guides to help get you started.

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