What is Usenet

Usenet is older than the World-Wide-Web, and even the internet itself.  In its early days, articles could be exchanged between usenet servers not only via internet, but by usenet servers dialing into BBS systems operating other usenet servers, and even by being passed around on floppy disks. Originally set up to allow academics and others in specialized fields to engage in group discussions with their peers across the globe, it has since evolved into an uncensored system of exchanging virtually anything that can be transmitted between computers.

Usenet functions a lot like email. Except that instead of addressing messages to an individual, they are addressed to a group. And anyone wishing to read or post messages in a particular group, does so by connecting to a Usenet server across an internet connection.  Special newsreader software is needed on the user’s computer to read articles and download attached files. You “subscribe” to a group by telling the software in your own computer to check the messages addressed to a particular group. (Don’t be frightened by the term “subscribe.”  Nowhere is there ever a subscriber list.  The term “subscribe” is used in reference to how you set up your computer and software.  Only you and your computer know which groups you have “subscribed” to.)

There is no “central” Usenet server. Rather there are thousands of servers chained and crosslinked together in order to exchange articles between them, and to keep the articles available for their own users to read for a period of time ranging from days to years.

Like email, Usenet articles can have files attached to them. Thus, the Usenet protocol has evolved as a way of distributing files between users.    Groups each have their individual standards about how large files should be broken up into smaller pieces to make them practical to download., and the groups usually publish their FAQ regularly.   Users are free to download whatever they wish--nothing is expected from you in return--nobody even knows what you are downloading.  In fact you should become completely familiar with a group before attempting to submit anything yourself.

There are groups devoted to every imaginable interest. The groups fall under several hierarchies. The “alt” (Anarchists, Lunatics and Terrorists) hierarchy is the most controversial, because virtually anyone can easily  create a new group having this prefix.  The word ”binaries” in a group name means that the group is primarily devoted to exchanging files such as jpg pictures or mp3 audio. (Although a number of “stealth” binary groups have congregated in non alt.binaries named groups, most notably the “” hierarchy.)

Unfortunately, the ease at creating a group name does not translate into ease of building a community of users necessary to keep a group alive.  For each group hosting a community of active users, there may be a dozen or more dead groups with similar keywords in the group name.  Other communities of users wishing to remain inconspicuous about their activities, may take over a group with a name intentionally vague or misleading.  This means that the most daunting task for new users may be simply finding the groups relevant to their interests.