Unless you lived to see the dawn of the digital age, you might not know what Usenet is or its monumental place in the technological revolution’s history. 10 years before the dawn of the World Wide Web, the network that most of us use in every facet of our lives today, Usenet was developed by academics at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill as a means of passing information between institutions. Using UNIX-to-UNIX code processing, messages and files were easily transmitted at a fast pace, and while it was originally intended as a messaging system for academia, it quickly became the first viable network.
At the height of its popularity, Usenet was comprised of thousands of message boards called “newsgroups,” with hundreds of thousands of users sharing content, engaging with one another, and forming communities online.
The network is still up and populated by millions of quiet, constant users. There are a variety of reasons why Usenet is the network of choice for these users: and for those who have never been on Usenet before, we’re about to break them down.
When comparing the World Wide Web and Usenet, what are the differences between the two, and which one may serve the needs of modern net surfers better? Read on to find out.
While ideally, the World Wide Web should be a place where users can access any services or applications they wish at any time and the same overall speed, the reality is that corporate influence and the failure of the government to sanction off safe spaces for consumers has muddied the waters of what the internet is supposed to be. The Web is no longer a consumer-first place, as paying companies can essentially convert large swaths of consumer-frequented space into billboards and also have the ability to track and collect data on customers with little to no oversight. Internet service providers (or ISPs) also have the ability to create service “fast lanes” for companies that pay a premium: while this practice is banned under the name of ISP throttling, service “fast lanes” are a loophole that politicians carved out of existing net neutrality laws.
On the other hand, Usenet is entirely community-run and maintained, with newsgroups being run by their creators and afforded as much or as little moderation as desired. Usenet also comes with the perk of having unlimited download and access speeds, getting you to whatever content you’re trying to access quickly and allowing for democratic and constant sharing of information. All you need is the right newsreader (basically Usenet’s version of a browser, like Safari or Chrome), and you can get on and access whatever you want right away.
Nowadays, the Web is seen as a platform for people and companies to get themselves out there and make themselves famous all over the world. Ever since the term was invented, there’s been a widespread race to become viral and achieve influencer status, relevance in the culture, and therefore, eyes on company products. Digital culture is seemingly permanently intertwined with constant, creative marketing, selling either ourselves or our products to an ever-widening audience; and as corporations continue to discover the value of online spaces and market to those audiences, this problem will only worsen.
On the other hand, Usenet was constructed around the idea of collaborative communities, where each user is free to come and go as they please and share their own ideas and creations. The spotlight is on what each user decides to bring to the table, with the goal of strengthening the community as a whole. It’s much closer to the first days of the web, where people created and shared their creations for the fun of it and the edification of others, than today’s prevalent culture.
Entering the Garden
Usenet should be seen less as a relic of the past and more as a hidden garden of Eden, a place untouched by the original sin of online capitalism. If any of the above has struck your interest, don’t be afraid to check Usenet out: chances are, with the large variety of newsgroups on offer, Usenet has something for everyone.
Cover Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay