Usenet is a discussion and file hosting system that is accessed over the Internet and predates the birth of the World Wide Web.
Usenet was born in the late 1970s and was one of the earliest and most successful discussion systems prior to the birth of the Web. Discussions on Usenet are organized into newsgroups. Each newsgroup has a specific area of focus that is reflected by the name of the group. For example, the group comp.browsers.www would be dedicated to discussions and articles about web browsers.
The earliest newsgroups were very technically-oriented, frequented by technology enthusiasts, and primarily contained text-based discussions. While it has always been possible to share any type of file on Usenet, maximum file size limits and slow Internet connection speeds made file sharing on Usenet impractical. That changed in the 1990s and the use of Usenet to distributed media files – referred to as binary files – exploded in growth. The shift from text-based discussions to media file sharing occurred much to the chagrin of many long-term users who resented the hijacking of a popular discussion platform as a way to share files that often contain mature or illicit content.
Usenet's popularity waned significantly in the late 1990s and into the 2000s in the face of the more user-friendly alternatives on the Web, including forums, bulletin boards, blogs, and file-sharing applications and website. However, Usenet is still quite active, particularly as a place to download binary content.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are there legitimate uses of Usenet today?
Many discussion boards are still active on Usenet and are a good way to find and interact with users who have strong technical knowledge and expertise. In addition, not all binary content shared on Usenet is illegal or objectionable. Using Usenet to download or distribute legitimate binary content is perfectly fine.
How do I access Usenet?
Access to Usenet is provided by many Internet service providers (ISP). However, ISPs often block certain newsgroups, such as the entire alt hierarchy where most illicit and objectionable material is shared. To gain full, unfiltered access to Usenet requires a subscription to a third-party Usenet provider.
Using Usenet also requires some specialized software. In order to access discussion-based newsgroups requires a newsreader, and downloading binary files requires an NZB downloader.
Is Usenet safe and legal?
The text-based discussions found in Usenet newsgroups that are not part of the alt hierarchy are usually perfectly safe and free from objectionable material. The alt newsgroup hierarchy – short for alternative, but commonly used as a backronym to stand for Anarchists, Lunatics, and Terrorists – contains content not deemed acceptable by mainstream newsgroups. All bets are off in terms of what you might find in alt newsgroups.
Binary files are shared in the alt heirarchy, and while many are perfectly legal and valuable, there is also a lot of copyrighted material, as well as downright illegal and strongly objectionable material in some alt newsgroups.
If you use Usenet to access alt newsgroups be very careful what you download.