Newsgroups — message forums run on the Usenet system — are a valuable place to find information. Unfortunately, they can be a little difficult to search.
What is the Usenet?
Newsgroups can be an especially helpful place to find information on technology, especially older or more advanced computer science concepts.
The Usenet is a distributed messaging system that runs over the internet. It runs on a different protocol than the World Wide Web, and predates the Web by several years. The system itself runs in a manner similar to email, and the user experience is similar to bulletin boards and internet forums. (In fact, many of the early users and communities from Usenet migrated to web-based message forums when they became available.)
Why search Usenet?
Usenet is a valuable repository of community information, much of which is not really duplicated anywhere on the public web. That is because Usenet is primarily a conversation-based system, so searching the Usenet allows you to drop in and out of conversations among people who are fairly dedicated to the topic being discussed.
What types of things can I find on Usenet?
Usenet is a platform for discussion and has also evolved in the last few years into a platform for file sharing.
File sharing newsgroups are mostly in the
alt.binaries hierarchies, and contain a lot of material, very little of which would be discussed in polite company; there are a lot of illicit copies of copyright-protected materials, and there is a lot of pornographic and erotic content. Most of this material can be found other places.
There are Newsgroups on all sorts of topics, from cooking to knitting to civil war re-enactments.
Newsgroups can be an especially helpful place to find information on technology, especially older or more advanced computer science concepts. This is largely because of the demographics of the people who regularly use Newsgroups. You aren’t likely to find as much information on the latest pop star, but if you need help with a command-line text processing tool, Newsgroups might be the place to find what you are looking for.
There are many conversations on Usenet among “power users” of various technologies, especially the less commercially popular things like Linux or older programming languages.
How to search for information on the Usenet
If you want to search for images and video files in the file-sharing groups (mostly in the
alt.binaries hierarchies), you will likely need to subscribe to a premium Usenet service to do so.
If you are looking for text content — actual conversations between legitimate Usenet users — you can do that without paying for a premium membership.
Google Groups provides a completely searchable archive of messages from many of the most important Newsgroups hierarchies. Of the major groups, only the
alt.* groups are not included. The best thing about Google’s archives is that they are very extensive. Google bought the archive from another major provider, and as messages going back all the way to the early 1980s. There aren’t any websites from that period, so this is a valuable resource.
If you want to include the
alt.* groups in your search, check out the archive at Eternal September. They include all the non-binary
alt groups, the “Big 8,” and most regional groups. The problem with Eternal September is that it isn’t intended as a historical archive — messages are only kept for a few months.