The rise and fall of Usenet: How the original social media platform came to be

With Google dropping support for the oldest of social networks, Usenet is now left without another major entry gate.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
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Johannes Geyer/Getty Images

Long before Facebook existed, or even before the Internet, there was Usenet. Usenet was the first social network. Now, with Google Groups abandoning Usenet, this oldest of all social networks is doomed to disappear.

Google declared:

Starting on February 22, 2024, you can no longer use Google Groups (at groups.google.com) to post content to Usenet groups, subscribe to Usenet groups, or view new Usenet content. You can continue to view and search for historical Usenet content posted before February 22, 2024, on Google Groups.

Some might say it's well past time. As Google declared, "Over the last several years, legitimate activity in text-based Usenet groups has declined significantly because users have moved to more modern technologies and formats such as social media and web-based forums. Much of the content being disseminated via Usenet today is binary (non-text) file sharing, which Google Groups does not support, as well as spam."

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True, these days, Usenet's content is almost entirely spam, but in its day, Usenet was everything that Twitter and Reddit would become and more. 

How it all started

In 1979, Duke University computer science graduate students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived of a network of shared messages under various topics. These messages, also known as articles or posts, were submitted to topic categories, which became known as newsgroups. 

Within those groups, messages were bound together in threads and sub-threads. For example, a discussion about the best NFL quarterback of all time would have threads, that is, discussions, defending Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, etc. 

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Does that sound like the online news forums of the online services of the 80s and 90s, such as CompuServe, GEnie, or Prodigy, or, more recently, Reddit and its subreddits? It should. Usenet was the model they were all based on. 

In 1980, Truscott and Ellis, using the Unix to Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP), hooked up with the University of North Carolina to form the first Usenet nodes. From there, it would rapidly spread over the pre-Internet ARPANet and other early networks. 

These messages would be stored and retrieved from news servers. These would "peer" to each other so that messages to a newsgroup would be shared from server to server and to user to user so that within hours, your messages would reach the entire networked world. Usenet would evolve its own network protocol, Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP), to speed the transfer of these messages.

Today, the social network Mastodon uses a similar approach with the ActivityPub protocol, while other social networks, such as Threads, are exploring using ActivityPub to connect with Mastodon and the other social networks that support ActrivitiyPub. 

As the saying goes, everything old is new again.

Indeed, much of the vocabulary we use today to talk about using the net springs from Usenet. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) files, for example, started on Usenet as summaries of information about a newsgroup so the members wouldn't need to repeat the basics for newcomers. 

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Other phrases aren't as much fun. Flame and flame war, for instance, also started on Usenet. We've always been, I'm sorry to say, mean to each other. At the same time, we've also tried to be kinder to each other. The concept is called netiquette. Then, as now, it's always been more honored in the breach than in practice.

Spam also got its start on Usenet. While we all know Monty Python came up with the term, the first major commercial use of spam dates to 1994 when husband and wife lawyers Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel started posting ads for their immigration law services on Usenet. Mea culpa later, they would say my early articles about the Internet gave them the idea. I'm sorry!

Early on, Usenet was valuable for more than just enabling people to talk with each other. Linux, for instance, got its start from a now-famous message to the comp.os.minix newsgroup: 

Linus Benedict Torvalds

Aug 25, 1991, 4:57:08 PM

Hello everybody out there using minix -

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I'd like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

Usenet was never an organized social network. Each server owner could -- and did -- set its own rules. 

Mind you, there was some organization to begin with. The first 'mainstream' Usenet groups, comp, misc, news, rec, soc, and sci hierarchies, were widely accepted and disseminated until 1987. Then, faced with a flood of new groups, a new naming plan emerged in what was called the Great Renaming. This led to a lot of disputes and the creation of the talk hierarchy. This and the first six became known as the Big Seven. Then the alt groups emerged as a free speech protest. Afterward, fewer Usenet sites made it possible to access all the newsgroups. Instead, maintainers and users would have to decide which one they'd support. 

If that sounds like the kind of splitting up that happened after Elon Musk started after he put his stamp on Twitter, you're right it is.

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Over the years, Usenet began to decline as discussions were replaced both by spam and flame wars. Group discussions were also overwhelmed by flame wars. While Elon Musk can claim that unlimited free speech is a virtue, it actually ends up with endless floods of vile messages. 

Usenet, today

In many ways, Usenet is a warning about how social networks can go bad. All the same, problems we see today on social networks appeared first on Usenet. 

Many Usenet newsgroups, the so-called binary groups, don't have discussions at all. Instead, they're used to share files. Some of these files are legal, others… less so. More users probably use these groups to pirate movies, games, and the like than use the discussion groups for conversations. 

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There have been attempts to reform Usenet. For example, after years of no oversight whatsoever, the Big 8 Management Board was created in 2020 to manage the groups themselves. Little has changed, though.

If, going forward, you want to keep an eye on Usenet--things could change, miracles can happen--you'll need to get an account from a Usenet provider. I favor Eternal September, which offers free access to the discussion Usenet groups; NewsHosting, $9.99 a month with access to all the Usenet groups; EasyNews,  $9.98 a month with fast downloads, and a good search engine; and Eweka, 9.50 Euros a month and EU only servers. 

You'll also need a Usenet client. One popular free one is Mozilla's Thunderbird E-Mail client, which doubles as a Usenet client. EasyNews also offers a client as part of its service. If you're all about downloading files, check out SABnzbd.

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