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Usenet

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Usenet, or Unix User Network is a communications medium in which users read and post textual messages (called "articles") to a number of distributed bulletin boards (called "newsgroups"). The medium is sustained among a large number of servers, which store and forward messages with one another. Usenet is of significant cultural importance in the networked world, having given rise to, or popularized, many widely recognized concepts and terms such as "FAQ" and "spam".

Table of contents
1 Introduction
2 ISPs, News Servers, and Newsfeeds
3 Technical details
4 Internet Jargon and History
5 History
6 Sociological implications
7 Quotes
8 Related topics
9 External links
10 Credit

Introduction

Usenet is one of the oldest computer network communications systems still in widespread use. It was created in 1979, well before the popularization of the Internet and well before the World Wide Web. Today, almost all Usenet traffic is carried over the Internet. The format and transmission of Usenet articles is very similar to that of Internet email messages. However, whereas email is usually used for one-to-one communication, Usenet is a many-to-many medium.

The articles that users post to Usenet are organized into topical categories called newsgroups, which are themselves organized into hierarchies of subjects. For instance, sci.math and sci.physics are within the sci hierarchy, for science. When a user subscribes to a newsgroup, his news client software keeps track of which articles he has read.

When a user posts an article, initially it is only available on that user's news server. Each news server, however, talks to one or more other servers (its "newsfeeds") and exchanges articles with them. In this fashion, the article is copied from server to server and (if all goes well) eventually reaches every server in the network. Some have noted that this seems a monstrously inefficient protocol in the era of abundant high-speed network access; it was designed for a time when networks were much slower, and not always available. Many sites on the original Usenet network would connect only once or twice a day to batch-transfer messages in and out.

ISPs, News Servers, and Newsfeeds

Most Internet service providers, and many other Internet sites, operate news servers for their users to access. To read news, one must use newsreader software—a program which resembles an email client (and is often integrated with one) but accesses Usenet instead.

Not all Internet sites run news servers. A news server is one of the most difficult Internet services to administer well, because of the complexity and data throughput involved. Some ISPs outsource news operation to specialist sites, which will usually look just the same to a user as if the ISP ran the server itself. Many sites carry only a restricted newsfeed, with only a limited number of newsgroups. Commonly omitted from such a newsfeed are foreign-language newsgroups and the alt.binaries hierarchy which largely carries software and erotica.

For those who have access to the Internet, but do not have access to a news server, Google Groups ([1]) allows reading and posting of text news groups via the World Wide Web. Though this or other "news-to-Web gateways" are not always as easy to use as specialized newsreader software—especially when threads get long—they are often much easier to search.

There are also Usenet providers which specialize in offering service to users whose ISPs do not carry news, or which carry a restricted feed. One list of such providers is available at [1]. There is even a newsgroup for the discussion of news providers specialized in the binary newsgroups—alt.binaries.news-server-comparison.

Technical details

Usenet is a set of protocols for generating, storing and retrieving news "articles" (which resemble Internet mail messages) and for exchanging them among a readership which is potentially widely distributed. These protocols most commonly use a flooding algorithm which propagates copies throughout a network of participating servers. Whenever a message reaches a server, that server forwards the message to all its network neighbors that haven't yet seen the article. Only one copy of a message is stored per server, and each server makes it available on demand to the (typically local) readers able to access that server. Usenet was thus one of the first peer-to-peer applications.

Internet Jargon and History

Many terms now in common use on the Internet—so-called "jargon"—originated or were popularized on Usenet. Likewise, many conflicts which later spread to the rest of the Internet, such as the ongoing difficulties over spamming, began on Usenet.

History

Usenet was invented in 1979 as one application of the UUCP protocol which allowed Unix machines to exchange data over telephone lines.

The first nodes connected were University of North Carolina and Duke University.

Nowadays, most Usenet articles are distributed using the NNTP protocol which works on top of the Internet's TCP/IP protocol.

The Great Renaming

In 1987, a drastic restructuring of Usenet known as the Great Renaming took place. Previous to this event, newsgroups were divided into three categories: "fa." for groups for ARPANET, "mod." for moderated discussions, and "net." for unmoderated groups. Groups in these hierarchies were not subject to naming conventions, and group names were rather haphazard.

The Great Renaming, led by the administrators known as the backbone cabal, re-organized newsgroups into seven hierarchies, known as the "Big Seven":

(Note: the asterisks are used as wildcard characters, examples are in brackets)

These hierarchies had rules that governed their administration and naming. Shortly after the Renaming, another hierarchy—the alt hierarchy—appeared. This hierarchy was not subject to the rules controlling groups in the Big Seven, and was as a result less organized. However, groups in the alt hierarchy tend to be more specialized or specific—for example, there might be a newsgroup under the Big Seven that contains discussions about children's books, but a group in the alt hierarchy may be dedicated to one specific author of children's books.

In the mid-1990s, another hierarchy joined the Big Seven—humanities.*, which dealt with fine arts, literature, and philosophy. To date only a small number of groups have been created in this hierarchy. Most arts topics remain in rec.arts.*, for instance. [1]

Today, many other hierarchies of newsgroups are distributed alongside these. Regional hierarchies such as japan.* and ne.* serve specific regions such as Japan and New England. Companies such as Microsoft promulgate their own hierarchies to discuss their products and offer community technical support. Some users prefer to use the term "Usenet" to refer only to the standardized "Big Eight plus alt.*" hierarchies. The more general term "netnews" incorporates the entire medium.

Later history

Early versions of Usenet used the B-News server software, and then later C-News. In the mid-1990s, INN was developed to take advantage of the way the Internet worked versus the store-and-forward design of UUCP. Since that time INN development has continued, and other news server software has also been developed.

Internet archiving of Usenet posts began at DejaNews with a very large, searchable database. In 2001, this database was acquired by the Google search engine company.

See also: List of newsgroups, Newsservers, Scorefile

Sociological implications

The architecture of Usenet is sometimes characterized as anarchic or as civic/democratic. Some see it as a global community or collection of online communities. While the views vary, one shared perspective among the users is of Usenet as an alternative medium to institutionalized mass communication, more open to participation from a wider variety of the general public.

Usenet can be a tool boosting an individual's ability to communicate, free from governmental and other organizational restrains. Seven major features that stand out are:

  1. In its origin, Usenet was the alternative to ARPANET (the precursor of today's Internet), created by those who could not join ARPANET. (It is not true today.)
  2. Usenet is open to a variety of users. It does not require user registration, institutional affiliation, or a specific fee like other communication systems. Users, with proper knowledge, can post their own messages as well. The system does not require any identification and accepts pseudonyms.
  3. The content is not censored very much. Much of the process of receiving, posting, and circulating messages is automated, and the sheer number of messages makes censorship very difficult, except for categorical banning of potentially problematic newsgroups or the entire Usenet.
  4. Creation of new newsgroups is possible for anybody with proper knowledge in certain parts of Usenet, namely within the alt hierarchy.
  5. Some point out that some newsgroups are helpful in their own way because of the resources of a variety of participants. For reasons which some may not be able to understand, many participants are willing to answer questions on subjects ranging from software troubleshooting, and other technical issues, to such topics as pros and cons of different medical treatments for a rare disease.
  6. Virtually all messages posted to the Usenet system are archived and made available in publicly-searchable databases on the World Wide Web. This allows for a great depth of historical records of news, information, and of the behaviour of individuals who choose to attach their real name to messages.
  7. The structure of the network is somewhat anti-hierarchical, one might argue. There is no center through which all articles go. Various news servers are connected with each other and the circulation of the articles is done in a fashion that is very similar to a bucket-relay. There is no essential set of newsgroups that a news server must carry. Some newsgroups are locally maintained. Consequently, it is very hard, if not utterly impossible, to construct a complete list of newsgroups for a given moment, let alone postings from a given week.

To some, these features are indications of what our society could become, or would likely become, when interactive information networks such as Usenet and the Internet become the dominant means of communication.

It is perhaps helpful to point out that these analogies of the social aspect of Usenet are not necessarily compatible with each other. While anarchism tends to emphasize individual freedom and the 'anything goes' principle, community values, mutual ties and cooperation. Democracy usually requires a binding collective decision, running counter to anarchic principle. A correct interpretation is not clear even among those who study it.

There exist various indications that those analogies are either one-sided or wrong. The reality of how Usenet is used might be not as simple as some might imagine from the above descriptions. However, others claim that what functions online can also work offline. And if democracy is not compatible with the anarchistic nature of Usenet or Internet in general, well, it is bad for democracy.

Communication on Usenet may be perceived by some (critics or users) as not very constructive, or worse yet, undesirable. In certain newsgroups it is frequently excessively aggressive, as some people engage in flame wars. The discussion might seem unproductive, with endless disputes. It may contain offensive language and very objectionable opinions on sensitive issues related to racism, gender role, etc. The non-offensive messages might be "spam," or unsolicited off-topic postings such as advertisements for pornography sites. A group may be flooded with messages by a very limited number of participants, being not very open and friendly to newcomers. In addition, the most active parts of the Usenet include exchange of pornographic files (especially pictures) and music files (especially in MP3 format). Newsgroups with more mature audiences, however, tend to avoid nasty exchanges, focussing on discussing more productive things, such as the newsgroup topic.

In addition, the said freedom in the alt hierarchy is limited in that unless a newly created newsgroup meets certain conditions and goes through certain procedures, it will not be carried by many news servers, potentially resulting in a wasted effort. In general, the seemingly anarchic system is indeed not without some administrative-level controls. The bucket-relay like structure of the network is even more limited because of the existence of the so-called Big Seven, the major carriers of newsgroups, to which many smaller-scale news servers connect. These carriers exert influence on newsgroups' birth and survival as well. Nevertheless, if a critical mass of users requests that their server administrators allow for the creation of a new newsgroup, the creation process is more likely to succeed.

It is also noticeable that there is an obvious hierarchy in the way newsgroups are organized. While some of the other interfaces for online communication support much less hierarchical organization of information, such as the World Wide Web, Usenet is not one of them.

The more general criticisms that apply to Usenet and many other kinds of online communication include the statement that Usenet is mostly a text-based medium, empowering the literate and articulate, while being less accessible to others. The counterpoint to this argument is that being text-based makes Usenet more accessible to visually impaired computer users who use text-reading software to navigate through the Internet. The issue of the digital divide, namely that some people simply do not have access to the Internet, is another reason one might point out that Usenet is not entirely democratic or open.

Quotes

"Come to think of it, there are already a million monkeys on a million typewriters, and the Usenet is NOTHING like Shakespeare!" — Blair Houghton

"Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea — massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it." — Gene Spafford

Related topics

Usenet Terms

Usenet history

Usenet administrators

Usenet personalities

External links

Credit

This article is partly based on the
infoAnarchy wiki.