Many of us grew up with the World Wide Web, with it being established in 1989 and its continually growing influence over every facet of our lives. We grew up being able to send emails, with personal computers in every home, school, and workplace, and with smartphones making the net accessible at any given time: some of us were even born with smartphones in our hands, accessing the internet through video game consoles and digital learning tools. The internet is so omnipresent, so thoroughly integrated into every part of our lives, that the thought of being without it seems like a farce, a fairy tale not unlike that of the Pevensie kids stepping through the wardrobe and into Narnia.
Yet, it wasn’t that long ago that the seeds that would become the World Wide Web were only beginning to be planted, and other networks and means of sharing information ruled the market. While many of these networks have become obsolete, Usenet remains just as viable today as ever, a forum populated by thousands of dedicated users and free from third-party control. Think of Usenet as an untouched oasis of democratically curated and maintained content, where users run the show entirely without the influence of internet service providers or data-buying corporations.
But what is Usenet, and what can you use it for? Is it possible that such a space still exists, and remains safe from the encroaching capitalist influence that plagues the World Wide Web? Is it safe to use, and what can you do on Usenet that you can’t do on the web?
Think of Usenet as a system like Reddit: an interconnected series of discussion boards that are moderated and curated entirely by their separate communities, with groups covering every imaginable interest you can think of. These groups are called newsgroups, and while new newsgroups typically have to pass an approval process, these groups are essentially open sandboxes for people with different interests to play in, closely guarded by a tight-knit community of consistent users. While commonly frequented spaces on the World Wide Web like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram have to deal with corporate incursions on their space, there’s much less of that on Usenet, as most people aren’t aware of Usenet.
That would be because Usenet is an online communications system that actually predates the World Wide Web. Usenet was begun by college students at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill, where three students developed a private network that would allow them to exchange information via UNIX-to-UNIX copy protocol. It started with just three computers between two universities, and then quickly grew in popularity, becoming the preferred method for people to access and share information rapidly before being essentially buried by the World Wide Web. Usenet is still active, however, having maintained steady growth since its creation and amassing a gigantic database of video and audio content.
Why Use Usenet?
If you’re satisfied with the service you get using the World Wide Web, why would you want to switch to another network? Well, tech-savvy consumers might consider that the internet is becoming less free every day. Through the dismantling of net neutrality laws, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have regained the ability to create “fast lanes” for services that pay their premium, slowing down other services in comparison. Pair that with what seems to be an ever-increasing corporate drive to collect our data and market it, and the idea of a network with a limit on corporate incursion sounds like a godsend.
Not to mention that Usenet has the added benefit of unrestricted download speeds and quick access, meaning that your service will likely be significantly better, as well as a huge database of community-curated content. All you need is a newsreader, or the equivalent of a Usenet browser, to start reading and downloading today.
Usenet is not necessarily easy to access, but with the right newsreader and the willingness to learn a new operating system, you’ll find that Usenet provides a healthy alternative the corporate-controlled network.