Usenet

The First Social Network

Article from Issue 217/2018
Author(s):

Before the web as we know it existed, Usenet performed the same tasks now done by web forums and social networks. Despite its declining popularity, Usenet is still employed to publish articles, sustain mailing lists, and even upload files.

Usenet, is a gigantic Internet forum with thousands of subforums. The Usenet system is designed as a federated network, which means you just need to connect to one Usenet server in order to have access to all of Usenet. The most common tool for connecting to Usenet is a Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) client. See the box titled "The Nature of Federated Networks" for more information.

The Nature of Federated Networks

Your average Internet user is accustomed to using web services managed by a single operator, such as Twitter and Reddit. The owners of these platforms control the management of their servers and dictate the terms of service that users must accept before joining. When you join Twitter, you are only accessing that web service, not all other web services available.

A federated service is composed of multiple independent service providers who team up in order to build a network to allow users to interact across services. For example, your phone provider is a federated service. If your phone provider is Vodafone, you can still phone somebody who uses a different provider. Email works the same way.

Federated services are popular in hardcore FOSS circles, because they allow the user to choose their preferred service provider rather than being forced to use the same provider used by their contacts. As an added benefit, the network becomes resistant to failure: If one service provider goes offline, the rest of the userspace is not affected too much. However, federated services are quickly losing popularity, because the concept is harder to grasp for the end user. For example, a federated service, such as the messaging protocol XMPP, suffers from confusion about signing up for an account. An interested user might find an XMPP provider's website, such as Suchat, but be confused as to whether they can sign up for the "Suchat protocol" on the website. On the other hand, they might sign up for a Suchat account without realizing they are actually getting an XMPP account with the Suchat provider.

Usenet is an extremely anarchistic network. It is composed of many servers, each administrated independently. Each server peers with as many other network servers as the administrator desires, as long as the other networks allow it. Peering in this way allows a server to fetch messages posted to other servers, which in turn can get content from the first server. What this means is that if you post a message through a server, that message will be copied over every Usenet server through peering. This makes it possible to maintain discussions with users who connect to Usenet using a different server, since the whole discussion is propagated through the network.

The Usenet network is a giant bulletin board that is divided into hierarchical sections, called newsgroups. Newsgroups are to Usenet what subforums are to web-based forums, and each one deals with a particular topic. For example, rec.sport.soccer is dedicated to discussions about soccer. Usenet netizens are supposed to use their clients to subscribe to the newsgroups they want to be active in, in much the same way they would subscribe to a mailing list. Subscribing to a newsgroup means that your client will pull new messages from the newsgroups each time you connect or at regular intervals, depending on your client. Despite the name, newsgroups are actually discussion groups. Newsgroups got their name because they were originally intended to host news.

Any user can post an article to a newsgroup. An article can receive answers from other Usenet users, thus creating discussion threads, much like a mailing list. Some newsgroups are moderated, and posts need to be approved by the newsgroup administrator before publication.

Newsgroups are organized hierarchically, following a set of arcane conventions. Using the newsgroup comp.lang.python as an example, comp is the top-level hierarchy (in this example the comp class), which is devoted to discussion about computer related subjects. lang is a subgroup of the comp class devoted to discussing development languages. python refers to the Python programming language.

Top-Level Hierarchies

Most top-level hierarchies depend on a managing board or group. The administrator of the top-level hierarchy defines the rules according to which newsgroups are created, removed, and modified.

The most widely known top-level hierarchies are the Big 8 (Table 1). These hierarchies are managed by the Big 8 Management Board. They are: comp.*, humanities.*, misc.*, news.*, rec.*, sci.*, soc.*, and talk.*.

Table 1

The Big 8

Top-level hierarchy

Subject

comp.*

Computer-related discussion.

humanities.*

Topics related to humanities.

misc.*

Miscellaneous topics that fit nowhere else.

news.*

Subjects related to Usenet and newsgroup management.

rec.*

Recreational activity topics.

sci.*

Science-related discussion.

soc.*

Discussion about social topics.

talk.*

Particularly controversial topics, such as religion or politics.

Although the Big 8 are the best known hierarchies, there are many others, usually devoted to specific nations or geographical areas, such as es.*, aus.*, etc. Many hierarchies' management boards were disbanded or dissolved with the decline of Usenet and exist in a sort of zombie state. Their newsgroups can still be used, and many are still active, but they won't have more newsgroups created, removed, or modified.

The alt.* hierarchy deserves a special mention. Regular top-level hierarchies usually have very draconian rules for creating new newsgroups. alt.* was created in order to have a top-level hierarchy that was not managed by a single board or entity, so the only thing needed for creating a newsgroup was to convince enough Usenet server administrators to carry the new newsgroup. As a result, it is the largest hierarchy by quite a big margin.

Top-Level Hierarchy Management

Each server administrator sets the rules for his server and decides which newsgroups can be accessed through it. An administrator could decide to make some newsgroups unavailable, create a newsgroup that is not recognized by other servers, or create local newsgroups and refuse to share them with other servers.

In practice, most Usenet server administrators respect the decisions of widely known and respected hierarchy management entities, such as the Big 8 Management Board. When such an entity communicates the desire to create, remove, or modify a newsgroup, administrators will create, remove, or implement the modifications in their own servers. Nowadays, the process is automated. A respected entity issues a control message that is distributed across Usenet servers, which then perform the ordered modifications. This makes it possible to have an homogeneous set of newsgroups across all Usenet servers.

Big 8 hierarchies in particular have clearly defined methods and procedures for approving the creation of new groups [1]. Anyone, board member or not, who sees the need for a new newsgroup, can issue a Request For Discussion (RFD) by posting in news.announce.newgroups. After the RFD is posted, the need for such a group will be discussed at news.groups.proposals. The hierarchy's managers approve the newsgroup, they will issue a control message to communicate to Usenet servers that the group has been created.

alt.* is a special case [2]. Since no one is in charge, you usually post your desire for the new newsgroup in alt.config and then try to convince some news admin to create the group. Most Usenet servers will start serving the group once they see that some other news admin has created it.

Getting Started

All you need to start using Usenet is an NNTP client (newsreader) with Internet access (Table 2). You may be surprised that you can use Thunderbird as your newsreader. From the main screen, just click on Newsgroups under Create a new account. Thunderbird will ask your name and email address (Figure 1). Keep in mind that the account name is only for use within Thunderbird. If you are worried about spam, you can use a fake email address. In that case, you should use .invalid for your fake domain to let other users know that it is a decoy address.

Table 2

Partial List of Newsreaders

Name

GUI

tin

No

slrn

No

Thunderbird

Yes

Pan

Yes

Figure 1: Thunderbird's account wizard does not require a working email address with most Usenet providers.

Next, Thunderbird will prompt you to select a Usenet provider, aka a news server (Figure 2). Many news servers offer Usenet access for a fee, but these are usually intended for downloading massive amounts of data, such as movie files (see the "Binary Newsgroups" box). If you just want to join discussion groups, you can use a free Usenet provider (Table 3).

Binary Newsgroups

Although I have focused on the Usenet's applications for hosting discussion threads, Usenet is best known today as a file sharing platform. Usenet was never intended for file sharing, but creative users have discovered that they could encode large files such as a movie as text, then split the text across many messages, posting the messages in a newsgroup. Reverse this process to download the file. A carefully adapted NNTP can manage this download process.

Newsgroups devoted to hosting files are called binary groups. Most free Usenet providers allow no access to binary groups because it taxes their systems. It is also a sure way to get lots of Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices. Usenet news servers also have filters that prevent users from posting files in text groups.

Binary newsgroups are usually clearly identified, by including the word binaries in their names. Hence you may find binary content in alt.binaries.pictures.fine-art, for example.

Table 3

Partial List of Free Usenet Providers

Name

Website

Requires Authentication

Supports TLS

Aioe

www.aioe.org

No

Yes

Eternal September

www.eternal-september.org

Yes

Yes

Albasani

albasani.net

No

Yes

Figure 2: Enter the address of your favorite Usenet provider.

Some news servers require the user to register before they can access Usenet. Others don't, but they usually have tighter restrictions on the size and number of messages a single user can post per day.

Assuming you have selected a news server that does not require authentication, you can move straight to subscribing to your desired newsgroup. Select Manage Newsgroup Subscriptions in the main screen and let Thunderbird load a list of available groups (Figure 3). Once you have subscribed, your active newsgroups will display in the sidebar on the left (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Thunderbird allows you to find and subscribe to your desired newsgroups.
Figure 4: Messages posted to the newsgroup show up in your inbox just like emails.

Don't forget to set message filters (Figure 5). Message filters will help you remove clutter, offensive messages, troll postings, and more. You can manage your filters by clicking on Manage message filters.

Figure 5: Message filters keep out spammers and trolls.

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