Everything You Need to Know About Usenet

This is a sponsored article and was made possible by Usenet Storm. The actual contents and opinions are the sole views of the author who maintains editorial independence, even when a post is sponsored.

Some of you reading this might be thinking, “Usenet? What is that?” Others might be thinking, “Usenet? I remember using it back in my college days. So much fun!”

This platform has been used for a very long time for a variety of purposes throughout its evolution, and it’s come back with a vengeance as the beginning of the 21st century extends its roots (ironically) all the way back to the latter years of the 20th. While it certainly doesn’t have as strong a user base as other platforms used to surf the Web, it stood the test of time with such resilience that it’s hard for us to find anything that matches its legacy.

usenet-vintage

In 1979, more than ten years before the first time ever “www” was typed into their browser, an idea for a newsboard-based network communication platform was born at Duke University in North Carolina. Just one year later this idea materialized into what we now call Usenet. It started as a sort of forum where people could post things they found interesting, and then it evolved into a very primitive version of a social network through the 80s.

At some point during all of the chaos, someone came up with a nifty way to get binary files into these messages. From then on, the NZB file format was born. It works a lot like today’s torrents except you’re usually downloading from a single source instead of hundreds. This led to Usenet becoming a file-sharing platform in addition to its role as a live discussion board. For a while in the early 2000s, it became one of many refuges for people hoping for a new place to download files after the Napster scandal.

Then it fell into obscurity in favor of BitTorrent. Or at least that’s what everyone thought when they stopped seeing Usenet mentioned around the Web. Today, millions of people are still using the service, downloading several terabytes of files every single day.

usenet-progressbar

For people who have never used it, Usenet looks like a completely different dimension of the Internet that would require a steep learning curve. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Keep in mind that this is a very old networking platform based on a rather primitive protocol, so the concept behind Usenet is actually dead simple when you get down to brass tacks. A client connects to a server, downloads a list of groups and then gets content from each group going down a particular number of days. The server stores all of the data, and you just grab whatever you want. That’s about it. Each server has a series of groups created by users, and they all post news and files at their leisure.

From the user’s perspective, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • While there are plenty of free Usenet servers, the spiciest content is often found on services you pay for. You also get more speed and sometimes even unlimited download bandwidth when you fork over the cash.
  • There’s a limit to how much information these servers can store. This is why they clear out data that’s older than a particular number of days. In some cases you would have to pay a higher monthly fee to access older data, but usually the lower limit is very high (above 300 days), so you don’t have to worry very much about this.
  • You may be overwhelmed by the amount of spam on the servers at first, but if you want to be as productive as possible, you should use a search engine like Binsearch, NZB.is or Nzbplanet.

usenet-crossroads

There’s a lot of ignorance surrounding Usenet, so perhaps we should also clarify a few of the rumors that circulate about the service even on the most reputable publications:

  • It isĀ not a P2P platform, despite what many people say about it. Peer-to-peer networking works exactly as the name implies. Two users connect to each other, make a polite handshake, and transfer data without needing the server’s intervention except for the moments when the recipient wants to find the sender. Usenet is more centralized. All of the content is hosted on the server, so you’re downloading all of your files from one single location.
  • Usenet is not a guarantor of privacy. Some providers will log their connections a certain amount of days which means that you’ll be exposed in one way or another. The exception to this is if you’re using a provider that gives you un-logged access. Make sure you’re always connecting to un-logged servers if you are concerned about this.
  • There’s no guarantee that you won’t find viruses. Despite the best efforts of curators on some servers, viruses often slip through the cracks. You cannot be complacent. Always be as prudent when using Usenet as you would be in any other part of the Web.
  • If a Usenet server isn’t working, use an alternative port. Sometimes your ISP might be blocking some of the more default ports (like 119) to stop you from using this service.

Now that we’ve nipped most of the ins and outs of Usenet in the bud, it’s time to start exploring! You should probably use a web-based client likeĀ SABnzbd to get started, but then you could go for more advanced stuff like NewsBin. Both the clients work on Windows (and SABnzbd has the added benefit of working on Mac OS).

It may seem intimidating, but so were torrents when they first came out. The things we’ve discussed here should make the process of getting acquainted with the service a little bit easier. It’s really not that hard to use, and the experience can be very rewarding. You not only get to grab files, but you can also post in news groups and communicate with people, enjoying the forum-like environment that was prevalent through the 80s. Once it grows on you, you’ll be wondering why you haven’t used Usenet earlier!

Are you a Usenet veteran with a few tips for newbies? Give us a holler with your ideas in the comments!

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