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HomeUncategorizedUsenet, the OG social network, rises again like a text-only phoenix

Usenet, the OG social network, rises again like a text-only phoenix

The USENET management committee has reconvened and there are green shoots of growth in the original, pre-World Wide Web social network.

USENET, or NetNews, is a text-only social discussions forum, or rather a set of a great many forums, called “newsgroups,” carried by multiple servers around the world. Although the original developers closed down their instance in 2010, that was just one server out of hundreds, and many are still running just fine. It never went away – it’s still alive, you can get on it for free, and there is a choice of client apps for most OSes to help you navigate.

Although USENET is a decentralized, peer-to-peer network, the Big-8 board is the closest thing it has to a central governing authority. Board member Tristan Miller told The Reg: “Jason Evans and I re-established the Board in 2020, after a long period of dormancy. We were joined a few months later by Rayner Lucas.”

Among other things, the board manages the list of newsgroups, and now that there’s an active board again, it has been busy. It deleted some very old groups at the moderators’ request, and added the first new newsgroup in many years for the Gemini protocol. If you have a News client, news:comp.infosystems.gemini ought to open it. The board has also revamped the website, run a Reddit Ask Me Anything session, updated the GNU Stump and WebStump packages used by moderators, and more.

USENET is older than the web, and works more like email: servers carry a list of newsgroups, and sync messages with each other. Although the original developers closed down their instance in 2010, that was just one server out of hundreds.

(One of the things that contributed to the downfall of USENET was when people worked out how to post binary files, encoded as multi-part blocks of ASCII text. It still has piracy problems but you can just ignore that stuff. It was also the venue for the first spam message in internet history.)

Getting online is pretty easy. Get an account on a USENET server. Install a client, tell it the server address. Download the list of groups, subscribe to some, and new messages get delivered to your client. That’s it.

The Reg FOSS desk uses a service called Eternal September, after the event when AOL added USENET access to its internet client and tens of thousands of newbies flooded in without knowing the rules. We’ll give you one hint: scrupulously follow the “netiquette” of plain-text, bottom-posted email.

Eternal September only carries text groups, no binaries, but it offers totally free accounts, whereas some higher-capacity servers such as Eweka or Giganews charge for access.

As for a client – well, as we mentioned when introducing their new ESR versions, we use Thunderbird. It’s free, it works, and it runs on all the big desktop OSes. There are lots out there, though. Even Google Groups is still alive, if woefully neglected.

As a big science fiction reader, this vulture enjoys dipping into rec.arts.sf.written and rec.arts.sf.fandom. The computer history group alt.folklore.computers is still pretty busy. There is life in several retrocomputing channels, and we’ve been enjoying talking about Acorn RISC OS and Fortran among other things. ®

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