Unless you began your time as an Internet nerd in the 1980’s or you studied computer science, you may not have heard of Usenet. It became the forerunner of torrenting, but that was never its developer’s intent.
Two students developed the protocol for Usenet in 1979. The previous decade, the military had introduced what became a related technology, ARPANET. While ARPANET spawned the Internet we use today, Usenet spawned torrenting.
At Duke University, as discos gave way to post-punk clubs, the students developed what they called the “netnews” protocol. Just like ARPANET, its original intent was to enable research. Usenet hosts newsgroups that allow people with similar interests to post information. In its original form, people could only upload text. Researchers at colleges, universities, private institutions, government agencies and the military could post developments in their research. It enabled those working thousands of miles from one another to share in one another’s research and to easily collaborate long distance.
Publicly released in 1980 as A-News, it later became known as Usenet, which uses Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP).
Usenet Takes Off
Well known fact: Academics love to talk about their research. Another well-known fact: Not that many people understand an academic’s research. The Duke University students had provided a way for really nerdy people, who study topics even very few other really nerdy people enjoy, to talk across the globe for free. The organizations they worked for paid for Usenet.
While ARPANET let users post static information using hypertext (i.e. HTML), Usenet enabled conversation. A University of California Berkeley grad student developed the software Uuencode, which formed a key piece of technology for both Usenet and e-mail. Uuencode bridged the gap between raw text and binary files. This enabled e-mail attachments. It also enabled researchers to send binaries, or files, to Usenet discussion groups.
Nerds have hobbies, too.
Initially, the addition of the additional protocols was to further research. People included graphs of data. Researchers provided binary files of illustrations and diagrams. And then, they got bored one day and added a newsgroup or two for other fun.
You see, researchers have hobbies, too. Some academics love trail running. Some love cake baking and decorating. Some love mountain biking. Just as esoteric as their research, in an academic environment, it might be tough to meet someone who shares their interest in pro fighting or a particular actor. Although their name did not go down in history, someone on the early Usenet created a newsgroup for something completely unrelated to the hardcore science research it and ARPANET were created to foster.
And now for Something Completely Different
Academics started newsgroups about their hobbies. In many cases, they have the same hobbies as everybody else. Usenet was open to everyone in a university environment, undergrads and grad students included. Suddenly, a student at UCLA could share a photo from that morning’s local newspaper with researchers and students around the world. And much merriment ensued.
As technology exploded in the 90’s, so did Internet access and Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Although it doesn’t now, the ubiquitous AOL once provided Usenet access. That meant undergrads could go home for the weekend to do laundry and get their folks hooked, too. It turns out, parents have hobbies, too.
Some Questionable Hobbies
Of course, not everyone has normal hobbies. As Internet access became more readily available, and cheaper, home computers became popular. Now that anyone could get on Usenet, anyone could post anything. Anything happened to include adult material, spam, viruses, and eventually copyrighted things. In fact, the word spam originated on Usenet, literally.
No one owns Usenet. The same innovation that allowed cancer researchers to share daily updates on research and cell diagrams, allowed it to form the original peer-to-peer sharing network. Not intentionally, but once a protocol becomes open, everyone gets to use it.
Modern Usenet Popularity
You might not realize it, but most of those snazzy torrents you download and join together come from Usenet. In fact, its old-school protocol is why you need a gazillion tiny 20 MB files to make one full movie.
That also makes it much faster than other options. A mostly text format, served by high-speed providers that don’t waste your time with ads, pop-ups and doesn’t require you to waste your time streaming moves much faster. And people like that. People like downloading to watch when it is convenient for them and does not require them to use their Internet.
Usenet allows people to choose what they want to read and see. You can use either a Web-based method or install newsreader software on your computer. You search Usenet for your interests, as broad or specific as you choose, it covers it. Anything with a graphics or video or audio file, you’ll find in the hierarchy with the alt binaries newsgroups.
Turn of the Century Changes
Once upon a time, AOL did offer Usenet access as did a lot of Internet providers. It came free with your dial-up Internet access or even broadband. This all changed as Usenet’s popularity exploded and so did the volume of data being posted and almost all Internet providers decided that it was too expensive to maintain and gave them more headaches than profit. The gave rise to private Usenet providers, which is now how most people gain access. This has let the amount of data available grow to many Petabytes (that’s 1,000’s of Terabytes), which places it among the biggest of Big Data.
Usenet provides freedom of choice. If you don’t want to see the posts under alt.binaries.pictures, simply don’t open it or subscribe to it. You choose what you read.
Usenet though seemingly lawless, does police itself in some ways. You’ll find your post gone with the wind if it is off topic. For example, if you posted a baseball binary to a Robert De Niro or Selena Gomez newsgroup. Everything must stay on topic. It provided the original target audience format.
If you don’t work for or attend a college, university or other research organization, you buy an access plan from a Usenet provider. Plans range in cost and number of Gigabytes offered but start at about $5. Some not only provide web-based access but newsgroup software you’d normally buy separately. You’ll have more than 100k possible newsgroups at your fingertips. Pick your favourites and ignore the rest. There is something on Usenet for everyone.