My usual reaction when I mention Usenet to family or friends is a look of confusion. Most people have not even heard of it. Even technical gurus with many years experience under their belt do not know what it is, which I find strange. I have attempted explaining Usenet probably a dozen times, which is why I decided to write this entry to educate people about an important network that exists alongside the world wide web.
The Usenet is not accessed via a web browser, because it does not exist on the web. It has nothing to do with the worldwide web. The Usenet is a message base and file transfer community that predates the P2P bittorrent scene and has to some extent been replaced by the P2P scene. On the Usenet, instead of connecting directly to peers, your computer reads messages from a centralized server located either within your ISP itself or a private service to which you may subscribe, such as Easynews, Astraweb or Giganews. Don’t be fooled by the term, “messages,” because such messages can be either text such as you are reading now, or parts of files–games, movies, sound clips, e-books, and so on.
The servers that support the Usenet are called “news servers,” although they are not really serving “news” in the sense of today’s headlines. The word “news” refers to the fact that messages on the Usenet typically have a limited lifespan, depending on the news server. On Easynews, only the newest 99 days of messages are retained. On Giganews, the newest 240 days are retained (these numbers are subject to change). The Usenet is organized into a series of categories called “news groups,” although these are not usually moderated and tend to get a certain variable percentage of off-topic posts, spam, porn, viruses and other unwanted material. However, some groups are better than others; your mileage may vary.
The Usenet has been around for a long time and originated on college campuses among researchers, scholars and students in the United States as a method of exchanging advice and information on a wide variety of topics, not all of which were technical in nature. Its primary focus remains communication, although over the years it has also become a popular vehicle for file-sharing among hobbyists, enthusiasts and fans of various genres. For instance, there are groups dedicated to Windows wallpaper, animated .GIFs, folk music, html coders, java, C++, and so on.
The advantage of Usenet over P2p is that your downloading is only limited by the speed of your connection and the allowance of your news servers. Most subscription news servers do not throttle your connection, which means you download at full capacity. At the same time, no uploading is expected. You may download to your heart’s content without any limitation other than one that may be imposed by your ISP or news server. Another advantage to Usenet is that communicating with other users is encouraged. You can make requests, share your opinions, give advice, seek advice, and so on.
The disadvantage of Usenet is that a fair amount of technical know-how is required to get started. An internet browser is insufficient for browsing Usenet, in my opinion, although there are certain web sites that for a fee will allow you to do so. I recommend using instead a dedicated news reader, because it is faster and more powerful by any measure you care to apply. I recommend Forte Agent, because it has been around a long time and there are many users that can help you with it. It also supports many essential features, such as the ability to sort messages by date, subject, author, or byte size. In addition, you can subscribe to a news server directly from Forte at a quite reasonable price, beginning at $3 per month. Although Microsoft’s Outlook Express can also browse the Usenet, it is not recommended because it lacks certain features.
In order to get started on the Usenet, I recommend going with Forte Agent and subscribing to their news server, rather than attempting to use your ISP’s news server. Unfortunately, ISP support for Usenet has been spotty through the years. ISP’s view the Usenet in a negative light, because it represents an added expense to their bottomline. Very few of their users use the Usenet, typically less than 2%, but these consume a lot of bandwidth. There is no opportunity for the ISP or its partners to profit on Usenet, whereas there are ample opportunities for profit on the world wide web, beginning with an ISP-manufactured home page that inserts various advertisements and paid placements on the end user’s PC. You may even discover that your ISP attempts to throttle your Usenet connection or downloads. If you are in doubt, call them up and ask whether this is the case. The unfortunate reality in today’s marketplace is that there is little competition among ISP’s. Most people have only two ISP’s available in their area, and many in rural areas have only one. Capitalism has failed where ISP’s are concerned, and many consumers face what amounts to a monopoly situation today, particularly where broadband internet is concerned.
The sweet part of Usenet where you will find the vast majority of binary files is, appropriately enough, located in the alt.binaries.* hierarchy. When you search for newsgroups, you may want to begin there, but also keep an open mind about discussion groups where you may share information with others. Remember, Usenet is much more than just file-sharing. In its original design, the Usenet was not engineered for file-sharing but for discussion. Users often talk about “completion rates,” which refers to the fact that not all binary files make it to the news server intact. Sometimes, files are incomplete. This happens on almost all of the news servers, more often on ISP news servers, although less so on paid ones like Giganews, Astraweb and Easynews. In order to rebuild the missing parts, a tool known as QuickPar is used. This is what all of those .par and .par2 files are about. They assist in the reconstruction of files that may be missing various parts. Quickpar is a free, open-source utility and you should definitely install and use it. Download it here. It should be said that a news server such as Easynews today enjoys a completion rate better than 99.9%.
The second utility you may require, if you choose to download binary files, is something that supports the .rar archive format. .RAR is simply a method of compressing large files into smaller sizes in order to conserve bandwidth. Also, subdirectories are preserved, which is important for certain applications. You can obtain WinRar here. Note that still pictures, e-books and audio files usually are not compressed into .rar format due to their small size and because audio files and pictures are usually already compressed, a built-in feature of the .JPG and .MP3 formats. You will only need a .rar application if you choose to download larger files, such as multimedia. Keep in mind that the legality of such downloads varies by jurisdiction. Also, be wary of trojan horses, viruses and the like, just as is the case on the P2P networks.
As always on the internet, it is a good idea not to divulge your real name or address, because you never can tell what humorless type may be watching on the other end. Anonymity, and whether it truly exists on Usenet, is a more complicated subject and beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice to say, no one is truly anonymous anywhere on the internet, but there are certain layers of protection that should be employed. The most likely consequence of divulging your real email address in a message on Usenet would be the receipt of spam to your inbox, because the Usenet has long been harvested by bots searching for valid email addresses.