Your Internet Consultant - The FAQs of Life Online

5.1. What is the Usenet?

Answered by Dave Taylor (

If you've spent any time near the so-called information highway that is today's Internet, you can't help but hear about all these fantastic netnews groups that are part of something called the Usenet. Not a network in the common sense of the word (that is, a bunch of wires connecting machines together), the Usenet acts like more of an intellectual connection system, where you can become involved in any of thousands of specialized groups discussing topics ranging from suicide and Pakistani culture to modem protocols, C++ programming, hang-gliding, or upcoming Grateful Dead concerts.

The Usenet is simply the largest, most active, and most varied discussion forum in the world. Imagine a bulletin board on the wall. Imagine that as people pass it, they glance at what's there, and if they have something to add, they stick their note up, too. Now (here's the big leap), imagine that there are thousands of bulletin boards in this building, and that there are actually tens of thousands of buildings throughout the world, each with its own identical copy of the bulletin boards. Got it? That's Usenet.

Usenet was created in 1979 when two graduate students at Duke University, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, hooked their computer to another at the University of North Carolina. In 1980, there were two sites with Usenet. At the end of 1993, there were an estimated 120,000 sites on Usenet, representing over 4.2 million participants.

A true experiment in free speech and barely controlled anarchy, the Usenet's range of discussions, called newsgroups, is astonishing, all the way from computer modem protocols (on comp.dcom.modem) to Macintosh programming (on comp.sys.mac.programmer) to topics of relevance to single men and women (on abortion (on talk.abortion) and even the wonderful TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 (on

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