If you’re reading articles on the internet in 2023, you are likely familiar with the surge of modern social media. We have staples like Facebook and X (prev. Twitter), forum-based communities like Reddit, the image gallery of Instagram, and short-form videos like TikTok, each filling our browser with the escapades of friends, coworkers, and complete strangers. If I mentioned the pioneers of social networking, who would come to mind? MySpace? Xanga? ICQ? AIM?
What if I told you every single one of those was wrong? The original social network is actually a separate entity from the Internet, a community-based client-to-server forum that was once meant as a discussion group about Unix shared between two universities. It never left— and it’s getting popular all over again. It’s time you learn about Usenet. Let’s go.
The Advent of Social Networking
Usenet was originally brought to life in the 1980s by founders Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott. It was coded in early Unix and meant as a platform to discuss Unix development and computer innovation, specifically between two universities. But then, it grew. It grew to include other people, it grew to include other topics, and it grew to meet stringent security protocols.
Usenet inspired future social media networks in a myriad of ways. From thread-based communication like we see on X and Facebook to community content uploaded in themed forums like Reddit, there are pieces of Usenet everywhere you look. Even the latest blockchain-based social media innovations can trace their roots back to the global phenomenon of Usenet.
Unfortunately for these modern iterations, the original is making a solid comeback.
The Rise of Usenet 2.0
Nicknamed “the original social media,” Usenet at its peak was a thriving community of users, a hub for vibrant and open discussions. People connected from all over the globe, discussing various topics and connecting with people who had similar interests. Over time, however, Usenet slowly declined in popularity. As the World Wide Web became more accessible and interconnected, networking changed. But Usenet never truly died. It continued operating and evolving, serving a niche collection of businesses and individuals.
And now, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Usenet has found new life. This resurgence, dubbed Usenet 2.0 in some circles, comes as users are becoming disillusioned with mainstream social media policies. Modern platforms are plagued with issues like content moderation and censorship, data breaches, privacy concerns, algorithmic manipulation, greed, and an abundance of targeted spyware leading to uncomfortably relevant ads. Usenet offers users an escape from these problems by inviting them to join a fully SSL-secured, encrypted, anonymous, and unmoderated public environment.
A Dedication to Privacy
Unlike modern platforms that track every aspect of your online activity and collect mountains of data to sell to other companies, Usenet safeguards users through data encryption to hide their activity and usernames to hide their identity. The anonymity allows for a sense of freedom, encouraging open and honest discussion without worry about being doxxed.
Additionally, Usenet’s decentralized structure means that no single entity can collect and control user data. Because Usenet providers operate independent networks of servers, it is practically impossible to track individual users. This privacy-centered approach appeals to a growing number of people who are increasingly concerned with data practices on the Internet.
The Persistence of Knowledge and Free Discussion
Usenet has remained an advocate of free discussion. Unlike the strict content guidelines and moderation that social media sites continue to attempt to implement— with unnecessary bans over a user calling herself a potato — Usenet offers the freedom to express your thoughts, opinions, and ideas without fear of being banned.
If you’re a new user, you can still access old discussions. Usenet has a cast storage capacity, with most server clusters storing articles and discussion threads indefinitely. You can find conversations and resources that date back decades, gaining access to an immense archive of debates and discussions.
Newsgroups cover a wide range of topics, with the most popular “Big 8” generating discussions around science, technology, and humanities alongside more contentious topics like politics and religion. These newsgroups are the original iteration of forums, where user-generated content sparks a new thread of discussion.
A Global Experience Untainted by Algorithms
Accessing articles and newsgroups on Usenet unlocks the opportunity to speak with people from around the world who bring their own cultural backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge into the conversation. With the lack of moderation and openness to conversations, you can experience deep, thought-provoking conversations.
Usenet allows people with shared interests to come together and exchange ideas regardless of their location, transcending borders. This fosters a vibrant and inclusive community where you can access new perspectives and insights. In a time where we are grappling with data tracking and intrusive ads, Usenet has re-appeared as a nostalgic yet refreshing alternative.