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The Hidden Social Network: Usenet in the 21st Century

During its formative years, the internet was a magical place. Social media stars and Youtubers today frequently wax poetic on their ability to use newly developed platforms as blank canvases, where they were able to create content based on any of their ideas and there wasn’t a massive drive to go viral. Instead, back in those early days, people were creating content for the pleasure of creating itself, sharing ideas with one another without the constant incursion of corporations through targeted ads, midrolls, and sponsorships. The internet used to be a much more democratic place, one that was developed by the people for the people: nowadays, it’s a very, very different environment.

Today, billion-dollar corporations have sought to turn the public sandbox of the internet into a massive billboard, scouting out every possible opportunity to advertise, as well as collecting large amounts of data (sometimes without our knowledge or consent) to direct future marketing strategies. Moreover, the rollback of net neutrality laws has made it possible for internet service providers (ISPs) to bend the rules in favor of corporations who pay a premium, charging them for internet fast lanes and slowing down other services in comparison.

The World Wide Web has become the network most people use for just about everything, and in response, capitalist forces have inserted themselves into every facet of that network: it is no longer as democratic or as free as it used to be. Read more about The Importance of Social Learning Network in 2021.

For people missing the early days of the web, however, there is another network that predates the World Wide Web. This network, packed with active users and with a massive database of user-curated audio and visual content, is a secret well kept by its constant users. This network is known as Usenet, and if any of the above has struck a chord with you, you might want to check it out.

A Dinosaur Still Walking: Before the World Wide Web

In 1979, 10 years before the World Wide Web was established, three college students from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill brainstormed a new way to share information between their institutions. Using UNIX-to-UNIX code protocol, the students could exchange files and messages, forming one of the first networks between three computers in their respective schools.

While at first the fledgling Usenet incorporated itself into the frameworks of other fledgling networks, eventually Usenet evolved to become a full-fledged network in its own right, with millions of discussion boards and billions of users. Usenet was the go-to network for hundreds of thousands of users until the invention of the World Wide Web: nowadays, the network is maintained by a smaller but still very much active community of constant users.

The Keys to the Kingdom

Today, Usenet has become something akin to Reddit, a platform through which users create and moderate community-maintained discussion boards (known amongst the community as newsgroups), sharing information amongst each other without restriction. While some may find Usenet difficult to access and navigate, as a separate browser called a newsreader is required to join the network, individuals who are familiar with social networks and forums like Reddit or 4chan will find they have a seamless transition to the new network.

While largely forgotten by the public, Usenet is still used by millions of dedicated content contributors, although they like to keep the existence of the network quiet: among its users, Usenet is seen as an oasis, a preserve that maintains the environment of the early internet, where everything was creative and collaborative in nature and corporations had not yet discovered its value. Moreover, the inherent bent of the program is towards sharing information and creating collaboratively, meaning that Usenet can function as a kind of social learning network where healthy communities can grow independent of any outside influence.

Making the Switch

While using Usenet doesn’t mean you have to divorce yourself from the World Wide Web, it’s entirely possible that once you sign on, you’ll find that you can’t stop visiting this all-encompassing network of cooperative collaboration. With newsgroups that encompass every conceivable interest (and with an easy approval process to begin your own just in case), Usenet has a little something for everyone and is more than worth a visit.

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