Why do we still have USENET?
Why do we still have USENET?
Currently, USENET is designed so that people must post articles via an
"injector" site, which then sends the article out to its neighbours in
a flood. The injector usually is a machine at the user's institution
or ISP, and it doesn't let any outsider inject articles.
Articles propagate through servers, and then people tend to read from
those servers via NNTP. When USENET started, people read news directly
on the server with shell accounts, but that's rare today. While the
norm is that the NNTP server should be very close to the user (at the ISP
or right on the LAN of a school or corporation) it's also common for sites
to outsource their USENET reading to a company with central servers.
There were open injectors in the past, but abuse by spammers pretty much
shut them all down. Even abuse by spammers of local injectors has caused
local injectors to set all sorts of policies and rules on use of the
injector, and almost all insert identifying information in the effort
to stop spam, including the IP address, which in the case of people with
static IP addresses (or very long term DHCP leases) often effectively
identifies the posting user.
With this mix of actions, it's worth asking what USENET is, how it's different
from other conferencing systems, and why we use still use it's fairly
ancient effectively pre-internet design.
I think those reasons are:
- Better readers
- Hands down, USENET readers, designed for reading large-volume discussions,
are vastly superior to just about anything else people use. They keep track
of what you have read and not read and all your preferences and they do
it privately on your own machine. They have high-speed thread tracking,
complex thread navigation, and many have complex filtering and killfiling.
They have all the advantages of a local client (and all the disadvantages)
but those advantages are many.
Mailing lists have decent readers but not as good as a USENET reader.
- Local access
- While as noted, some people are moving from this, if you have it, nothing
beats local high-speed access. Response times are near instantaneous
when compared to remote web fetches, and once you have it you can't go back.
The NNTP session is a permanent session, with state, allowing better
response time even when the server is more remote. But if it's on your
own LAN, or nearby on a DSL or cable line, it can't be beat.
This comes at the cost of course of pre-feeding all articles to the local
spool, even if nobody will ever read them. Of course as soon as one person
reads an article it was efficient, and once multiple people read an article,
it was really efficient to feed it in advance.
One can fetch on demand and cache, but that takes away the speed of local
access for the first reader.
You access most mailing lists truly locally, but in a more limited
- Offline reading
- For a small and shrinking percentage of the users, USENET's older design
allows offline particpation, or participation through a link to a site
with intermittent connectivity. Even for those who don't view offline
reading as a goal, the fact that their local site can temporarily lose
internet connectivity or have slow connectivity doesn't affect the USENET
experience very much is a plus.
- Decentralized efficiency
- USENET rarely gets slow because a newsgroup gets hot. While many web
sites have been taken to their knees with traffic around big events like
the olympics or terrorism, USENET performance is normally completely
- Decentralized control
- We like that on the whole nobody is in charge of USENET. Those who do
express authority do so at the pleasure of the whole community. USENET
remains a cooperative owned and run by the operators of servers, and if you
have the servers, it's not hard to join that co-op.
This decentralization provides more freedom of speech and more privacy, and
spreads the cost. It also allows more abuse and spam, more chaos and in
areas where innovation means getting everybody to agree on a new feature,
it counter-intuitively stifles innovation.
- Legacy & Community
- Sometimes we read USENET because it is the venerated king. It's where
certain communities gather and have gathered for a long time.
- Simple experience
- USENET remains largely plain, monospaced 80 column text. This keeps
people in discussions aimed at their text, and not the format and other
Of course, many of those advantages are also disadvantages and why people
have moved away from USENET to things like web forums, online services
and mailing lists.
- Better readers
- USENET's readers are better but effectively the same as they were 15 years
ago. Other readers have innovated in different ways that USENET never
embraced for a variet of reasons. Richer text formats, integration with
the web, coordinate help systems etc. Also, web based tools offer users
a tool they already know -- the browser. And while USENET is much older
than the browser, today vastly more people know the browser.
- Lots of decentralized pockets of centralized control.
- Online services and web-boards are feifdoms under the complete control
of their owners. That means they care about them, take care of them and
innovate in them. They stop spam and abuse, and create and experiment
with new rules. They can also be tyrants if they wish to be.
At the same time, there are thousands of web based online forums, all with
different owners. That means a lot of competition and desire to please the
user to grow the community. USENET has none of that.
Creating a new web forum or mailing list is something anybody can do.
They don't have to ask permission of the community or anybody else.
They can try any new technology, message format or regulatory regime
in their area. USENET on the other hand is extremely resistent to change.
The ability to innovate has allowed web boards to support things like
user-moderation and scoring, partial moderation (where the owners define
the topics but let the discussion run wild) and combining discussion with
resources, help, polls, file downloads etc.
Some web boards protect privacy, others reduce it. There are many, many
- In web search
- Due to the design of search engines, web message boards show up in most
web searches. USENET wasn't even indexed until 1995 and at all times you
had to do a special search to find USENET postings, though google has made
trying both fairly easy. Nonetheless, if people go looking for
an online community with a search engine, they will not find USENET ones
- In the end, if you are looking for a specific community, you'll go where
it is regardless of the software. Web forums now own many topic spaces,
even when there are also competing USENET areas. So do some mailing lists.
- Richer text
- Web forums allow a richer experience and better user interface, while of
course allowing the richness to be overdone. However, USENET doesn't even
offer something a simple as foldable text with defined paragraph breaks
so the reading window can be
resized to taste, or a formal specification of included text, hypertext
links and signatures.
Nobody would be against those things but a path to providing them was never
clear inside USENET, even though the MIME spec defined an inefficient one.
Web boards have much more control of what the user sees and can show faces,
structure and many other things.
Is there a way to keep what's valuable about USENET, fix what's wrong and
integrate what's been learned from other systems and their strengths and
(Mostly) End to End USENET
Answer to come later