City of Embers: Usenet and the Last Bastion of Collaborative Digital Culture

The net used to be a place where users could express themselves creatively, where every new page was a digital sandbox with unlimited possibility, and where users could get together to talk about their interests and grow in knowledge together. It used to be a place where people could connect with each other in private digital spheres, where they could update people on their goings-on through digital journaling spaces like Facebook and MySpace, where they could escape from the horrors of the natural world for a while and play online games with friends.

This is no longer the case today.

While some of these elements remain today, others have been mutated beyond recognition by an incursion of the capitalist spirit on these spaces. The creative energy that was once inherent to the internet has now been transformed into a marketing tool, a place where creators are willing to do anything to achieve influencer status, and corporations spend millions of dollars to make influencers their puppets (as well as converting these sandboxes into digital billboards). Moreover, with internet service providers (ISPs) now allowed to bend the rules in favor of corporations that pay their premiums, even our access to the internet has been reduced, twisted, converted into yet another marketing tactic.

It’s enough to make anyone afraid.

But even though the World Wide Web has been corrupted by this capitalistic influence, there is another network that remains untouched. A subterranean refuge, hidden from the eyes of paying corporations who seek to expand their reach at all costs. A place to go when the state of the Web feels just a little too apocalyptic and where creative community will always triumph over third-party control.

Usenet: A Shelter for the Cynical

That place is Usenet, and if this is your first time hearing about it, it almost certainly won’t be your last. Usenet is a network that predates the formation of the World Wide Web, being established more than ten years before, and was originally created by three students at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill. The students wanted to create a network between their institutions through which they could share both files and information, and so developed a system that used UNIX-to-UNIX code protocol to pass data along. While the network began only linking three computers together between their respective institutions, it quickly grew into an entirely different beast; by patching Usenet with the frameworks of other fledgling networks, Usenet accumulated a massive user base and became a household name.

Unfortunately, Usenet was more or less wiped from the collective consciousness by the arrival of the World Wide Web, which quickly replaced Usenet as the public’s network of choice. However, Usenet still exists and continues to expand today, with millions of frequent users interacting across hundreds of thousands of communities and a massive database of easily accessible, downloadable user-created content.

The Keys to the Kingdom

But how does Usenet work?

Simple: Usenet works like a social media site like Reddit, composed of thousands of message boards known as newsgroups. Newsgroups are created by community members and can have as much or as little moderation as desired: should there not be a newsgroup on Usenet that reflects your interests, you can create a new newsgroup after passing a brief application process. Users can comment on newsgroups, upload their content, and download other user-created content quickly, as Usenet has unlimited download and access speeds. Collaboration is quite literally built into the framework of Usenet, leading to users establishing close-knit, helpful communities that are dedicated to the edification of each other: oh, and the best part, corporations remain entirely ignorant of Usenet’s viability as a marketing platform, so no need to worry about targeted ads or shady data collection practices.

All you need to access the network is a newsreader, or a browser that will allow you to access Usenet, and you’ll be good to go.

Joining a Thriving Community

Users are usually close-mouthed about their patronage of Usenet, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be quick to welcome you: Usenet is a place where anyone dissatisfied with the state of the modern net will find a home. Feel free to download a newsreader and start exploring a new network today.

PKI-Security Engineer & security blogger at gbhackers.com. She is passionate about covering cybersecurity and Technology.

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