The intense interest that has made the Internet blossom during the past five years isn’t due to a Web server’s performance or online shopping. The Internet is powered by a desire to learn and network with people on a particular subject. Nowhere is that desire expressed more clearly than in Usenet newsgroups.

Usenet is likely the largest decentralized information resource in existence. There are currently more than 30,000 newsgroups available through Usenet, which draw millions of postings each day.

But so far, its potential is unrecognized. In this article we’ll explain what Usenet is, explore its basic infrastructure, and explain why it’s important to CIOs.

What is Usenet?
Usenet is a worldwide bulletin board system built on top of an Internet protocol called the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP). This distributed information system was first established in 1979 between Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

NNTP is used to distribute news between news servers (usually set up by ISPs) where newsgroups can be read or posted to by users. Unlike the Web, where information may be available from only one server, Usenet makes the same newsgroup bulletin boards available to thousands of news servers around the world.

The Usenet system collects newsgroup messages and then distributes them periodically to NNTP news servers. The process of making the same information available from many news servers instead of one makes access problems less likely.

How it’s used
Usenet newsgroups act as an electronic meeting place for discussing specific subjects or topics. Newsgroups are organized into categories, often represented by an abbreviation such as:

  • Comp (computers)
  • Rec (recreation)
  • Sci (science)
  • Soc (society)

Other categories include individual ones set up by businesses, universities, and government agencies.

Each newsgroup also has a name reflecting the topic of discussion. For example, the newsgroup “” is a discussion forum for Windows NT network administration. This hierarchical system helps ensure that readers will find specific subjects and discussion groups. It also makes Usenet newsgroups one of the Internet’s most effective methods for answering specific questions.

The Usenet also turned up in the GVU’s Tenth WWW User Survey, conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Graphics, Visualization and Usability Center. The survey found that more than 20 percent of respondents reported they access Usenet newsgroups daily, and another 22 percent indicated they access Usenet at least once a week.

The power of Usenet
The Internet was designed as a distributed networking system; Usenet is a prime example of that system in action.

Usenet proved its power in August 1991, during an attempted coup in the former Soviet Union. A Usenet newsgroup called Kremvax became the only trustworthy news source for many within the U.S.S.R. Kremvax provided eyewitness reports of the demonstrations in Moscow and immediate transliterations of president Boris Yeltsin’s decrees condemning the coup. The coup’s factions found this source of information impossible to stop.

In 1998, Usenet again proved to be a networking giant when students used chat rooms, newsgroups, e-mail, and message boards to coordinate activities and disseminate information during the overthrow of the Suharto government in Indonesia.

How companies can make Usenet pay
To date, few companies have been able to profit from Usenet. Related search engines, such as and Liszt, offer users access to Usenet newsgroups. More interested in commerce than information, bulk e-mail operators often scan Usenet newsgroups for e-mail addresses or post messages that have nothing to do with the newsgroup subject.

One company that has done quite well using Usenet is ClariNet Communications , a commercial news service that delivers electronic news articles through Usenet newsgroups. The company, which was formed in 1989, was the first organization to publish commercially on the Internet.

Currently, ClariNet delivers more than 2,500 news articles a day—more than any other Internet news service, magazine, or e-zine. ClariNet delivers more than 500 newsgroups covering many general and specific news subject categories. These categories include national, international, business, sports, technology, and financial news, as well as special columns and press releases.

Usenet is primed for similar applications in e-commerce, if companies can recognize its potential. The key will likely be tapping into the diversity of Usenet, as ClariNet Communications has, to deliver precise information to customers.
Newsgroup Index Yahoo!’s Usenet page How do you see businesses using Usenet? Do you see Usenet finding a secure home in business? Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.