When you think of file sharing, the first thing that likely pops into your head is torrents, but there is a new, yet also at the same time, old alternative. No, not Limewire or Kazaa, even more ancient. Usenet has been around for almost 40 years and has recently had a resurgence of use and popularity, stemming from the new capabilities it has acquired.
At its core, Usenet is a system that allows users to create a network amongst themselves (hence, Usenet) to share files. Now, you may be thinking, “If it’s just file sharing, I can just torrent, isn’t it the same?” The result is the same, but the way Usenet is built and operates gives it some clear advantages over torrents and makes it a viable alternative.
Everyone who uses torrents generally gets how torrents work. It’s a peer to peer system where files are shared directly between users. Usenet differs from this system in that Usenet exists on thousands of servers all over the world. The Usenet servers that it exists on also change over time, so it isn’t like there is a “Usenet HQ” somewhere. So, even though it all exists on servers, it’s still decentralized.
Think of it like this: torrents are like peers meeting in the digital streets of the internet to swap files. Sometimes you get different pieces from various people, but you’re still meeting in person. Usenet is like a VIP cargo ship sailing the internet sea where users can stop in to upload files and copy files that other users have left. All the files uploaded to Usenet get categorized into thousands upon thousands of newsgroups which are available to all users. So why get off the streets and board the ship? Well, there’s a lot of advantages to getting your sea legs.
As Usenet is a file-sharing platform, its main “competition” is torrents which currently is one of if not the most used file sharing system. So, to give you a better idea of the advantages and disadvantages of Usenet, it’s useful to compare it to torrents.
In the interest of transparency, and in the hopes that you don’t get surprised with costs, the price will be the starting point. Unlike torrents, which are largely free to use, Usenet just about always comes with a price. Remember that VIP cargo ship? It takes money to keep her seaworthy, and if you want to be a VIP, you got to pay your dues.
Since Usenet runs on a slew of ever-changing servers, you need the help of a Usenet provider. This service provider helps you connect and operates and maintains the servers. Much like your internet service provider, you will likely be required to pay a fee for continued use privileges.
Fortunately, you have a lot of options. Price can differ depending on how much bandwidth you use (total amount of data downloaded, in gigabytes) or how fast you want your connection to be. You can even buy one-off passes that allow you to download blocks of data or get a free trial to test the waters.
Additionally, you will need software to search and download from a Usenet server. After all, you can’t just plug your computer into the internet and have web pages’ spill onto your screen; you need browser software to help you. There are licensed software programs that cost money, but some service providers offer the use of software for free, included in their subscription plans.
So, free torrents have the edge in the price department, but there are reasons why you might want to shell out some extra bucks for your file sharing needs. The first one is speed. Most people who use torrents at some point have felt the anguish of watching a file they wanted to get stuck in limbo as the seeds dried up. If no one feels like sharing a torrent at the moment, it doesn’t get shared.
Even when a peer does share it, it gets shared at speeds restricted by the peer (which is typically slow for most seeders). Swapping files on those digital streets is often done a handful at a time from multiple peers.
Once you board the SS Usenet, however, you’re granted the use of a VIP forklift to get your files. Since you are downloading from a server and not some other user’s PC, the speed is lightning fast. Like gigabytes per second fast. Your speed is dependent on your subscription from your provider, but in most cases, it blows torrent speeds away.
Spend enough time on the internet, and you might hear horror stories of big corporations suing the pants off of average Joes who just downloaded a few songs. The governments and multinational corporations of the world are cracking down hard on torrents, largely because of why they are so popular.
Even if you protect yourself with a VPN, torrent tracking sites go down all the time, and their administrators get jailed. Everyone is out to get the new maverick on the street and all the while, an old timer lurks beneath the surface as it has for decades.
Usenet users figured out how to upload binary files to their servers in the 80’s, but nobody seemed to care, and as such, nobody regulated it. That trend continues today for the most part. Usenet is a collection of private, mercurial servers and is mostly closed off to the non-paying public.
Coupled with the relative lack of oversight, these aspects of Usenet ensure that its users and their privacy are much safer than they would otherwise be. Sure, there are viruses and some malware on Usenet, but what corner of the world-wide-web is without those? Forget it, Jake, it’s the internet.
Now, at this point, you may be thinking, “Ok, this all sounds great, what’s the catch?” And you’re right; there is one. Compared to torrents, Usenet is not as easy to use. Torrents are pretty straightforward; download a free client, head to a tracking site, search for a file, get the torrent and download. Not quite so with Usenet.
Navigating the search software required for Usenet can take a little getting used to. Instead of searching for files you want, you have to find its newsgroup which can be a little intimidating with names like, “alt.binaries.multimedia.comedy.” Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s smooth sailing (yeah, this nautical metaphor is still steaming along). There are also tutorials and helpful Reddit forums out there for the uninitiated.
So, is Usenet going to become widely known and take the top spot as a file sharing platform? Maybe not, but that’s part of what makes it great and it doesn’t mean it can’t be a serious contender that better meets the needs of discerning users. If you’re willing to pay a little extra and do a bit of studying for better speed and safety, then plot a course and set sail for Usenet.