Previous Page
Next Page

The History of Usenet and Google Groups

Most users today might not realize it, but Usenet is the largest and oldest existing online community in the world. Predating the World Wide Webbut still using the Internet's underlying infrastructureUsenet is a collection of more than 30,000 online discussion groups, organized by topic. Usenet ties into Google via Google Groups, which functions as a newsreader for Usenet newsgroups, an archive of historical newsgroup postings, and a host to thousands of user-created (non-Usenet) discussion groups.

How Newsgroups Work

Before we get into Google Groups, let's spend a little time discussing Usenet. Usenet is a network that piggybacks on the larger Internet, and in fact was one of the first components of the Internet, predating the web and the so-called public Internet. The Usenet network is designed to host and convey messages from users organized around topic categories called newsgroups.

In essence, a Usenet newsgroup is an electronic gathering place for people with similar interests. Within a newsgroup, users post messages (called articles) about a variety of topics; other users read these articles and, when so disposed, respond. The result is a kind of ongoing, freeform discussion in which dozensor hundredsof interested users can participate.

Usenet newsgroup messages are stored on a network of Usenet servers. These servers communicate with one another via the Internet. Users access the messages using a dedicated Usenet newsreader program (such as Agent, downloadable from, or an email program that also reads newsgroups (such as Outlook Express), or the Google Groups website.


Unlike some web-based discussion forums or blogs, most Usenet newsgroups are unmoderated, meaning that no one's watching the message content to ensure that subject discussions stay on track. The result is a kind of only slightly organized chaos, typically with a lot of off-topic messages and thinly concealed advertisements mixed in with the on-topic and useful messages.

Understanding Newsgroup Hierarchies

Trying to find one newsgroup out of the 30,000 or so available is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a virtual haystack.

Fortunately, Usenet organizes its newsgroups in an extremely logical fashion, using a series of hierarchies.

A newsgroup name looks a little like a website address, with single words or phrases separated by periods. Newsgroup names are more logical, however, in that each break in the name signifies a level of greater granularity. The leftmost part of the name places the newsgroup in one of several major domains, with each subsequent component denoting a subset of the major domain. (It's kind of like moving through the folders and subfolders on your hard disk.)

So as you read a newsgroup name, your focus moves from left to right, until you zero in on a very specific topic. For example, the rec.arts.cinema group tells you that the newsgroup is in the recreational section of Usenet, and that it discusses the art of the cinema.

There are dozens of different top-level domains. The most important of these are detailed in Table 28.1.

Table 28.1. Major Usenet Top-Level Domains




Alternative topics not covered elsewhere on Usenet.


Business-related products and services.


Computer-related topics.


Literature, fine arts, and other humanities.


Education-related issues for grades kindergarten through 12.


A broad variety of topics that don't easily fit into one of the other domains.


Newsgroup-related issues.


Recreation and popular entertainment.


Societal and cultural issues.


Science-related issues, for both professionals and laymen.


All manner of issues, open for public debate.

There are also many regional and company-specific Usenet domains. For example, the japan. domain contains Japanese-oriented newsgroups, and the microsoft. domain includes newsgroups about Microsoft products. Some of the larger regional domains include their own hierarchies that resemble the overall Usenet hierarchy in complexity.

Google Groups: Archiving Usenet Articles

Usenet is a kind of living beast, with new articles being posted daily and old articles fading away into the ether. Except that you really don't want those old articles fading away, as they contain (among the expected chaff, of course) some very important discussions and information that simply don't exist anywhere else on the Internet.

For that reason, there have long been attempts to archive historical Usenet postings. The most successful of these archives was DejaNews (later called, which Google purchased in 2001. Google subsequently turned DejaNews into Google Groups, which continues to function as both an archive of historical Usenet articles and a web-based newsreader for current Usenet newsgroups. You can use Google Groups to search the newsgroup archives or to browse the current messages in any Usenet newsgroup.

Today, Google Groups is more than just Usenet. Yes, Google Groups continues to serve as a Usenet newsreader and as a comprehensive Usenet archive, but it's also home to thousands of user-created discussion groups that have nothing to do with Usenet. When you search Google Groups, you're searching both Usenet postings and postings made within these user-created groups; as far as Google Groups is concerned, one type of group is just as good as the other.

Previous Page
Next Page