Usenet Overview, History and Standards
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Overview of Usenet Operation and Characteristics
Usenet begins with a user writing a message to be distributed. After the message is posted to say, the group on TCP/IP networking, it is stored on that user's local news server, and special software sends copies of it to other connected news servers. The message eventually propagates around the world, where anyone who chooses to read the TCP/IP networking newsgroup can see the message.
The real power of Usenet is that after reading a message, any user can respond to it on the same newsgroup. Like the original message, the reply will propagate to each connected system, including the one used by the author of the original message. This makes Usenet very useful for sharing information about recent happenings, for social discussions, and especially for receiving assistance about problems, such as resolving technical glitches or getting help with a diet program.
What is particularly interesting about Usenet is that it is not a formalized system in any way, and is not based on any formally defined standards. It is a classic example of the development of a system in an entirely ad hoc manner; the software was created, people started using it, the software was refined, and things just took off from there. Certain standards have been written to codify how Usenet workssuch as RFC 1036, which describes the Usenet message formatbut these serve more as historical documents than as prescriptive standards.
There is likewise no central authority that is responsible for Usenet's operation, even though new users often think there is one. Unlike a dial-up bulletin board system or Web-based forum, Usenet works simply by virtue of cooperation between sites; there is no manager in charge. Usenet is for this reason sometimes called an anarchy, but this is not accurate. It isn't the case that there are no rules, only that it is the managers of participating systems that make policy decisions such as what newsgroups to support. There are also certain dictatorial aspects of the system, in that only certain people (usually system administrators) can decide whether to create some kinds of new newsgroups. The system also has socialistic elements in that machine owners are expected to share messages with each other. So the simplified political labels really don't apply to Usenet at all.
Every community has a culture, and the same is true of online communities, including Usenet. There is an overall culture that prescribes acceptable behavior on Usenet, and also thousands of newsgroup-specific cultures in Usenet, each of which has evolved through the writings of thousands of participants over the years. There are even newsgroups devoted to explaining how Usenet itself operates, where you can learn about newbies (new users), netiquette (rules of etiquette for posting messages) and related subjects.
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