Usenet: Pioneering the Social Internet Before Social Media

Social media is an integral part of most people’s online lives, but how did it get that way? Where did the social Internet come from?

The history of social media starts with Usenet, the first social network. Before TikTok and Twitter, before Facebook and MySpace, even before Friendster, there was Usenet.

A Brief History of Usenet as a Social Network

Usenet was invented in 1979 in North Carolina. The brainchild of Duke University’s Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, as well as University of North Carolina’s Steve Bellovin, Usenet was designed to easily and efficiently transfer data between distant computers using the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP).

What this meant in practice was that anyone who could access one of the (at the time) three Usenet servers could read updates on the project and what was happening around both universities. The original folder these messages were kept in was called “news,” which is why groups on Usenet are called “newsgroups” today.

Eventually, as more people joined the network, the ability to post their own messages opened up. At first this was chaotic, but further improvements to the protocol made it easier to keep track of what discussions were going on, who was speaking in them, and when there had been updates. 

Usenet preceded Friendster, the first “social network,” by 23 years, and all-in-one web portals/ISPs like AOL and Prodigy by over a decade.

How Usenet Impacted Social Media

Without Usenet, social media would not be what it is today. Arguably, much of the Internet would be radically different if it weren’t for the trailblazing that early Usenet users did.

Threaded Conversations

The concept of the “threaded conversation” originated on Usenet. As we mentioned earlier, the first posts were all added to a single online folder: news. What this looked like was a long list of announcements organized with the newest first and continuing down to the oldest. It served a purpose as a form of digital bulletin board, but when other people were able to add their own posts to Usenet, it quickly became unintelligible, particularly if people were replying directly to one another.

That’s why they started organizing posts into “threads” where the newest post would be just above the one they were replying to on a particular subject. It allowed users to have conversations with multiple people at once, more easily keep track of the context of those conversations, and immediately see if there had been a reply.

Today, conversation threads are the standard format for online discussion, but without Usenet there’s no telling what we would be using today.

Establishing Online Slang

We take for granted how much of online communication is done with abbreviations, memes, and references that some people no longer even understand. Many of these terms come directly from Usenet.

For example, the use of the word “spam” to refer to junk data isn’t referring to the processed meat product, at least not directly. It’s referring to a sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus in which somebody goes into a restaurant for breakfast, and the majority of items on the menu are “Spam” (e.g. “spam spam spam spam and eggs”). The pointless, inefficient repetition of data reminded early Usenet users of that sketch, and it caught on.

Usenet was where acronyms like “LOL” (laughing out loud), “ROFL” (rolling on floor laughing), and BRB (be right back) among others started. What was originally meant to cut down on the number of keystrokes users had to make has now become an indelible part of many languages around the world, even ones that the acronyms don’t translate properly

Near Instant Communication

Social media wouldn’t be social media if you had to wait a long time to get a reply. It would just be “mail.” What makes social networks so captivating is that you can see a person’s thoughts within seconds of posting and reply almost as quickly. It facilitates quicker, engaging conversations that more closely mimic face-to-face speech.

That was, of course, the point of Usenet and the NNTP protocol. Because of how the network was designed, a post on Usenet was almost immediately available on a computer in a different country. Today, that same post is shared to thousands of servers around the world at nearly the speed of light.

Making New Friends

Ultimately, for all its importance as a source of news, a way to organize, and a digital town hall, social media has always been designed to connect people to one another. It encourages you to follow and engage with different users, gives you the opportunity to see what’s being said about specific topics, and lets you share with your network.

Usenet did very much the same thing in its day. Before AOL introduced chat rooms, Usenet was helping people who had never met in person share ideas and interests. The breakdown of topics into the Big 8 Hierarchies made it easier to find people who shared your passions and to learn more about topics you were interested in.

Usenet Today

Usenet may have been the first social network, but it’s still active today. Millions of people around the world access Usenet to share ideas, download posts, and explore the things they love through new eyes. Many newsgroups remain highly active and the Usenet archive is larger than it’s ever been.

Want to get involved? Take a look at our picks for the best Usenet providers to get started.

Bottom Line

Usenet is the foundation on which all modern social media is built. Without Usenet, the Internet today would look a lot different. And it remains an active hub for social activity that grows daily.

Take the time to look into Usenet and find out how great the first social network really is!