The Big 8 Usenet Hierarchies

Long before the rise of Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, there was Usenet, a decentralized network for online discussion and information sharing, also called newsgroups, that even predates the World Wide Web. Still thriving today, in this article we delve into the basic structures of Usenet, specifically the “Big 8,” a classification system that organizes newsgroups into eight broad categories, each serving a unique purpose.

We’ll explore the origins of the Big 8 hierarchies, their significance, and the pivotal role they continue to play in shaping online discussions and knowledge dissemination. From comp.* to rec., soc. to sci.*, these hierarchies are the backbone of Usenet’s organizational structure, and understanding them is key to navigating Usenet communities effectively.

A Brief History of Usenet Hierarchies

Usenet was originally created as a way of sharing information between two universities through a shared protocol. We go into more detail in our What is Usenet article, but what you need to know is that initially all posts to the original “User Network” were categorized as “news” and placed in the “net.news” category.. However, as more people started having extended conversations on a wide range of topics, it became clear that more categories were necessary to sustain Usenet as a viable communication tool. .

The creators of Usenet added “net.news.groups” to propose new categories for different topics and debate whether they should be created/where they should go. Unfortunately, despite the egalitarian impulse, net.news.groups eventually fell into chaos, with flame wars erupting on a regular basis about whether or not a group was considered too silly or whether the categorization was appropriate.

In the early 90s and after several more iterations, Usenet settled on the hierarchy structure known today as the Big 8.

The Big 8

Modern Usenet is split into 8 high level categories called “hierarchies.”

  1. Comp: discussions related to coding, computer science, software development, and related topics
  2. Humanities: dedicated to exploring fine arts, film, literature, music, and related topics
  3. News: legacy newsgroup hierarchy that was initially focused on Usenet itself, but has since been expanded to more general news topics
  4. Rec: discussions about games, crafts, hobbies, camping, and recreational activities
  5. Sci: focus on STEM fields and information related to them, including physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc.
  6. Soc: an expansive category for general socializing and chat
  7. Misc: miscellaneous topics that don’t fit into one of the other main hierarchies
  8. Talk: unlike Soc, this was designed for more controversial subjects like politics and  religion

There is an unofficial 9th member of the Big 8, Alt, which was meant to cover topics that the other 8 didn’t, but quickly ballooned into the largest newsgroup hierarchy on Usenet.

The Big 8, with the exception of Alt, is controlled by a Usenet management board. Their job is to create and maintain newsgroups, but otherwise they remain very hands-off, leaving moderation to individual newsgroup moderators. 

Regional Hierarchies

Within the Big 8, there are also regional hierarchies that further focus discussions based on geography and often by language. Here are just a few examples:

  • aus.*: Australian newsgroups
  • ba.*: discussions for the San Francisco Bay area
  • ca.*: conversations about California
  • can.*: Canadian newsgroups
  • cn.*: Chinese newsgroups
  • chi.*: discussions about the Chicago area
  • de.*: discussions in German
  • ec.*: discussions about Ecuador
  • fr.*: discussions in French
  • fj.*: discussions in Japanese
  • hawaii.*: discussions local to Hawaii
  • hk.*: Hong Kong newsgroups
  • it.*: discussions in Italian
  • nl.*: Dutch newsgroups
  • no.*: Norwegian newsgroups
  • pl.*: Polish newsgroups
  • uk.*: discussions about the United Kingdom

Accessing the Big 8 Hierarchies

It’s easy to access newsgroups in the Big 8 hierarchies.

  1. Get a Usenet subscription. We recommend any of our Best Usenet Providers.
  2. Get a newsreader, preferably one with built in Usenet search. There are several great options in our Best Usenet Search article.
  3. Connect your newsreader to your Usenet account.
  4. Start searching for topics that interest you.

It’s really that simple. Most newsreaders will also let you see a full list of available newsgroups broken down by hierarchy, so it’s easy to find newsgroups that pique your curiosity and start exploring.

Creating Newsgroups in the Big 8

If you want to create your own newsgroup in the Big 8 hierarchies, there is a formal process for creation overseen by the Usenet Big-8 Management Board. This keeps Usenet clean, ensures there is interest in the specific newsgroup, and helps to find more appropriate, currently existing newsgroups if there is one.

To create a newsgroup, follow these steps:

  1. Submit a Request For Discussion (RFD) to news.announce.newgroups.
  2. Participate in discussion of the RFD in news.groups.proposals.
  3. Request that the board vote on the proposal.
  4. Wait for the board to take a vote and answer any questions they may have.
  5. If the proposal passes, your newsgroup is created.

Alt newsgroups don’t have to go through the same process because they are not subject to oversight by the Management Board. While the Management Board does determine which newsgroups are created, they don’t engage in moderation of any specific newsgroup. Some newsgroups have moderators (and often have “.moderated” appended to the end of the newsgroup name), but most are unmoderated and free of censorship.

Bottom Line

The Big 8 are a fundamental part of Usenet, composing the basic structure on which Usenet is built. Understanding what the highest-level categories mean will make it easier to find like-minded communities to share information and discussions.