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Google Group vs Usenet Newsgroup

Earlier today I got an email from a user that was wanting to know the difference between googlegroups and Usenet newsgroups.  They went on further to ask which was a better choice for them based on some criteria.  The were looking for images, so my immediate response for them was “go with a Usenet server”, but then I realized the reasons were as important as my answer.

Short History

Usenet newsgroups have been around since the late 70s/early 80s.  I have operated a server since just before the “great renaming” back in 1987.  My personal experience is that the Usenet has been a wonderful tool for sharing of all kinds from the beginning.

Close to the beginning some people got the bright idea to keep copies of all the articles posted to Usenet.  The Deja News archive of Usenet articles, allowed visitors to their website to perform extensive searches and people could sign up for a free account to post articles in text newsgroups.  It was a wonderful tool, until they tried to make money from it.  In about 1999 they tried to monetize it, and everything went sideways.


On Feb 12, 2001 Google bought the archives and other resources that were left to the, by then failed, Deja News.  Google used those archives to start Googlegroups.  Google groups are fundamentally the same as Usenet newsgroups, and many of the groups are still peered with Tier-1 providers on the internet.  So, users that post to a Google group about ‘dog behavior’ might get a response from someone using a Usenet server reading ‘rec.pets.dogs.behavior’, and vice versa.

Probably due to the governing board in charge of the “Big 8” hierarchies on Usenet, Google groups created by their users are not created on the Usenet.  Because of this, not all groups will get peered with Usenet servers.  This limits the amount of low-bandwidth or nonsense groups in Usenet, but also lessens the possible amount of content it could provide.

Okay… which is better

Neither, both, either… really depends on your needs.  All things being equal, either should work for someone that is just looking for a discussion group about a topic.  There are many considerations that can change that though.

Google Group Usenet Newsgroup
Create Group Y Y1
Subscription N Y2
Software Required N Y/N3
Mailing List4 Y N
Binaries (alt.binaries.*) N Y
Document Sharing5 Y Y

1 – It is possible to create a newsgroup in the alt.* hierarchy just by typing its name into the newsgroup field of your newsgroup client.  If you want to create a newsgroup in the “Big 8” hierarchies you have to prove there is need/interest through a vetting process.  Few new newsgroups are created any more in the “Big 8”.

2 – It is possible to get a free account from some Usenet providers, these are usually speed or size limited and do not have binaries, but if your goal is to join a discussion group, that would be sufficient

3 – there are a several options for reading the Usenet newsgroups

  1. You can purchase a newsreader for Usenet, typical cost is around $20 and some require a subscription for advanced search features.
  2. Some Usenet providers (such as EasyNews) have a web-based interface which is actually much more sophisticated than the one provided by Googlegroups, they support searching for and previewing binaries
  3. there are free newsreaders, but they are normally designed more for Usenet enthusiasts than for casual users

4 – there is no mailing list on Usenet unless you create one… which is very angrily frowned upon.  A posting to a newsgroup is visible to all subscribers; you probably have a better chance of someone reading a posting in a newsgroup than getting passed their spam filter for mailing them directly

5 – document sharing in Google groups is limited.  Although document sharing is not directly supported on Usenet, you can post binaries in some groups.  You could post a document in an alt.binaries.* group, then reference it in an article in a discussion newsgroup.  There is a program (called uBackup) which can be used to “store” documents on the Usenet.

Downloading Usenet Binaries

Many years ago, the Usenet only allowed 7-bit text messages to ensure that communications was possible between any type of machine, using any kind of modem.  It was not long before someone figured out how to encode 8-bit data into a 7-bit format so that binaries could be sent using Usenet with no modifications to the Newsgroup server software.  The original programs for encoding and decoding articles were named uuencode and uudecode, respectively.  Modern versions of Usenet are now 8-bit safe and even allow for multi-byte text in UTF-8 format, but various encoding methods for articles are still used.

In the old days, to download a Usenet binary, you had to locate all its parts on the server and download them to your computer.  After all the parts were on your computer you would feed them to a decoding program, which usually gave you the binary or an archive containing your binary.  If your binary was in an archive, you then used another application to extract your binary from the archive.  Needless to say, this could be a long and tedious process, and often not all the parts were available on your Usenet server.

Over the years, the applications and Newsgroup servers have gotten much more sophisticated.

  • Usenet server software was upgraded to be able to work with other languages than English, and in the process was made 8-bit safe so that encoding from 8-bit to 7-bit was no longer required, decreasing article sizes by about 40%
  • Web sites such as Newzbin started popping up which created NZB files providing users with an exact list of all articles required to recreate a binary
  • Encoding software began creating NZB and SFV files automatically and posting them with the binaries
  • An application called parchive created ‘PAR’ files which could be used to repair incomplete files using complex algorithms that could not only detect errors in the parts, but could even recreate missing parts using the ‘PAR’ file and the parts that were successfully downloaded.

Most modern newsreaders have integrated newsgroup search features, and almost all of them support the NZB standard file format, both of which make finding all the parts of a Usenet binary much simpler.  In addition, most newsgroup readers also directly support decoding, repairing and extracting binaries into a directory for you, so all you have to do is tell it what to download with an NZB file and where to store it.  Another nice feature of some newsgroup browsers is that they can work with multiple servers, so if a part is missing from one server, they will attempt to get it from an alternate server.

Putting it all together

For most users interested in downloading from Usenet, the steps are now pretty simple.

  1. Choose a Usenet provider
  2. Choose a newsreader
  3. Use a newsgroup search website or your newsreader’s integrated search to find the digital media you want
  4. if you are using a website, import the NZB from the website
  5. click download
  6. when the download completes, use your new binary