Broadband killed newsgroups

Usenet, and its vast collection of newsgroups covering almost any topic imaginable, has practically been killed off by broadband. That's right, this humble means of correspondence, which is basically like e-mail and requires hardly any bandwidth in its text form, has been slaughtered by the advent of faster Internet speeds.

People no longer frequent the most popular groups, which once buzzed with between 2000-5000 posts per day, and have instead migrated to Web-based forums. A faster Internet connection means users can browse these types of forums, with their millions of avatars and embedded pics, without much sluggishness. There's no way you can browse a graphics-rich Web forum these days on a 56Kbps, or even a 512Kbps connection for that matter, without tearing your hair out. If higher Internet speeds weren't available, newsgroups would still be the best way to converse with like-minded people and tech support staff and gurus for all sorts of products.

Before anyone chimes in and says "Nah, 'twas the spammers that killed newsgroups", remember that any decent news client made it simple to block posts by username or subject, so yes, it really was broadband.

Usenet (RIP) was one of my first online experiences back in the mid-'90s. A place where experts helped out newbies; where trolls were actually (seemingly?) smart and entertaining (search Google Groups for Rod Speed as one example) and where conversations were often played out like soap operas when things between the respondents got heated.

Often, I'd go home after school and read a discussion thread instead of firing up the TV. I really did find it that entertaining and there were some very smart and witty people on there. Not only that, newsgroups pointed me in the right direction whenever I needed tech support for particular products, while the rec.music groups helped me expand my CD collection in ways commercial radio and Video Hits never could. The knowledge of the old respondents (and some of the remaining ones who refuse to believe their newsgroup is dead) is absolutely astounding.

What I loved about newsgroups was that it was kind of like checking a second e-mail account. I'd always be waiting for people to respond to my questions, or to flame me for voicing an opinion contrary to the collective's, and the best part was that it quick and simple to use — if you had a Netscape reader or similar. Nowadays, I have to put up with crazy avatars, animated GIFs and other embedded content — as well as be confused by subject lines that are actually the first sentence of a post and signatures that follow on from the last sentence of a post — and many times I can't find the info or advice that I'm after without consulting Google.

Over the years, my favourite newsgroup, rec.music.hip-hop, has become a place where virtual tumbleweeds (and in the past racial taunters and cross-posting spammers) are more common than useful posts relating to music. There was a time where you could go to this newsgroup and find active discussions on every new album release of the last few months, as well as previews and anticipation for upcoming albums. As broadband made it easier for people to download albums before they were even released, discussion of the latest releases became a brag-fest; who was actually the first person to download and hear this album in the collective? Who cares!

The same could be said of many TV-based groups. Asking about a new TV show would be met with "you mean you're so behind the times you haven't downloaded it yet to find out for yourself"-type answers. Not only that, but because those with broadband could download shows and watch them before the free-to-air networks got around to showing them here, spoilers were plentiful, so people stopped reading the newsgroups.

As for binary newsgroups, they all got killed off when copyright holders realised that people were using them to upload copyrighted content and ISPs started shutting down their servers. Not only that, services like Flickr and YouTube meant that no one needed a binary group to share media with others.

So you see, with the uptake in broadband has sounded the death knell for newsgroups. Like a plane crash, in which a series of mishaps often leads to disaster, a series of technological advances has lead to the demise of the humble newsgroup -— graphics-rich Web-based forums, social networking sites, photo and video file sharing sites, and peer-to-peer file sharing — but it's broadband that has made all of these advances possible.

If you've never used newsgroups before, you can check out groups.google.com, or find out if your ISP still has a news server and use a client to log into it. But be prepared to witness the online equivalent of a ghost town.

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Elias Plastiras
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