Before there were Message Boards, Wikis or the World Wide Web, before the Internet even existed in its present form,note there was Usenet, one of the first distributed discussion systems around. Until the rise of Web-based forums in the late 90s and early 2000s, Usenet was the place to discuss things on the Internet, and quite a few tropes regarding message boards in general started here.
Usenet began in 1979, when programmers at Duke University realised that UNIX's uucp (UNIX to UNIX copy) program, which was already being used to transfer email between sites, could also be used to transfer broadcast messages between sites (the original idea was to enable "community calendar"-style announcements, hence "news") and allow for discussion areas, which they decided to call "newsgroups". Eventually, as access to the Internet became more common, uucp was replaced by the Network News Transfer Protocol, and in 1985, the system itself was reorganised into 7 branches (the "Big 7") in an event called the "Great Renaming". An 8th, humanities, was added later.
The current Big 8 are:
- news: Discussion about Usenet itself, including proposals for new newsgroups, anti-spam activism, etc.
- talk: Discussion of various controversial issues, such as evolution (talk.origins) and abortion (talk.abortion).
- sci: Scientific discussion not related to computers, including math, engineering, physics, biology and astronomy.
- comp: Computer science and IT discussions, including operating systems, hardware and applications.
- soc: Sociology and culture-related discussions.
- humanities: Humanities (literature and fine arts) discussion.
- rec: Recreational activities, hobbies, and sports discussion.
- misc: Anything that doesn't fit the other 7 categories, but mostly used for lifestyle discussions (groups include things like misc.kids and misc.consumers). misc.misc is often used as a test-message area.
Outside the Big 8, but no less important:
- alt: Usenet's equivalent to 4chan's /b/, right down to having its bad reputation; one old joke expands "alt" to "anarchists, lunatics and terrorists" due to the huge number of Single Issue Wonks and Cloudcuckoolanders that were (and, in several places, still are) present. Basically, anything goes here; topics range from serious discussions of technical issues that didn't fit inside the comp, sci or talk branches, to "vanity" newsgroups created as a one-off joke and now picking up nothing but spam, something that's been discouraged since the mid-1990s but still happens nonetheless. Just like 4chan, it includes many, many groups (specifically those under the alt.binaries.pictures sub-branch) solely dedicated to images — and by images, we mean "porn". There used to be groups dedicated to pictures of all types, but the Web in general (and Google Image Search in particular) has made them obsolete. As for discussions, popular sub-branches include alt.tv, alt.religion and, of course, alt.flame (Usenet's equivalent to /b/).
- Various regions and domains may have their own private or semi-private branches, such as vt (for Virginia Tech) or microsoft.public (Microsoft's official tech support forums).
Due to various legal and financial pressures (the former due to its use in copyright law violations; the latter because Usenet requires lots of bandwidth and storage space, more than its dwindling numbers of users can justify), Usenet has become less accessible over time. Many major internet providers have either limited access to Usenet, usually by refusing to carry alt.binaries, or have shut down their Usenet servers completely. To fill the gap, specialist Usenet providers have appeared, and many ISPs simply outsource Usenet access to them. Probably the easiest way to access Usenet is through Google Groups, as awkward and buggy as it often is.
Given Usenet's oft-predicted imminent death, it's perhaps ironic that one of the most active Usenet groups of the 2010s is alt.obituaries, where obituary writers and fans hang out.
Usenet in fiction:
- The galaxy-spanning communications network in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep is modeled on Usenet, and the idiosyncratic writing styles of some of the characters are inspired by some of Usenet's regular contributors back in the day.
- The Legion of Net.Heroes was created on Usenet, and still lives on the newsgroup rec.arts.comics.creative. A lot of early LNH characters have usenet-based gimmicks and powers, such as Sig.Lad and Dr. Killfile. The LNH cosmology is also based on usenet; each newsgroup is an alternate dimension and characters often travel between them.
- Usenet was once more shown as a binding force in an episode of The Simpsons where upon being asked by Bart who's starring in the upcoming Radioactive Man film adaptation, Comic Book Guy goes off to log onto a group called alt.nerd.obsessive in order to go find out through a chain of dedicated geeks. This was a Shout-Out to fan newsgroup alt.tv.simpsons which the show's writers read at the time and even now alt.nerd.obsessive (created as a result) still receives requests of "need to know star RM pic".
- When King of the Hill breached the subject of the Internet in an early episode, Dale Gribble mentioned that he perused the newsgroup "alt.conspiracy.black.helicopters". As with the Simpsons example, there was a newsgroup created with the name "alt.conspiracy.black.helicopters" as tribute to the show.
- Back in the '90s or so, various GURPS books dealing with futuristic technology included snippets of flavor text formatted as Usenet posts — in an advanced cyberpunk or biotech future. Today, they read as a bad case of Technology Marches On.
Tropes on Usenet:
- Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Posts made on Usenet are called "News" instead of, well, "posts" (hence why Usenet is referred to as a newsgroup and why news is a place for discussion about Usenet itself, rather than being about actual news). This isn't much of a big deal for those who have been on the Internet for a long time, but it can certainly be jarring to the more modern Internet user.
- Eternal September: When Usenet became available to the general public (not just universities), an unmanageably large amount of new and uneducated users were introduced not only to Usenet, but also to The Internet itself, making this into the first instance of this trope. In fact, this event would prove to be so significant to internet culture that it has even been listed by The Other Wiki.
- Not Quite Dead: Even though Usenet has been largely superseded by Forums, Message Boards, and Image Boards (which in and on themselves are being supplanted by mobile) and has all in all been considered to be in decline, it still remains fully functional since, unlike other web platforms, Usenet does not have a centralized administration and will continue to exist so long as someone maintains a server running somewhere, no matter how small it is.
- Trope Codifier: Due to its nature as both the predecessor of Forums and the very first place for discussion on the Internet in general, Usenet can be logically seen as this for several tropes that are now commonly applied to Message Boards.
- Trope Namer: As even The Other Wiki pointed out, Usenet users have coined several terms now ubiquitous to the modern Internet goer. These terms include: Spam, Flame, and FAQ (Frequently Asked Q uestions).