Usenet Now Searchable. Really.

I recently wrote that email lists still exist. But perhaps when it comes to living relics the true coelacanth as far as the internet is concerned is Usenet. Begun in 1979, Usenet was a collection of discussion groups — or, newsgroups, as they were known — that, as Wikipedia says, “can be superficially regarded as a hybrid between e-mail and web forums” but possessing considerable technological sophistication.

Yes, Usenet lives — after a fashion. In 2001 Google acquired the 700 million posts in order to preserve the archive. Trouble was, it couldn’t be searched properly. Until today, that is. Wired did a piece on how screwed up the searching of the Usenet archive was, and Google responded within a day by fixing what it claimed was a minor bug.

Now that this vast archive is putatively available to us, how do we search it? You access Usenet via Google Groups, each of the classic newsgroups being considered a Google Group, many of which you can still join. You can search across all groups, and then order the results by relevance or date. Or you can find a group that interests you and search within that group.

In case you feel like browsing, here’s a list of all the Usenet groups, or at least the 1,027 first position names. One of the brilliant features of Usenet was that you could nest groups within groups, by adding modifiers in subsequent places. So for example, there are 23 groups under “law”; there are 4 under “law.listserv“; one of these is “,” which just happens to be a live, but infrequently used, group still.

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  1. This supports the side that says things never really die when in electronic format, even if they pre-date the World Wide Web. Wow.

  2. I was able to pull up some of my own stuff from the early ’90s. Pretty cool.

    I’m still on the fence for the permanence debate. It doesn’t cost Google much to maintain usenet, but how long will they have an interest in doing so? Can’t see a reason not to for the next 20 years, and perhaps longer. But will it be around in 100, 500? I have my doubts.

  3. I was thinking from the personal point of view of seeing one’s past conversations disappear rather than from an archival perspective. Man, there are conversations I had from 20 years ago hanging around “archived” to the web that took place in listservs.

    If not Google, then I’m thinking likely someone else.