Usenet – what have you become?

Usenet is 32 years old. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a near-dead, cobweb-covered discussion forum platform, but actually it’s more popular today than ever before, and it’s thriving as an alternative to Bittorrent. Yes, people are using it for piracy, which in itself is not particularly remarkable. What is interesting, though, is the software that has sprung up around it. Do a little digging and you’ll find loads of slick UIs and services that are on a par with their commercial counterparts.

  • Usenet itself: anyone can post anything to a usenet group (provided it’s configured to accept binaries) and the servers then sync with each other around the globe. It’s decentralised by design – invented in an environment where business models and copyright were not a concern.
  • Sabnzbd: this little app manages the downloading process similar to a Bittorrent client. What’s different is that you can send it jobs remotely via RSS. So, if a friend tells you about a new show you haven’t heard of, you can whip out your iPhone and bookmark the show using a usenet search engine. The search engine then puts your bookmark into an RSS feed that sabnzbd will pick up and start downloading onto your home computer. Since it’s RSS you can give that feed URL to other people and they’ll end up with the same files as you, so you can share the same experiences. An amazingly simple way to ‘do’ social. Apparently, with a bit of tinkering Sabnzbd can run on the $25 Rasberry Pi along with XBMC which you can see here has an impressively polished UI.
  • CouchPotato: so far what I’ve described is sort of similar to Netflix but a lot more illegal. CouchPotato is where it gets interesting. Once installed along with a Userscript, CouchPotato adds a “want” button to any page on IMDB, even if the movie is not yet released. When a user hits the button, CouchPotato patiently scans usenet for a matching file at the user’s specified quality level (e.g. Blu-ray). Again, this UI is also pretty impressive.
  • Sickbeard & Headphones: these apps do pretty much the same thing as CouchPotato but for TV shows and music.
  • So why am I writing about this? Pirates will go to any lengths to get something for free, right? Well, actually, No. That’s the most fascinating thing. It costs about $20-35 US Dollars a month for Giganews usenet subscription, and they claim to have over 10 million subscribers worldwide (they’re just one of many different providers). Seriously.

    So let’s just break that down. It’s expensive. It’s illegal. It’s a crazy hassle to set up. You’re at risk of being sued for a lot of money and maybe even losing your home internet connection. Once you’ve got it all up and running, you’ve got something that’s basically as slick as Netflix. So what does it give you that Netflix doesn’t offer? You get one thing – the ability to watch stuff on very same day it’s released, regardless of the publisher or region.

    Does this tell us people will do anything to save a bit of cash? No. It’s telling us that people will do almost anything to get same-day releases – and that they’re willing to both pay wads of cash and break the law at the same time to get them. Sure, they’re not paying enough and the money is going to the wrong people, but that’s not the point. This is blazingly clear evidence that Usenet piracy is a response to an availability problem – something that the studios could easily solve if they put their minds to it.

    Studio business models aside, it’s amazing that people have managed to cobble together such a well crafted, seamless user-experience on top of a 1980s technology. On the other hand, maybe we should shed a tear for the loss of everything that Usenet used to stand for – a democratic, open discussion forum that was the heart and soul of the internet for many years before the web even existed.