"Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea:
massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a
source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least
expect it" (Gene Spafford, 1992).

Usenet is a decentralized, worldwide, peer-to-peer system for circulating newsgroup articles. It has grown somewhat chaotically from very small beginnings, mostly as a labor of love. Some unix programmers found out that they could do neat things to exchange information, and other programmers came along and expanded the capacities of the system.

The Big-8 Usenet hierarchies are only a small part of Usenet--roughly 2400 out of tens of thousands of Usenet newsgroups.

Usenet depends on some of the same software and hardware as the Internet and it may be accessed through Internet browsers, but Usenet is quite different in structure from the Internet. Paradoxically, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is the locus for discussing the next generation of standards for Usenet and the software used by many news servers is supported by the Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) and is called InterNet News (INN). Go figure!

There is no central administration of Usenet. All news administrators are autonomous sovereigns. No one (other than an employer) can tell a news administrator how to configure the news server. The Big-8 list of newsgroups is used by those news administrators who want to use it--and only to the extent that they choose to use it as a guide to what gets carried on their machines. All that the Big-8 Management Board can do is to make up the list of groups that we think should be used and hope that the majority of news administrators will agree with our recommendations.

Usenet Links:
What is Usenet? -- rtfm copy of Spaf's post
What is Usenet? -- Spaf's original post
What is Usenet? A second opinion. -- Edward Vielmetti
What is Usenet? -- Mark Moraes, 1999
Internet Systems Consortium (ISC)
ISC InterNetNews (INN)
ISC InterNetNews FAQ
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Internet FAQ Archives
Graham Drabble's Web Site
Jan Schaumann -- Usenet is still a strange place
Open Directory Project -- Usenet links
Usenet II
A short history of the Big-8.

A small sample of the RFCs Related to Usenet:

Usenet Protocols
Date & Author Document / Site
1987: Network Working Group RFC 1036
1994: Henry Spencer Son of RFC 1036
1995: David Wright Guidelines on Usenet Newsgroup Names
2004: Stan Barber UUCP Project
2006: Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Usenet Article Standard Update (usefor)
2006: Russ Allbery Usenet Hierarchy Administration FAQ (Allbery)