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Newsgroups - Usenet Defined (part 1)

"Usenet is like Tetris for people who still know how to read." (Computer Museum, Boston)

Imagine a conversation carried out over a period of hours and days, as if people were leaving messages and responses on a bulletin board. Or imagine the electronic equivalent of a radio talk show where everybody can put their two cents in and no one is ever on hold.

Unlike email, which is usually "one-to-one," newsgroups (sometimes called Usenet) is "many-to-many."

Usenet is the international meeting place for newsgroups, where people gather to meet their friends, discuss the day's events, keep up with computer trends or talk about whatever's on their mind. Jumping into a Usenet discussion can be a liberating experience. Nobody knows what you look or sound like, how old you are, what your background is. You're judged solely on your words, your ability to make a point.

Technical Details

Technically, Usenet messages are shipped around the world, from system to system, using a specific method, or protocol (specifically NNTP - Network News Transfer Protocol).

A given system stores all of its Usenet messages in one place, which everybody with an account on the system can access. If you access the Internet via an Internet Service Provider, then your ISP will almost certainly have a server that is used to store Usenet messages for you to download and read – although the ability to manage Usenet services correctly does seem to vary from ISP to ISP.

The various computers, or news servers, that deal with Usenet ,"talk" to each other regularly. When two servers connect, they basically compare notes on which Usenet messages they already have. If one server is missing a message then the other server sends a copy , and vice-versa. Because they are computers, they don't mind running through thousands, even millions, of these comparisons every day.

Yes, millions!

For Usenet is huge. Every day, people pump upwards of 40 million characters a day into Usenet system - roughly the equivalent of volumes A-G of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Obviously, nobody could possibly keep up with this immense flow of messages. Rather people will focus on the topics or groups that interest them. So, let's look at how to do this.

Newsgroup Building Blocks

The basic building block of Usenet is the newsgroup, which is a collection of messages with a related theme (on other networks, these would be called conferences, forums, bulletin-boards or special-interest groups). There are now more than 100,000 of these newsgroups, in several different languages, covering everything topic from art to zoology, from science fiction to breeding hamsters and the list is still growing daily. Needless to say, not every ISP can afford to keep copies of all of these groups but most will try to provide access to at least half, or more, of them and will try to tailor accessibility to their customers' needs.

Newsgroups are arranged in a particular hierarchy devised in the early 1980s and group names start with one of a series of broad topic names. For example, newsgroups beginning with comp. are about computer-related topics. These broad topic names are followed by a series of additional names - separated by a '.' to focus topics more accurately. So, for example, the groups are limited to discussion about the computer operating system, Windows. Within that list might be found the group which would be a group for discussion about Microsoft Office.

The main hierarchies are:

bionet - Research biology

bit.listserv - Discussions originating as Bitnet mailing lists

biz - Business

comp - Computers and related subjects

misc - Discussions that don't fit anywhere else

news - News about Usenet itself

rec - Hobbies, games and recreation

sci - Science other than research biology

soc - Social groups, often ethnically related

talk - Politics and related topics

alt - All other topics

In addition, many host systems carry newsgroups for a region or for their own users only and which are not listed under them main categories above. Examples would include the uk. And .us heiriarchy of groups. A a number of providers also carry clari newsgroups, which is actually a commercial service consisting of wire-service stories and a unique online computer news service. Amidst all of these groups, it is likely that you will develop your own personalisedlist.

Groups For New Users

There are a few newsgroups that are of particular interest to newcomers. Amongst these are:

  • news.announce.newusers This group consists of a series of articles that explain various facets of Usenet.
  • news.newusers.questions This is where you can ask questions about how Usenet works.
  • news.answers Contains lists of "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQs) and their answers from many different newsgroups.
  • Looking for something in particular on the Internet? Ask here.
  • alt.infosystems.announce People adding new information services to the Internet will post details here.
General Warnings

Opinion or Fact?

Whilst no one can doubt the sheer volume of the daily input to Usenet, it's worth remembering that high quantity does not, necessarily, mean high quality. Anybody with an opinion can post anything in a Usenet newsgroup, whether they know what they are talking about or not. For safety's sake it is always wise to pass any such information through your own common sense/reality check first. If people state "new facts" in their Usenet messages, ask them for their sources and check these out yourself before accepting everything you read.

Who's Reading Your Newsgroup Posts?

The second warning relates to your own messages to Usenet groups. Usenet messages are public - which means that they can be read by thousands of people worldwide. There are also a number of Usenet archives where old Usenet messages can be stored for later access by any member of the public. So, if you don't like the idea of your mother-in-law or your boss reading what you have to say, now, or in the future, don't post it on Usenet!

Mel Pedley is a professional web developer who specialises in the production, and management, of standards based, accessible, web sites. Mel stumbled onto Usenet very early on in her career and, 10 years later, she's still there. In the meantime, she can also be found at Black Widow Web Design (

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