Skip to Navigation

Usenet Etiquette (part 4)

"Please accept my resignation. I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member" (Groucho Marx)

It's important to keep in mind that the Internet is made up of more than computers and lots of cables. All of the computers and cables would be useless if it were not for the people who use them. It is people who make the Internet what it is and and every grouping of people, whether on the Internet or in the "real world" develops its own culture and common rules that govern the behavior of the people. Usenet is a perfect example.

Everyone makes mistakes when they start out on Usenet but, with a little pre-preparation, it's possible to keep these mistakes to a minimum and make your first steps as smooth as possible.

One of these days you're going to get tired of just reading newsgroup posts and you're going to want to say something yourself. At that moment your life will change. Let's see if we can't make that a change for the better.

General Issues

1. Remember that your newsgroup correspondants are human beings whose culture, language, and humor may be different to your own. Be careful with slang or local terminology.

2. Some people still pay for connectivity by the minute, and the longer your post is, the more they pay. Others are trying to cram a lot of reading into a short space of time. People don't object to paying to download, or read, a long and interesting (or entertaining) post (sometimes known as "signal") but they do get annoyed by irrelevant scribblings (often referred to as "noise"), so try and make sure that your "noise:signal ratio" is kept as low as possible.

3. Usenet isn’t free. The cost of delivering a newsgroup article is paid by the sender and by the owner of every news server that carrys your newsgroup. This is a fundamental economic reason why unsolicited advertising, on Usenet, is unwelcome and is forbidden by many Internet Service providers. It's also a very good reason why you should ask yourself whether that post you're writing really does offer anything of interest or relevancy to it's target audience.


Privacy and Copyright Issues

1. Remember that posting anything to a newsgroup is akin to shouting out a message in a crowded street from a rooftop. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are going to read your words - not only today but, probably in years to come. If you don't want your spouse/partner/boss/mother-in-law/worst enemy to know your "secret", don't post it to a newsgroup.

2. Respect the copyright on material that you reproduce. Almost every country has copyright laws.

3. If you are going to quote someone, try and ensure that you do so accurately and attribute the text accordingly.

4. Never quote from a private email without the specific permission of your e-correspondant.

Technical Issues

1. Do not post HTML articles unless you are absolutely sure that they will be welcome. Usenet is, primarily, a text only medium and many standard newsreaders cannot render HTML. This not only turns your priceless into complete gibberish but causes great irritation to many of your potential readers.

2. Limit your line length to aproximately 65-70 characters. There should be a setting within your news client that will take care of this for you.

3. When you followup another post, place your comments below the quoted material.

Yes – I said “below”

Some popular news software (such as Outlook Express) automatically places the cursor above the quoted text by default. Ignore this and move the cursor down to the correct place manually. If you are replying to a particularly long article, or you have a number of comments to make to different points, it is a good idea to intersperse your text amongst the quoted material appropriately to achieve a conversational-exchange effect.

4. Usenet articles should have a subject heading which reflects the content of the post and should include any relevant, intra-group, subject tags. Many people sort their reading order by subject and/or tag. Some people even configure their news reading software to ignore posts with subject headings which aren't compliant with the group's accepted posting guidelines.

5. Use both upper and lower case in your posts. UPPER CASE LOOKS AS IF YOU'RE SHOUTING. Make your post inviting for your potential readers

6. If you include a signature keep it short - no longer than 4 lines. If your news software allows it, try and use the correct signature delimiter:


This will allow many news clients to auto-magically remove your signature from any followups a fellow poster might make.

7. Newsgroup servers are located across the globe and that Usenet "works" because these servers pass articles to one another. So wait a little while before you check to see whether your article has appeared in the newsgroup. Don't post an article and expect it to appear immediately. If your post hasn't appeared after a short time, wait a bit longer and check again before assuming that it wasn't sent correctly and re-posting it. Duplicated articles are a sure fire way to upset newsgroup regulars.

Trolling (or "Looking For Trouble"

In Usenet terminology, a troll is a person who posts inflammatory messages on a newsgroup with the deliberate intention of disrupting discussion. "Troll" can also be used as a verb meaning to post such messages whilst "trolling" is also commonly used to describe the general disruptive activity or intent. If the post you’ve just read appears to fit this general description, try to ignore it or wait and see how the group’s regulars react. Responding to troll posts (sometimes referred to as “feeding the troll”) rarely helps and usually just adds to the problem. These are not people who wish to discuss anything reasonably but who take pleasure from creating as much trouble as possible. If the situation becomes intolerable, consider alerting the troll’s news provider (many newsgroup posts include abuse email address within the headers) but be sure to provide a copy of the offensive material including full headers. You’re unlikely to receive a direct response from such complaints but a sure sign of success is the peace and calm that follows the troll’s sudden disappearance a few days later.

If all else fails, learn how to filter out the troll’s posts (also known as “plonking”, “kill filing” or “dropping in the bozo bin”) using your news client so that you no longer see them.


Everyone is tempted from time to time to evangelise, to stride boldly into the enemy's camp and throw down the gauntlet. It’s human nature. We’re unlikely to ever see the end of people who pop up on pagan newsgroups and inform the regulars that they're all bound for hell; or those who enter and claim that the author pinched all his ideas from Start Trek and so finitum.

In the entire history of the Usenet, no one has ever managed to post in this manner without looking like a complete idiot. If you believe you are the one person who will succeed where millions have failed, then you're ready to learn about flames.

First of all, you need to understand that there is nothing you can say that doesn't have the potential to offend somebody:

> It's a bright, sunny day today over here.

You filthy *@!?$! What have you got against Manchester?

Flames (violent verbal expressions of disapproval, misunderstandings, overreactions, and hurt feelings) are all par for the course on Usenet. Here are four suggestions from learnt experience:

1. Hedge your bets. Rather than saying:

Metal rules! Death to all that oppose (sic)!!

try saying:

In my humble opinion* metal bands perfectly express my feelings, choices, and lifestyle. Your mileage may vary**

[*] often abbreviated to "IMHO".

[**] often abbreviated YMMV.

2. Learn how, and when to apologise. When misunderstanding is the culprit, and especially if you respect the person who misunderstood, take the blame on yourself for being unclear. Apologise, say what you meant more clearly (if appropriate) and put it behind you. As in real life (remember that?) people who are quick to anger are often equally quick to forgive.

3. Avoid flame bait “Flame bait” is the name given to conduct which gravely offends the norms, mores and folkways of a particular group) – although not, necessarily, intentionally. When dealing with hot topics, be very careful about your choice of words as sloppy usage or ambiguity can convey an incorrect meaning to the group as a whole.

4. Bow down to the group's hierarchy. In every Usenet newsgroup there are old, grey heads who have earned the respect of everyone in the group. You will be entirely ignorant about the newsgroup and/or it's related discussions compared to those people. Never pretend you're anything else. For the most part, they would dearly love to help you and answer your questions but you'll always come out second best in a head-butting contest with them.

If you feel that's unfair, well you're right. It is. Completely. But, if it came to an argument between someone you had known for years and a total stranger, who would you defend? Don't expect newsgroups to be any different.

So, what can you do?

1. Lurk before you post.

2. Try to discover what the big no-nos are by learning from the mistakes of others.

3. Read any FAQs.

4. Did I mention lurking before you post?

The beginning of the university term is a wonderful time to do this, as you will observe the clueless newbies (Usenet newcomers) who weren't smart enough to read this article being torn to shreds by seasoned and grumpy long-timers.

Mel Pedley is a professional web developer at Black Widow Web Design ( specialises in the production, and management, of standards based, accessible, web sites.

Previous Page Next Page

Usenet etiquette