Roadmap96: MAP08 - Usenet | WebReference

Roadmap96: MAP08 - Usenet


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"Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory."
-- Emily Post, Etiquette

One of my favorite Internet training resources is the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "EFF's Guide to the Internet." The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is an organization that fights to preserve the rights of people on the Net, and the "EFF's Guide" is a huge, online Internet training manual. We will visit both the EFF and the "EFF's Guide" in a few weeks.

In the meantime, I just want you to know that the text for most of today's lesson comes from the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "EFF's Guide to the Internet" and is reprinted, in its entirety, with the EFF's permission.

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 e-mail, which is usually "one-to-one," Usenet is "many-to-many." Usenet is the international meeting place, 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.

To many people, Usenet IS the Net. In fact, it is often confused with Internet. But it is a totally separate system. All Internet sites CAN carry Usenet, but so do many non-Internet sites, from sophisticated Unix machines to old XT clones and Apple IIs.

Technically, Usenet messages are shipped around the world, from host system to host system, using one of several specific Net protocols. Your host system stores all of its Usenet messages in one place, which everybody with an account on the system can access. That way, no matter how many people actually read a given message, each host system has to store only one copy of it. Many host systems "talk" with several others regularly in case one or another of their links goes down for some reason. When two host systems connect, they basically compare notes on which Usenet messages they already have. Any that one is missing the other then transmits, 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, Usenet users pump upwards of 40 million characters a day into the system -- roughly the equivalent of volumes A-G of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Obviously, nobody could possibly keep up with this immense flow of messages. Let's look at how to find conferences and discussions of interest to you.

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, bboards or special-interest groups). There are now more than [15,000] of these newsgroups, in several different languages, covering everything from art to zoology, from science fiction to South Africa.

Some public-access systems, typically the ones that work through menus, try to make it easier by dividing Usenet into several broad categories. Choose one of those and you're given a list of newsgroups in that category. Then select the newsgroup you're interested in and start reading.

Other systems let you compile your own "reading list" so that you only see messages in conferences you want. In both cases, conferences are arranged in a particular hierarchy devised in the early 1980s. Newsgroup names start with one of a series of broad topic names. For example, newsgroups beginning with "comp." are about particular computer-related topics. These broad topics are followed by a series of more focused topics (so that "comp.unix" groups are limited to discussion about Unix). The main hierarchies are:

     bionet          Research biology
     bit.listserv    Conferences 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             Controversial or unusual topics; not carried by 
                     all sites

In addition, many host systems carry newsgroups for a particular city, state or region. For example, ne.housing is a newsgroup where New Englanders look for apartments. A growing number also carry K-12 newsgroups, which are aimed at elementary and secondary teachers and students. And a number of sites carry clari newsgroups, which is actually a commercial service consisting of wire-service stories and a unique online computer news service.

... With so much to choose from, everybody will likely have their own unique Usenet reading list. But there are a few newsgroups that are particularly of interest to newcomers. Among them:

     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.announce.newsgroups        Look here for information about 
                                     new or proposed newsgroups.
     news.answers                    Contains lists of "Frequently 
                                     Asked Questions"  (FAQs) and 
                                     their answers from many different 
                                     newsgroups.  Learn how to fight 
                                     jet lag in the FAQ from 
                           ; look up answers 
                                     to common questions about 
                                     Microsoft Windows in a FAQ from 
                           ; etc.           Looking for something in 
                                     particular on the Internet?  Ask 
     alt.infosystems.announce        People adding new information 
                                     services to the Internet will 
                                     post details here.


And now for a few words from "the artist formerly known as p-crispy-one":

The "EFF's Guide" notes that daily input into Usenet is equivalent to volumes A-G of the Encyclopedia Britannica. You should be warned that the information on Usenet is of *much* lower quality. Anybody with an opinion can post anything in a Usenet newsgroup, whether they know what they are talking about or not. If you want to bet your grade in school or your company's or organization's future on information you get from Usenet, please e-mail me first -- I have some bargains on real estate (including a great price for a bridge in Brooklyn) I would like to discuss with you.

There are more Usenet newsgroups, dedicated to the discussion of more topics, than you could ever imagine. I recently heard that there are over 15,000 different Usenet newsgroups, although I think that number may be a little low.

Before we wrap up today's lesson, I want you to notice something about Usenet group names. All of the Usenet group names have periods (or, in Internet language, "dots") in them. That is a great way to see if a group is a Usenet group or a mailing list group (which we covered last week):

          GROUP                 TYPE
          gnu.emacs.sources     Usenet newsgroup
          RHA-L                 Mailing list
          rec.birds             Usenet newsgroup
          Navigate              Mailing list

So, how do you read the posts in a Usenet newsgroup? Well, you have to have access to a Usenet newsreader (a.k.a. a Usenet reader).

There are literally DOZENS of different Usenet readers out there. Your local Internet Service Provider will be able to tell you which Usenet reader you have access to, and will probably also be able to tell you some of your reader's commands (remember that in a lot of Usenet readers the commands are case-sensitive).

Some of the more important Usenet reader commands that you need to know are:



Ask your local Internet Service Provider if you have Usenet access. If you do, ask your provider for a handout or help file that lists the commands for your reader. Most Usenet readers also have pretty extensive, albeit confusing, help screens. If you can get into your reader, you may want to check out this help screen.

If you have access to either the "rn" or "nn" newsreader (two of the most-used Unix newsreaders around), I have two files that may help you. Again, use the GET command to get them from the LISTSERV file server at the InterNIC.

             "nn" users:               "rn" users:
             filename    filetype      filename     filetype
             --------    --------      --------     --------
             NN-INTRO    FILE          RN-INTRO     FILE
             NN-CMDS     FILE          RN-CMDS      FILE


The text in this lesson comes from the Electronic Frontier Foundation's "EFF's Guide to the Internet, v.2.3" ( and is reprinted by permission.

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Originally written by Patrick Douglas Crispen