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Usenet - Newsgroups
What are they, How do they work?

JohnWoody is a network communications consultant specializing in smalloffice, home office networks, training, setup, and Internet connectivity.

Want new downloadable software, new clipart, sound-bites, or program patches? How about free 24-hour technical service? Or expert tips on rose gardening, travel, mystery writers, location of possible family genealogy records, or the location of parts for that 1963 Fiat 850 you are restoring? Try one of the best known sources available on the Internet; Usenet Newsgroups

Usenet Newsgroups are the "electronic bulletin boards" of the Internet. Usenet Newsgroups are similar to user group BBSs or original CompuServe Forums in that they provide a arena from which individuals interested in a particular subject can get together electronically and have discussions. Since its inception in 1979, Usenet has become one of the most extensively used aspects of electronic communication. It is much more than the Internet, though most of todayís traffic is carried by the Internet. Users do not have to be on the Internet to use Usenet, but the Internet is the easiest and best method of receiving Newsgroup information. 

Today, nearly any topic can be found within the various Usenet services. I made an unofficial count in excess of 38,973 topics in loading new news reader program the last time I loaded a News Reader application. Additional topics are added daily to the services. This is from over 7,000 Newsgroup areas, each with up to 200 sub-categories defining nearly any subject one would want to discuss or review. 

In the beginning, Usenet was developed as an extension of e-mail. It was developed at the University of North Carolina and Duke University to demonstrate automatic or near automatic sharing of information on UNIX-based computers. Usenet UNIX software stored and passed information between computers using analog modems. The exercises were meant to show the ability to distribute information worldwide. The first users were academics and researchers, who, of course, used the service to pass technical data. 

This service, known as Network News, now abbreviated to netnews, expanded greatly as more users recognized its utility. The netnews system uses the term Newsgroup to refer to individual discussion groups and article to refer to a message which has been sent to the Newsgroup for everyone to view and respond to. Articles resemble e-mail messages, vary in length, and have header information which contains a FROM line to identify the sender. 

Netnews originated as part of this early computer network which used dial-up modems to automatically place calls between the computers and exchange information. These sites used the term USENET to refer to the "network" of computers. Then USENET participants changed their connection methods as communication technology changed and Internet access was acquired. 

Most of the sites which participate in network news now receive the information over the Internet. Those which still use the dial-up feeds continue to participate in USENET, BITNET and other dial-up systems. Most ISPs (Internet Service Providers) now dedicate one of their IP (Internet Protocol) addressed servers to network news for subscribers. The national providers such as CompuServe and AOL provide access to network news also. 

Newsgroup functionality 
Electronic bulletin board services allow individuals to participate in discussions with others through common forums via the individualís own computer connectivity. These services can be through BBS systems, National Service Forums, or over the Internet through Usenet on subjects which interest them. These services allow individuals to select discussion groups of interest, periodically return to check on new developments, post messages for response by others, and post messages in response to what others have written. 

Usenet Newsgroups operate solely through the efforts of their contributors and system administrators who route the groupís traffic. Usenet is not owned by anyone and is one of the best examples of free speech ever devised. You may not like the wide open, no-holds-barred discussion currently being followed, but that is the way it is. Every article message posted is equal, no one can be taken to court or punched out if you are offended. Either participate, respecting otherís thoughts or get out. 

Newsgroups combine features of several communication roles in order to maintain order and efficiency in light of the apparent lack of central authority. These features include allowing anyone who is a participant to post messages for everyone else to see as is done in user group electronic bulletin ten boards. Newsgroups are like club news letters which focus on single subjects. They transmit the messages to all members electronically very quickly. And, they are informal discussion groups where each member can listen, ask questions, interject comments, or contribute statements on subjects. 

Any topic of interest to a group of individuals is fair game for the start of a Newsgroup. Any group of individuals can organize a discussion about any subject which collectively interests them. There are as noted above over 38,000 sub-category groups active at this time. 

Throughout this seeming anarchy, News groups are well organized. They have a precise hierarchical structure which follows other Internet address schemes, but is not related to the IP addressing in the rest of the Internet. The major categories are COMP, SCI, SOC, TALK, NEWS, REC, MISC, ALT, BIONET, BIT, BIZ, CLARI, GNU, k12, MSEN, and VMSNET as well as others. Within each broad category, there are multitudes of sub-categories. 

Specific Newsgroups have a name like rec.arts.movies.charlie.chan. The broad category is the REC at the left of the address. REC, by the way, stands for recreation and hobby oriented subjects. COMP covers topics for computer professionals and individuals who have interest in all aspects of computers and their use. SCI covers research in the sciences which tend to be highly specialized, whose membership is normally professionals in the subject area. 

The ALT Newsgroup category is very broad, with subject areas ranging from very focused to very trivial. This is the category where the government and other non-user regulatory organizations get upset and want to control the subject matter as all the nude picture and sexual oriented Newsgroups are located. This is the area where the German government brought CompuServe to court for allowing the sexually oriented Newsgroups to exist. 

Newsgroups can be loosely or very tightly controlled. The Newsgroup administrators monitor postings and maintain control of the subject matter. Most have a beginning section which contains FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) that cover what is allowed, how to get started, format, and other related topics. It is highly recommended that one get familiar with the FAQs of a Newsgroup before jumping into the fray. Many of the users get upset if a newbie jumps into a discussion with a question or statement which may be covered in the FAQs for that group. Particular Newsgroup FAQs are posted as they are updated within the Newsgroup. There is even a Newsgroup for FAQs and can be subscribed to at comp.ai.news.answers. The FAQs can also be obtained via anonymous FTP from rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet/news.answers

How Network News works 
The netnews system optimizes its communication by transferring each news article once instead of getting it on demand. The Newsgroup administrator transfers its new copies of articles one time to a receiving site which archives the information for local subscribers and passes the new messages on to the next location. The transfer is made to a news server maintained by the ISP. Once the news server is set up, these transfers are automatically without human intervention. The automatic transfer is started at a scheduled time, uses the connected network to contact one or more sites as specified in the programís configuration. This connection is called a newsfeed. Participating newsfeed sites pass on the newsfeed to new sites as they come on line. 

Netnews articles appears to subscribers in the general form of e-mail messages. Articles are formatted as text messages with a header and a body. The header includes a FROM line which supplies the e-mail address of the person who posted the article, a DATE line, TIME of posting, and a SUBJECT line listing the topic of the article. Other data can be supplied in the header as necessary to define it. The body carries the text which describes the topic being covered. The body text can be any length, in the form of statement or question, and in some cases have other formats such as graphics included or attached. 

The ISP news server system receiving the netnews feed, by definition must be a powerful, large hard disk capacity machine. Most news server are able to handle approximately ten days worth of netnews feeds at a time. The server hard disks are normally in the multigigabite size to handle all of the Newsgroups individuals want to subscribe to. Even with such large archiving capacity, there is a limit to how long an article may be held. With 38,000 Newsgroups feeding into a news server daily, there is usually a time expiration limit to a particular article, once it is posted. This implies that subscribers maintain current contact with their news server to maintain up-to-date continuity of postings to the Newsgroup. 

How Do I use Netnews? 
How does one choose from the thousands of News groups? How does one join a particular Newsgroup? The list is kept current by volunteers and can be obtained from news.announce.newusers for most of us when we first use an application program which reads Netnews. The active Newsgroup listings are kept current in the "List of Active Newsgroups, Part I and II" and the "Alternative Newsgroups Hierarchies, Parts I and II", and can be obtained from the news.lists Newsgroup. The best method of obtaining the complete list is simply to load and run the application which reads them from the news server. 

In the beginning, one had to download a UNIX program such as TRN (Threaded News Reader). News reader applications have been developed for our Windows GUI interfaces as well now. 

Current news reader applications such as FREE AGENT contain the necessary protocols to interface with the news server and pull the full list down for review and checkout. The news reader applications have the capacity to help sort through this list to find subjects of interest. Most news readers have FIND utilities built-in to assist in sorting through the list. Use the FIND utility to select one or two subjects as starting points. This selected list then becomes the short list from which the application will obtain Newsgroup articles for your review. 

I have set two separate applications up on my machines for different uses. One is the Microsoft Outlook and the other is Free Agent. They both provide me experience in using Netnews. I have discovered that staying current with subjects in Netnews assume a life of its own. One has to be on top of each program in order to keep current. Articles residing on my ISPís news server have a life of approximately 10 to 15 days. 

General program setup includes selecting the target Newsgroups from the master list and saving them to a short list of interested subjects you want to follow. When the News Reader application pulls the latest information down from the news server, it brings only a subject line summary of unread articles to your computer. You next have to review the subject lines to determine which articles you want to read. Then the News Reader brings each article body into your computer for you to read. The header / subject list remains in your system as read / unread articles. 

You subscribe to the Newsgroup to bring in the article headings for that group. Subscribing is done from the News Reader application Subscribe utility. Subscribing is not a cost item, but is the method of becoming a reader / contributor to the Newsgroup. The News Reader application has an unsubscribe utility for deciding not be part of the Newsgroup any longer. 

Most News Reader applications have a method of sampling the newly subscribed Newsgroup so that you can determine if it contains the information you want. This is also a good chance to be able to review the FAQs for the group. Usually from 25 to 50 articles from a Newsgroup will give you a feel for the subject matter and to determine if the group is right for you. 

Most News Reader applications have a method of moving between the Groups list summary and Articles listed for each. Simply highlight or click the Newsgroup from the summary list and see the list of article subjects read/unread. Moving between the lists is usually via multiple windows or menu clicks. Once an article subject is to be reviewed, simply click on it to cause the application to pull the body into your system. Click on the loaded article to open and read it. 

Articles within a Newsgroup are threaded, that is all related subject articles are listed in an hierarchical order and are kept together. The basic subject item is listed first, then each successive related subject item is "attached" or threaded to that subject. This threaded method of display of the article subjects greatly benefits you in keeping up with items of interest. 

There are some general Netiquette guidelines which will greatly benefit you in making sense of discussions on a particular topic. Remember that anyone can participate in any group. And, that the Netnews services are worldwide with all sorts of culture differences being interjected into the discussions. Also, keep in mind that there economic backgrounds and levels of education differences which are part of the discussions. When reading a particular discussion keep the following in mind: 

  • Do not make assumptions about the writer, who may have more or less experience than you. Assume that the writer is neither an expert or a fool
  • Suspect any message which appears to have been submitted by a well known expert or famous person. Remember that headers can be forged and certain people get pleasure from forging bogus information.
  • Compose messages with the idea in mind that it will be read by people whose backgrounds are different from yours. Choose words that accurately express what your opinion may be. Provide evidence for your opinions, if available, as references from books, etc.
  • Use constraint, as in any social interaction. For example, take time to think before responding to provocative or outrageous statements.
  • Do not take insults personally, especially when they respond to a message you wrote. Remember that the writer does not know you and may not respect your title or position.
  • Use the symbol for a smiley face :-), to inform the reader that you mean something in a humorous way
  • Many Internet users follow the convention regarding upper and lower case: anything written in all uppercase is assumed to express shouting.
  • As a newbie, start by asking for help. Read the FAQs to make sure that your questions have been answered before.
Good Newsgroup reading!

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