From the October, 1998 PC ALAMODE Magazine:
Introduction to Usenet
by Michael D. Coon

Usenet is a distributed discussion system on the Internet that predates the World Wide Web by many years. It's basically a giant bulletin board divided into tens of thousands of newsgroups arranged into hierarchies according to topic. Some of the main topic groups are: 
    Comp (computer topics)
    Rec (recreation, hobbies, sports)
    Sci (science)
    Soc (sociology, culture)
    Talk (political and issue-oriented topics)
    Alt (a catch-all for miscellaneous topics)
Individual newsgroups are named according to their topics. Rec.sports contains general discussion, while and are more specific and focused.

 Usenet works like a giant bulletin board. You can post a message, and it gets forwarded to Usenet servers all over the world. Anyone who sees your message can respond, and the responses will be grouped in "threads" - ongoing discussions of a specific subject. For example, suppose I'm a regular reader of the newsgroup (that is, Computers/Operating Systems/Microsoft Windows/NT/Miscellaneous), and I have a problem configuring my modem. I could post a message containing a description of my problem and any answers would be "threaded" under mine, that is, they're grouped together based on who responded and in what order. This might look like:

     "Problem with modem" - Michael
      "Re: Problem with modem" - Joe
      "Re: Problem with modem" - Anne
        "Re: Problem with modem" - Ted
      "Re: Problem with modem" - Michelle
This structure shows that I posted a message with the subject line "Problem with modem" and Joe, Anne, and Michelle replied. Ted replied to the comment Anne made, so his message is threaded underneath hers. This threaded structure lets you follow topics you're interested in and ignore others. It's a great timesaver in busy newsgroups.

 Now some specific advice about using Usenet:

     Read the FAQ - almost every newsgroup has a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) file that serves as an introduction for new members. It will bring you up to speed on the do's and don'ts of a specific group. FAQ are often posted to the newsgroup periodically, so if you read for a while without posting (lurking), it may show up. Yahoo has a good set of links to FAQs or you can find them on

     Search the archives - Dejanews ( archives all the traffic on Usenet so you can search through past discussions. This can be a great resource for finding information, and it will keep you from posting a new message about a topic that's been covered extensively in the past. It's a good idea to search DejaNews before you post a question because you might find a quick and easy answer.

     Stay on topic - most FAQs will contain a charter that defines what subjects the group is designed to address. Even if you haven't read the charter, the group name and the ongoing discussions should give you a hint about what is appropriate. Posting off-topic is pointless because the rest of the group may not be interested in your subject. It's also annoying to the other readers and clogs the system with useless traffic.

     Limit crossposts - this is related to staying on-topic. Most newsreaders will allow you to post a message to multiple newsgroups. Make sure your message is appropriate for every group you're posting to. If you're cross-posting to more than a couple of groups, you're almost certainly off-topic for some of them.

     Use meaningful subject line - if you're posting a question, use something specific like "Frontpage installation error" rather than "Really hard problem". Especially in busy newsgroups, many people scan the subject lines for topics that interest them and they may skip topics which don't catch their eye.
    Limit quotations - just like when replying to email, you should quote enough of the previous message to put yours in context, but try to keep it brief.

     Don't send test messages - nothing bogs down a newsgroup faster than a slew of "Just testing, please ignore" messages. If you want to test your ability to post or see how your messages are going to appear, use a group set up for that purpose like alt.test.

     Don't get mad if you don't get the response you want - if you don't get a response to a question, it's likely that your question was either off topic, too hard (no one has an answer), or too easy (it's a FAQ and no on is going to bother answering it yet again). Think through your message and see if you can fine-tune it before you feel ignored.

Usenet has been around a lot longer than the Web. It was one of the first systems to use the Internet and other computer networks, and it's proven very useful over the years. A lot of history and culture has grown up within Usenet, and there are people who've been on it for years that feel they have more rights to it than new users. This occasionally causes a backlash against "newbies", but if you follow the rules and observe some simple netiquette, the newsgroups can be fantastically interesting and helpful.

 For more info on Usenet, visit If you don't currently have a newsreader, you can use an online service like DejaNews' MyDejaNews or download a shareware program from Tucows ( I like both FreeAgent and News Xpress. You'll also need the domain name of your ISP's NNTP (net news transfer protocol) server to configure your newsreader. In the meantime, here's a thought to keep in mind during your forays into Usenet: 

Those who have never tried electronic communication may not be aware of what a "social skill" really is. One social skill that must be learned, is that other people have points of view that are not only different, but *threatening*, to your own. In turn, your opinions may be threatening to others. There is nothing wrong with this. Your beliefs need not be hidden behind a facade, as happens with face-to-face conversation. Not everybody in the world is a bosom buddy, but you can still have a meaningful conversation with them. The person who cannot do this lacks in social skills. 

-- Nick Szabo

Michael Coon is a founding partner of both MC2 Studio, Inc. (formerly MC Squared) and Active Technologies, Inc. (MC Squared's Internet division, spun off in 1998). These two firms are involved in Internet consulting, software development, graphic design, multimedia production, and CAD drafting. He can be reached at his offices in San Antonio at (210) 824-4106 or on the web at