JafSoft's Introduction to the Internet

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6 USENET and Newsgroups

6.1 What they are

Usenet is a set of bulletin boards or newsgroups made available via the Internet. Each newsgroup is dedicated to an area of interest and people post articles or "posts" on different subjects within the area of interest.

People can choose to write on a new topic, or to post a followup on an existing topic. Followups traditionally have the same subject line with the letters "RE:" inserted at the start.

The combination of the original article and all its subsequent followups is known as a thread. All news-reading software allows you to read news by thread, and to choose to follow or ignore particular threads.

A good set of (text) documents describing NEWS can be found at http://sasun4.epfl.ch/News/Document

6.2 How they are organised

6.2.1 Newsgroup hierarchies

Newsgroups are organised into a fairly loose set of hierarchies. There are a number of standard hierarchies, and any number of local hierarchies, for example most of the main ISPs have their own groups, some of which are made publicly available.

The main hierarchies are

alt... Alternative. Anything goes.
biz... Business
comp... Computers
news... Administrative for News generally
rec... Recreational.
sci... Science
soc... Society

Of these the alt... hierarchy is largely unregulated, whilst the other hierarchies are more controlled. There are more alt... groups and they are easier to create, but correspondingly the Signal to Noise ratio is much lower in these groups, and the language is sometimes less formal.

In addition to the above this many counties and regions have their own hierarchies, as do some collaborations, e.g.


The current list of newsgroups stands at around 17,000. You should contact your service provider to see what groups they make available.

6.2.2 NEWS distribution

NEWS is distributed round the globe by being passed from Internet node to Internet node. Each internet node is free to decide which groups they will or won't take. This is one place where censorship starts to enter the Internet.

Some ISPs only get a core set of groups to which they will happily add any newsgroup a customer requests. This is usually an attempt to save bandwidth.

Some ISPs choose to refuse certain groups on the grounds that they give offence, or contravene the prevailing laws in their territory. This is especially true of providers looking to meet "family" needs.

Other ISPs choose to refuse binary groups on the grounds that these take up far too much bandwidth, and besides, they contain the bulk of the pornography floating round the Net.

Yet more ISPs declare that in the interests of free speech they will take a "full feed" and make this available to their customers. These providers are the ones most frequently being taken to court.

You should be aware that depending on who you get your news from you may well not be getting a full feed.

You should also be aware that given the genuinely unsavory content in some parts of Usenet, you may not want a full feed.

6.2.3 .Answers groups

Many newsgroups have FAQS associated with them. These FAQs are posted regularly to the newsgroup concerned, RTFM, and often to the .answers newsgroup in the same hierarchy.

Thus comp.answers contains many useful posts of computer related FAQs, whilst rec.answers contains FAQs on every type of hobby.

Many of these are additionally posted to news.answers.

6.2.4 Moderated newsgroups

Some newsgroups and mailing lists are "moderated". In these cases all articles posted to the group are checked by a Moderator.

The moderator is free to

Moderation is a good way of improving the Signal to Noise ratio in a group, but is hard work for the moderators who frequently do the job voluntarily and are unpaid.

6.2.5 Binary groups

It is possible to post binary files (such as pictures and software) to newgroups. However, such posts tend to be much larger than normal, and as such are unwelcome in most newsgroups.

To get round this problem, there are a number of newsgroups dedicated to accepting binary posts. These are mostly the alt.binaries... groups.

If you have a picture you'd like to share with people in a newsgroup, consider offering it via email, and first asking the group if they're interested.

Next consider placing it on a web page.

If enough people express an interest, find out which binary group is most suitable and post it there. Once you've done that, post an article to your normal newsgroup telling people what you've done, so that they can go and fetch it.

Posting binaries usually entails converting them into ASCII files using some form of encoding. It's increasingly common these days for email packages to offer this.

Often large binaries are split into a number of posts. This is because some parts of the Internet reject messages over a certain size.

To reassemble the binary, you need to locate all parts of the original, reassemble the parts, and convert back to binary.

Again, it's increasingly common for your newsreading software to be capable of doing this for you.

6.3 How to use newsgroups

6.3.1 Using a newsreader

You normally access news using newsreader software. There are a variety of commercial and free packages available.

Normally you "subscribe" to groups that are of interest to you. Then each time you start the software, it will get all the new articles in those groups.

Some packages only get the message headers and subject lines. This allows you to pick which actual posts you're interested in, and which the newsreader should fetch the article bodies for. This is more efficient and saves bandwidth and time.

Similarly some newsreaders set a limit of the maximum article size they will automatically fetch.

Sometimes you can set up a "kill" file of threads and authors you don't want to see. The newsreader will then ignore any such posts. This can be useful for avoiding the "village idiot" posters that each group seems to have.

If you are accessing the Internet from home or over a modem line, make sure you use a package that allows off-line reading. Such packages will fetch the articles you're interested in, and save them to your hard disk, thereby allowing the connection time to the Internet (and hence phone bills) to be minimized.

6.3.2 In a browser

Increasingly it is possible to read news via your browser. At the time of writing these are not generally as good as dedicated newsreader software, particularly since they don't support off-line reading.

However this is a good way of quickly dipping into a group you've just discovered, or have only a fleeting interest in.

6.3.3 Using DejaNews

The Dejanews site offers a search engine that allows all current and past news articles to be searched.

6.4 Usenet Conventions

6.4.1 Subject lines

In order to help people better anticipate the contents of articles some conventions have evolved on use of subject lines. These conventions are mostly used in newsgroups, but you will see them occasionally in email.

RE: - Signifies a reply. Most mail software does this for you

FWD: - Signifies a forwarded message (email usually)

FS: - For sale

WTB: - Want to buy

In addition, the charter of some groups may define additional shorthand local to that group.

6.4.2 Signatures

Many software packages will allow you to place a "signature" at the end of all your email and Usenet posts. This allows you to add contact information and witty comments.

By convention the first line should be 2 dashes, and the whole signature should only be 4-5 lines long. Large signatures are considered bad Netiquette and will attract criticism.

6.5 Usenet related sites

6.5.1 Locating useful resources by newsgroup

One site that collects resources referenced in newsgroups, and lists them by the newsgroup name is http://www.phoaks.com/. This can be a useful way of locating FAQs or useful web pages relating to a USENET group.

6.5.2 Getting statistics on Usenet group usage

The site http://sunsite.unc.edu/usenet-i/ offers various Usenet related services.

This includes a list of newsgroups at
http://sunsite.unc.edu/usenet-i/ (this is a large file), and statistics for each newsgroup.

Statistics are help for each newsgroup in a page below the "/groups-html" directory at this location. For example the statistics on comp.risks newsgroup are contained in a page at

How accurate of recent these pages are I couldn't say (they seem a little out of date to me), but it might give you a feel for the relative popularity, availability and throughput of a newsgroup if nothing else. This could help you find the right forum for your announcements, or a quiet backwater in which to have a chat with like-minded souls.

6.5.3 DejaNews

DejaNews is discussed more fully in section 7.2.

6.6 Other on-line news sources

6.6.1 Service provider forums

Some of the larger service providers provide their own equivalent services for the benefit of their own customers.

AOL and Compuserve in particular come to mind.

6.6.2 More conventional NEWS sites

Most major news-gathering organisations (newspapers and TV) now have a presence on the Net. Simply seek out your favourite newspaper and search their small print for a web address.

Particularly noteworthy are CNN and the BBC.

Many of these news services are free, though how long that will continue is doubtful, given the way that most newspaper sites request subscription information and require a password to enter.

A list of news services can be found at http://www.discover.co.uk/NET/NEWS/news.html

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© 1997-1999 John A Fotheringham and JafSoft Limited
Last Minor Update : 4 December '99