All the News That Fits, and Considerably More as WellMailing lists are an OK way to send messages to a small number of people, but they're a lousy way to send messages to a lot of people. For one thing, just maintaining a big list with thousands of people is a lot of work, even if you automate most of it with something like LISTSERV. (On a large list, every day a few of the addresses will go bad as people move around and system managers reconfigure addresses.) For another, just shipping the contents of messages to thousands and thousands of addresses puts a huge load on the system that sends them out.
Usenet news (also known as net news) solves that problem and creates a whole host of others. Usenet is a very large distributed bulletin board system. The principle is quite simple: every Usenet site ships a copy of all of the messages (which in news-speak are called articles) it has received to all of its neighbors several times a day. (Each article includes is a list of sites it's already been to, to avoid wasted effort.) It's sort of a global game of ``whisper down the lane.''
Different links run at different speeds, but for the most part news items slosh around to nearly every directly connected usenet site within a day or two after it is sent.
Most ISPs run a news server -- a computer that stores the articles posted to the major newsgroups, waiting for you to read them.
There are three Important News Skills to learn:
Being a news groupieEvery day, over 20,000 articles will appear at a typical well-connected news machine. To make it possible to sort through this mass of stuff, all items are assigned to news groups which are rough topic headings. There are tens of thousands of newsgroups in all, ranging from the staid and technical (computer data communications, for example), to the totally goofy (urban legends, like the one about the poodle in the microwave.)
Most news users pick a small number of groups to read and ignore the rest. You can subscribe and unsubscribe to any groups physically received by your machine very easily (unlike getting on and off mailing lists, it just requires an update to a local file), so many people start reading a group, look at a few articles, and then stop reading it if it looks boring. Or depending on how much time you plan to spend reading news, you may add a lot of groups when you're less busy, and drop all but the ones directly related to work when the crunch hits. (I suppose in theory you could stop reading news altogether, but that's sort of like stopping drinking coffee altogether--too painful to contemplate.)
The Newsgroup Thicket
If you're eager to start using news, you can skip this section and come back to it later when you want to refine your news reading skills.
Newsgroup have multi-part names separated by dots, with names like comp.dcom.fax (a group about fax machines and fax modems). The plan is that there are hierarchies of groups. That just means that first part of the name describes the general kind of group. When there are a bunch of related groups, they have related names, so for example all of the groups having to do with data communication are filed as comp.dcom.something. These are the top-level names of the ``official'' hierarchies which are distributed to nearly every news site:
There are also lots of less widely distributed sets of groups which are mentioned in the next chapter.
Regional groupsAll of the mainstream groups are (in theory at least) of interest to people regardless of where they live. But there are a lot of topics which are quite specific to a particular place. Say you lived near Boston and wanted suggestions about restaurants where you can take small children and not be snarled at. (This topic actually came up recently.) Although there are newsgroups in the rec hierarchy that discuss food, since most of the readers are nowhere near Boston, you're likely to get more snappy comments than useful responses. (Like, someone in Texas might note that if you don't mind driving to Dallas for dinner, you can find one there.) Fortunately, there are local and regional groups for local and regional discussions.
There is an ne hierarchy for topics of interest to New England including groups like ne.food which is just the place to ask about kiddie restaurants. (The answer, by the way, turned out to be practically any ethnic restaurant, and one yuppie place in the suburbs which makes a big deal about having an annex featuring hot dogs and babysitters so Mom and Dad can eat their fancy meal in elegant silence.)
There are state and regional hierarchies for most places that have enough usenet sites to make it worthwhile: ny for New York, ba for the San Francisco bay area, and so forth.
Universities and other organizations big enough to have their own Usenet communities often have hierarchies of their own, like mit for M.I.T. Many companies have their own local set of newsgroups for announcements and discussions about company matters.
For example, at a software company where I used to work, every time someone logged in a change to one of our programs, the description of the change was sent out as a local news item, so everyone else could keep up with what was changing. Naturally, local company groups are only sent around within the company. Ask around to find out what organization or regional groups your system gets, since it's basically up to your system manager to decide what to get.
Reading NewsgroupsOK, after all this introduction you're probably dying to try out news for yourself. Usenet is designed so that anyone who wants to can write a new newsreading program, so a lot have people have done so.
Here are your best bests:
To read more about newsgroups and other forms of online discussions,
read Poor Richard's Building Online Communities.)
For complete details about how to use Outlook Express, Netscape Communicator,
and other programs to read newsgroups, get
Internet: The Complete Reference,
Windows Me: The Complete Reference, or
Windows 98: The Complete Reference.
Last updated March 13, 2001
Last updated March 13, 2001
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