Internet Gurus - What Are Usenet Newsgroups?


All the News That Fits, and Considerably More as Well

Mailing 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.
We have some suggestions about how to find the newsgroups that discuss the topics you are interested in.

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:

  • How to read the news in which you are interested.
  • How not to read the news in which you aren't interested, since there is far more news sent out every day than any single human could ever read.
  • How to send out news items of your own. (Definitely optional.)
Where did Usenet come from?

North Carolina, originally, where two students came up with the first version in 1980 to run on a couple of UNIX machines. Their original version, now known as A news, seemed pretty cool because it could transfer as many as a dozen articles a day from one machine to another, using a protocol called uucp, a klunky but reliable communication program that comes with all UNIX systems. Within a few years the network had spread to several other universities and several software companies, using a completely rewritten version called B news.

Usenet was enough of an established thing that it was featured in an article in a UNIX theme issue of Byte magazine in October 1983, which in boasted that there were over 500 news sites. (My site was called ``ima'', near the upper right hand corner of the network map on page 224.)

In the ensuing decade, Usenet has grown like a disease. There are now over 30,000 sites that send news out, and probably at least that many more that just listen. Many of the original dialup links have been replaced by Internet network links using a protocol called NNTP for NetNews Transfer Protocol. (And you thought that all acronyms were obscure.) The volume of news has increase from a few hundred articles per day in 1983 to 30,000 articles, over 50 megabytes of text per day now, and the net is still growing.

A lot of sites are still using B news even though its authors officially condemned it as obsolete more than five years ago. Current news systems include C news which is a complete rewrite of B news to be faster and more maintainable, and INN which is a new version designed to work well in Internet networked environments. Fortunately, they all work pretty much the same way so for the most part you don't have to worry about which version you're using.

Being a news groupie

Every 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:

  • comp: Topics having something to do with computers. Lots of fairly meaty discussions.
  • sci: Topics having something to do with one of the sciences, also fairly meaty.
  • rec: Recreational groups, about sports, hobbies, the arts, and other fun endeavors.
  • soc: Social groups, both social interests and plain socializing.
  • news: Topics having to do with net news itself. There are a few groups that everyone should read with introductory material and the occasionaly important announcement. Otherwise not very interesting unless you're a news weenie.
  • misc: Miscellaneous topics that don't fit anywhere else. (The ultimate miscellaneous group is called misc.misc).
  • talk: Long arguments, frequently political. Widely considered totally uninteresting except to the participants.

There are also lots of less widely distributed sets of groups which are mentioned in the next chapter.

Regional groups

All 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 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 Newsgroups

OK, 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:

  • Outlook Express: The e-mail program that comes with Windows 98, Windows Me, and Windows 2000 also handles Usenet newsgroups. To start reading newsgroups, click the Read News icon (if it appears), or choose Go | News. If you didn't configure Outlook Express to know about your ISP's news server when you first ran Outlook Express, it'll ask you about it now. Then you'll see a list of available newsgroups, and you can choose some. When you have subscribed to some newsgroups, they appear listed down the left side of the Outlook Express windows, along with your mail folders.

  • Netscape Newsgroups or Collabra: Netscape Communicator, the suite of programs that includes the popular Netscape Navigator web browser, includes a newsreader, too. Older versions of Communicator call it Collabra (strange name!), and newer versions call it Newsgroups (logical name, we thought). Choose Edit | Preferences from the menu, and choose the Mail & Newsgroups category to tell Netscape about your ISP's news server. Then choose Communicator | Newsgroups (or Communicator | Collabra) to run the newsreader program.

  • Trn: If you use a UNIX shell account, you need a UNIX shell newsreader, and trn is our favorite.

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

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