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Participating in Internet Newsgroups : Some Usenet Basics

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To get your Usenet education off on the right foot, this section looks at a few crucial concepts that will serve as the base from which you can explore the rest of Usenet:

hierarchyUsenet divides its discussion groups into several classifications, or hierarchies. There are several so-called mainstream hierarchies:

bizBusiness

compComputer hardware and software

miscMiscellaneous stuff that doesn’t really fit anywhere else

newsUsenet-related topics

recEntertainment, hobbies, sports, and more

sciScience and technology

socSex, culture, religion, and politics

talkDebates about controversial political and cultural topics

Most Usenet-equipped Internet service providers give you access to all the mainstream hierarchies. In addition, a huge alt (alternative) hierarchy covers just about anything that either doesn’t belong in a mainstream hierarchy or is too wacky to be included with the mainstream groups. There are also many smaller hierarchies designed for specific geographic areas. For example, the ba hierarchy includes discussion groups for the San Francisco Bay area, the can hierarchy is devoted to Canadian topics, and so on.

newsgroupThis is the official Usenet moniker for a discussion topic. Why are they called newsgroups? Well, the original Duke University system was designed to share announcements, research findings, and commentary. In other words, people used this system if they had some news to share with their colleagues. The name stuck, and now you’ll often hear Usenet referred to as Netnews or simply as the news.
newsreaderThe software you use to read a newsgroup’s articles and to post your own articles. In Windows Vista, you can use Windows Mail as a newsreader. Other Windows newsreaders include Agent (www.forteinc.com/agent/ ) and NewsPro (www.netwu.com/newspro/ ). For the Mac, you can try Microsoft Entourage, part of the Office 2004 suite, or MT-NewsWatcher (www.smfr.org/mtnw/ ).

Note

Instead of using a newsreader, you can access all the newsgroups through your web browser by using Google Groups (groups.google.com). This is useful if your ISP does not offer newsgroup access or if you would like to read particular newsgroups without having to subscribe to them. However, if you want to post messages to a newsgroup, you must register with Google.


news server (or NNTP server)A computer that stores newsgroups and handles requests to post and download newsgroup messages. There are four types of news server:
  • ISP news server— Most ISPs supply you with an account on their news server in addition to your email account. Your news server username and password are usually the same as your email username and password, but check with your ISP. You should also confirm the Internet name of the ISP’s news server. This name usually takes the form news.ispname.com or nntp.ispname.com, where ispnameis the name of your ISP.

  • Commercial news server— If your ISP does not offer newsgroup access, or if your ISP offers only a limited number of groups, consider using a commercial news server, which offers newsgroup access for a fee. Two of the largest commercial news servers are Giganews(www.giganews.com) and Newscene (www.newscene.com).

  • Public news server— If you are on a limited budget, try a public news server that offers free newsgroup access. Note, however, that most public servers restrict the number of users on the server, offer a limited number of groups, or place a cap on the amount you can download. For a list of public news servers, try Newzbot(www.newzbot.com) or Free Usenet News Servers (freenews.maxbaud.net).

  • Semi-private news serverSome companies maintain their own news server and their own set of newsgroups. For example, Microsoft maintains a news server at msnews.microsoft.com that runs more than 2,000 groups related to Microsoft products and technologies. Windows Mail sets up an account for this server automatically.

postTo send an article to a newsgroup.
subscribeIn a newsreader, to add a newsgroup to the list of groups you want to read. If you no longer want to read the group, you unsubscribe from the group.
threadA series of articles related to the same Subject line. A thread always begins with an original article and then progresses through one or more follow-ups. Note that Windows Mail calls a thread a conversation.

Figuring Out Newsgroup Names

Newsgroup names aren’t too hard to understand, but we need to go through the drill to make sure that you’re comfortable with them. In their basic guise, newsgroup names have three parts: the hierarchy to which they belong, followed by a dot, followed by the newsgroup’s topic. For example, check out the following name:

rec.boats

Here, the hierarchy is rec (recreation), and the topic is boats. Sounds simple enough so far. But many newsgroups were too broad for some people, so they started breaking the newsgroups into subgroups. For example, the rec.boats people who were into canoeing got sick of speedboat discussions, so they created their own paddle newsgroup. Here’s how its official name looks:

rec.boats.paddle

You’ll see lots of these subgroups in your Usenet travels. (For example, there are also newsgroups named rec.boats.building and rec.boats.racing.) Occasionally, you’ll see sub-subgroups, such as soc.culture.african.american, but these are still rare in most hierarchies (the exception is the comp hierarchy, in which you’ll find all kinds of these sub-subgroups).

Understanding Articles and Threads

Articles, as you can imagine, are the lifeblood of Usenet. As I mentioned earlier, every day people post hundreds of thousands of articles to the different newsgroups. Some newsgroups might get only one or two articles a day, but many get a dozen or two, on average. (And some very popular groups—rec.humor is a good example—can get a hundred or more postings in a day.)

Happily, Usenet places no restrictions on article content. (However, a few newsgroups have moderators who decide whether an article is worth posting.) Unlike, say, the heavily censored America Online chat rooms, Usenet articles are the epitome of free speech. Articles can be as long or short as you like (although extremely long articles are frowned on because they take so long to retrieve) and, within the confines of the newsgroup’s subject matter, they can contain whatever ideas, notions, and thoughts you feel like getting off your chest. You’re free to be inquiring, informative, interesting, infuriating, or even incompetent—it’s entirely up to you.

Earlier I told you that newsgroups were discussion topics, but that doesn’t mean they work like a real-world discussion, where you have immediate conversational give and take. Instead, newsgroup discussions lurch ahead in discrete chunks (articles) and unfold over a relatively long period (sometimes even weeks or months).

To get the flavor of a newsgroup discussion, think of the Letters to the Editor section of a newspaper. Someone writes an article in the paper, and later someone else sends in a letter commenting on the content of the article. A few days after that, more letters might come in, such as a rebuttal from the original author or someone else weighing in with his two cents’ worth. Eventually, the discussion dies out either because the topic has been exhausted or because everyone lost interest.

Newsgroups work in just the same way. Someone posts an article, and then the other people who read the group can, if they like, respond to the article by posting a follow-up article. Others can then respond to the response, and so on down the line. This entire discussion—from the original article to the last response—is called a thread.

Practicing Newsgroup Etiquette

To help make Usenet a pleasant experience for all the participants, there are a few rules of newsgroup etiquette—sometimes called netiquette, a blend of network and etiquette—you should know. Here’s a summary:

  • Don’t SHOUT— Use the normal rules of capitalization in your message text. In particular, AVOID LENGTHY PASSAGES OR ENTIRE MESSAGES WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS, WHICH ARE DIFFICULT TO READ AND MAKE IT APPEAR THAT YOU ARE SHOUTING.

  • Write good subjects— Busy newsgroup readers often use a message’s subject line to decide whether to read the message. This is particularly true if the recipient does not know you. Therefore, do not use subject lines that are either vague or overly general—for example, Info Required or A Newsgroup Post. Make your subject line descriptive enough that the reader can tell at a glance what your message is about.

    Tip

    When you reply to a post, the newsreader adds Re:to the subject line. However, it’s common for the topic under discussion to change after a while. If you’re changing the topic in a reply, be sure to change the subject line, too. If you think other readers of the original subject will also be interested in this reply, quote the original subject line as part of your new subject, as in this example:

    Dog food suggestions needed (was Re: Canine nutrition)


  • Quote appropriately— When posting a follow-up, you can make sure that other group readers know what you are responding to by including quotes from the original message in your reply. However, quoting the entire message is usually wasteful, especially if the message is lengthy. Just include enough of the original to put your response into context.

  • Be patient— If you post an article and it doesn’t show up in the newsgroup five seconds later, don’t resend the article. A posted article goes on quite a journey as it wends its way through the highways and byways of the Internet. As a result, it could take several minutes or even as long as an hour before your article appears in the newsgroup. (This is why it’s bad Usenet form to post articles “announcing” some current news event. By the time the article appears, the event is likely to be old news to most readers, and you’ll end up looking just plain silly. If you’re aching to discuss it with someone, try the misc.headlines group.)

  • Don’t send flames— If you receive a message with what appears to be a thoughtless or insulting remark, your immediate reaction might be to compose an emotionally charged, scathing reply. Such a message is a flame, and it will probably only make matters worse. If you feel the message merits a response (and very often, it doesn’t), allow yourself at least 24 hours to cool down before responding to the message.

  • Ask questions— If you are just starting out with newsgroups, you might have questions about how they work or what kinds of groups are available. There is a newsgroup devoted to these kinds of questions: news.newusers.questions.

  • Read the FAQ— After you’ve subscribed to a newsgroup and before you post your first message, read through the group’s list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). Some newsgroups post their own FAQs regularly, usually monthly. You can also find FAQs in the answers topic under each mainstream hierarchy: comp.answers, rec.answers, and so on. Alternatively, the news.answers group contains periodic FAQ postings from most groups that have FAQs.

  • Search existing posts— If you have a question that isn’t in the FAQ, there’s still a good chance that someone has asked it before and received an answer. Before posting, search the newsgroup to see if your question has popped up in the past.

  • Post something— Newsgroups thrive on participation and the constant give and take of post and follow-up. Merely reading posts adds no value to a group, so every subscriber is expected to post at least occasionally.

  • Post appropriatelyWhen you want to post a message, think carefully about which newsgroup is appropriate so that you do not send a message that other people see as off-topic or even offensive. Also, unless it is absolutely necessary, do not post your message to two or more groups—a practice called cross-posting—even if they cover closely related topics.

  • Read existing follow-ups— Before posting a reply to an existing message, check to see whether the post already has any follow-ups. If so, read them to make sure that your follow-up does not simply repeat something that was already said.

  • Don’t advertise— For the most part, Usenet is not an advertising medium, so do not post ads to newsgroups. If you really want to advertise, use the appropriate group in the biz hierarchy. For example, if you have property you want to sell, you can post an ad on biz.marketplace.real-estate. Including the address of your website in your signature is perfectly acceptable, however.

  • Use summaries— Posts that act as surveys or that ask for suggestions can often generate lots of responses, many of which are repeats. If you want to post such a message, tell the respondents to send their replies to you via email and offer to summarize the results. When all the follow-ups are in, post your own follow-up that includes a summary of the responses you received.

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