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How to use Newsgroups (UseNet)

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Usenet News is a huge, global, community bulletin board system, running on the Internet, which which has grown rapidly since it first saw the light of day in 1979. You can read the messages put there by other people, or post your own response or query. Usenet is organized into thousands of separate topic areas called newsgroups that discuss anything from religion, to sport, to food science, .... . With over a quarter of a million messages a day, and millions of users, it is a very popular way to communicate.

With around 20,000 newsgroups, and more being generated all the time as new countries come on line wanting to use their own languages, some system is needed. The newsgroups are "officially" organized in a tree structure which has seven major categories:

  1. Comp. - topics of interest to both computer users.
  2. Rec. - groups oriented towards hobbies and recreational.
  3. Sci. - discussions relating scientific matters.
  4. Soc. - primarily social and cultural issues.
  5. Talk. - a proverbial talking shop.
  6. News. - concerned with the running of the newsgroup network.
  7. Misc. - anything else that does not fit, like etc

An example would be the one accepted into the official newsgroups in 1996 to allow the discussion of food science and technology queries - .

Inevitably "unofficial" categories have developed, and there are now dozens of them. The most famous is the "alt." (alternative) category where anything goes. Other categories include "Clari" which is used to distribute Reuters/AP style news, and newsgroups created to meet the needs of specific countries, languages, regions, universities, education groups, specific science groups, ...... .

So how does it work? You need some news reader software. I started with Free Agent, and graduated to the not free) Agent. There are many others such as those provided with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, and your ISP should have provided you with one. He will also have provided you with the internet address of a news server where you can log in automatically to read the newsgroups. This will show you which of the available newsgroups you have access to. You must select the ones you are interested in and "subscribe", or sign up. This just means that you will receive copies of messages posted to these groups, and you will be able post back any replies of your own.

Messages are normally simple emails, but in groups called "binaries" you will also find encoded pictures, sounds, or binary programs. Beware, these are very large, and also should be virus checked as they often come from unverifiable sources. Once your message has been received by your local news server it will be moved slowly to all the other news servers around the world when they replicate and exchange their messages. It may take a day or two for your posting to be available all around the world. Lurk for a while to get a feel for the "style" of the newsgroups before posting, and try to read the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) to avoid asking questions which have been asked many times before. Anyone can post messages, so be prepared for lots of "noise", off topic postings, and cross postings where the same message is posted to many groups. Some groups are controlled by a moderator who vets all messages before they are posted on the newsgroup, and so they are usually more focussed.

If you don't want to join in the newsgroups, you can use search the Usenet archives using DejaNews or the major search engines, for posting on subjects you are interested in.

I have put together a list of some of the more obvious newsgroups but there may me others. If you find any useful ones which might be of general interest, let me know. Most news readers allow you to search the list of news groups which it has access to, and Liszt will also do this for the groups it knows about. This helps you to locate newsgroups covering topics of interest.

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This page and all its contents, © 1998, all rights reserved.

Roger Trobridge, The Internet Gopher,