Harley Hahn's
Internet Advisor


Chapter 13...

Usenet

We hear people talk a lot about the Web, but the Web is only part of the Internet. There are other parts of the Net I want you to learn how to use, the most important of which is Usenet, the worldwide system of discussion groups.

Usenet is not only a lot older than the Web, it is far more important as a vehicle for communicating with other people. Usenet is where millions of people from many different countries and cultures come together to talk, argue, pose questions, share information and help one another.

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The Basic Ideas

In Chapter 2, I discussed the basic ideas related to Usenet. Before we talk about Usenet in detail, let's take a moment to go over those ideas.

USENET is a system of discussion groups. There are thousands of different groups and millions of participants all over the world. Usenet was started in 1979 by two graduate students at Duke University, Jim Ellis and Tom Truscott. Usenet was conceived as a way to send news and announcements between two universities in North Carolina (University of North Carolina and Duke University). Within a short time, however, the system had spread to other schools, and it soon developed into a system of discussion groups.

Because of its origin, Usenet is still referred to as the NEWS (or sometimes, NETNEWS), even though it is not a news service. Similarly, the discussion groups are referred to as NEWSGROUPS.

Like other Internet services, Usenet uses a client/server system. To access the newsgroups, you need a Usenet client program called a NEWSREADER. (A newsreader enables you to access Usenet in the same way that a browser allows you to access the Web.)

Usenet works as follows. People send messages, called ARTICLES or POSTINGS, to the various newsgroups. (When you send an article, we say that you POST it.) Most articles consist of text, but some also have pictures. The articles are propagated around the world (I'll explain how later) and stored on special servers called NEWS SERVERS. To look at the articles within a particular newsgroup, you use your newsreader to contact a news server. Your newsreader downloads the articles for that newsgroup and shows you a summary. You choose whichever articles you want to read, and your newsreader displays them for you.

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How Does Usenet Work?

Usenet has no central authority, so there is no one to manage the system and no one to make any rules (and even if there were rules, there would be no way to enforce them). Usenet functions well because it is put together in a clever way, and because there is a lot of cooperation among the people who manage the news servers.

How are Usenet articles distributed? There is no central system to broadcast each new article to all the news servers in the world. Instead, each news server connects to other news servers at regular intervals. When the servers connect, they pass articles back and forth.

For example, let's say you compose an article for a particular newsgroup. When the article is finished, your newsreader will send it to your news server. Some time later, from a few minutes to a few hours, your news server will connect to another news server. At that time, your server will send a copy of your article to the other server. At the same time, the other server will pass on articles to your server. Eventually, the other server will connect to a third server and send it a copy of your article. Most news servers connect to only one or two other computers. But some news servers act as switching points by connecting to many other servers. When your article hits one of these major servers, it will fan out quickly to many different locations.

In this way, new articles are passed from one server to another, until they are propagated around the world. (Each article has a unique identification number so a server doesn't get more than one copy of the same article.) The system is designed so well that — although there is no central server and no one in charge — a new article will be distributed throughout most of the Internet within a day or two (and often much faster).

As you can see, Usenet does not require central management. Instead, each news server is managed by its own organization. In this way, the administration of Usenet is distributed in the same way as the administration of the Internet itself. So, although there is somebody in charge of each particular news server, there is no one in charge of the system as a whole.

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Web-Based Discussion Groups

In a moment, we'll start talking about Usenet in detail. Before we do, I want to mention an alternative type of discussion facility: Web-based discussion groups.

Usenet is a vast, well-organized system with millions of participants, long-standing traditions, and thousands of discussion groups. However, it does take time and effort to learn how to use Usenet well. You need to learn how to use a newsreader program, and you need to understand how the system works.

One of the most common questions people ask me is, how does Usenet work? Since Usenet is so complex, there is no short answer to this question. All I can do is tell them to get this book and read this chapter.

There is an alternative to Usenet. There are a great many Web-based discussion groups, sometimes referred to as forums or message boards, that you can use for free. These discussion groups exist on Web sites, so they are easy to access. Instead of using a newsreader, you can simply use your browser.

Compared to Usenet groups, however, Web-based discussion groups, are less permanent, with a much smaller audience and a lot less variety. Moreover, the quality of the discussion is not nearly as good. For serious discussion, Usenet is the way to go.

Still, Web-based discussion groups do provide an easy way to share thoughts, ideas and opinions with other people, without having to spend a lot of time learning how to use new tools. If you'd like to try these types of groups, here are some Web sites to explore.

— hint —

Starting a Web-based discussion group is a great way to have your own private forum.

For example, you could start a discussion group specifically for your family, or for a group of your friends.

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The Usenet Tradition of Freedom

Since Usenet has no central authority and no rules, people who use Usenet have wide latitude as to what they write in their articles, what pictures they choose to send, and, generally, how they behave. Usenet has a long tradition of being completely without censorship. This is important, as Usenet is the largest global forum for uncontrolled freedom of expression, with tens of thousands of discussion groups covering just about every topic a human being might care about.

The reason that the whole system does not degenerate into mindless anarchy is that, over the years, various conventions and traditions have been adopted by the people who participate in Usenet. For the most part, these traditions are followed voluntarily.

If you have never participated in a completely open discussion, it may take you a while to get used to the freedom in Usenet. Since there is total freedom, you are bound to encounter articles — and people — that you find offensive in some way. It may be because a particular article is truly tasteless, or it may be because you are not used to someone from another culture or someone who holds opinions that are extremely different from yours.

Whatever the case, I promise you, there will be times when you will be offended. When this happens, you have only two choices: you can either argue with the offensive person, or you can ignore him. (It doesn't do much good to complain because there is no one to complain to.)

I won't go on and on about what you are supposed to do and what you are not supposed to do. As you gain experience, you will learn from other people and from your own observations (and, as one of my readers, I know you are intelligent, sensitive and considerate). So, to help you get started, I will condense the entire body of Usenet etiquette into two simple rules.

Harley Hahn's Rules for Using Usenet Successfully

1. Be a nice person.

2. Ignore people who do not follow rule #1.

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What Newsreader Should You Use?

To use Usenet, you need a newsreader to act as your client, and you need a news server to use as a source of articles. Let's talk about the newsreader first.

Internet Explorer comes with a free newsreader, OUTLOOK EXPRESS. (This is the same program that acts as a mail client; see Chapter 5.) Outlook Express is okay, but if you get serious about Usenet, you should get yourself a better newsreader. There are a variety of such programs you can download for free. (For a discussion on how to download and install programs, see Chapter 9.)

As you will see in this chapter, Usenet involves a lot of details. Moreover, newsreaders have a large number of options and features. As a result, newsreader programs are complex, and take more time to master than browsers and mail programs. My goal in this chapter is to teach you the basic ideas you need to understand Usenet. Then I want you to find a newsreader you like and learn how to use it well.

If you are not sure which newsreader to use, start with the one that comes with your browser. To begin, read through the built-in help information, then start practicing. Once you have some experience using Usenet, move on to another newsreader. Each newsreader has its own quirks, so you may have to experiment to find the one you like best.

There is an alternative to using a newsreader that you may want to try. A number of Web sites offer a free service (supported by advertising) that allows you to read the News with your browser. That is, the various newsgroups and their articles are made available as ordinary Web pages. These Web-based Usenet services are handy and easy to use. However, in the long run, you will be better off using a newsreader of your own to connect to a real news server.

Once you learn how to use a newsreader, you will have a lot more flexibility and power than a Web site can give you. Moreover, you will find that accessing Usenet with your own client program is faster than reading articles over the Web, and you won't have to look at advertising. Finally, some (but not all) of the Web-based Usenet services will only show you text, not pictures. This is a major disadvantage if you like to look at pictures. (See the discussion on pictures later in the chapter.)

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News Servers

In order to use Usenet, you must arrange to have access to a news server for two basic reasons. First, a news server acts as a repository for Usenet articles. When you want to read the articles in a particular newsgroup, your newsreader contacts your news server to get the articles. Second, when you post an article, your newsreader sends it to your news server, which distributes it to other servers.

Almost all ISPs (Internet service providers) maintain a news server for the benefit of their users. When you register with an ISP (see Chapter 3), they will tell you the hostname of the computer that acts as their news server. (If they don't, be sure to ask.) Typically, the hostname will start with the word news. For instance, the news server for the Undependable Internet Company might be news.undependable.com.

The protocol (see Chapter 1) used to distribute news articles is called NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol). For this reason, news servers are sometimes called NNTP SERVERS. You will also see the term NEWS FEED used to describe the service offered by a news server. For example, a friend who is looking for a better news server might ask you, "Where do you get your newsfeed?"

Although most people use the news server supplied by their ISP, there are a number of companies that offer newsfeeds to anybody on the Net. This service costs money, but some people choose to pay a bit extra for several reasons.

First, commercial newsfeeds provide a high-quality service that may be better than the one offered by your ISP. For example, the commercial services carry a very large variety of newsgroups. In addition, they use fast, powerful computers that minimize the time you spend waiting.

Another point has to do with how long articles are kept on a news server. There are so many articles sent over Usenet that it takes a large amount of disk space on a server just to keep the new articles that arrive each day. For this reason, news servers keep each article for a limited time, after which it is deleted automatically. When this happens, we say that the article EXPIRES. The longer a news server keeps its articles, the more there is for you to read.

A commercial news server will devote more disk space to their newsfeed than will most ISPs. A commercial server might keep articles for several weeks before letting them expire, while an ISP might keep articles for only a few days.

Another important point is that, as a general rule, commercial news servers connect to many other news servers and, thus, have better Usenet connections than most ISPs. For this reason, if you use a commercial server, you will have a larger number of newsgroups from which to choose and, within those groups, more articles to read. Moreover, when you post articles of your own, they will propagate throughout the Internet faster than if they were sent via your ISP.

The final issue has to do with spam. As we discussed in Chapter 2, SPAM consists of advertisements and other irrelevant articles that are posted to newsgroups. (Most of the ads, by the way, are for schemes to make money or for pornography.) Spam is a huge problem on Usenet, to the point where it has overwhelmed many existing groups.

There do exist special programs to ferret out and cancel spam before it can propagate too far. There is also software to allow a news server to identify and delete spam automatically as it arrives. Most commercial services and some ISPs use these programs to offer spam-free newsfeeds. If the newsfeed you get from your ISP is full of unwanted advertisements, you may want to subscribe to a commercial newsfeed, just to get rid of the spam.

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Newsgroups and Hierarchies

How many different Usenet newsgroups are there? There are two answers to this question:

  • There are between 30,000 and 60,000 different Usenet newsgroups, depending on who is doing the counting and how they are counting.
  • There are only about 8,000 newsgroups you need to care about.

How can this be? I'll explain in a minute, but first we need to talk about hierarchies and newsgroup names.

Usenet was started in 1979 and, for several years, growth (by today's standards) was slow. For example, by the end of 1986, Usenet was carrying an average of 500 articles a day. Today, there are hundreds of new articles posted every minute.

Within the first few years, the newsgroups were loosely organized into a few general categories, but it soon became evident that a better system was needed. Such a system was devised and implemented between the summer of 1986 and March of 1987. This system established seven categories, called HIERARCHIES (shown in Figure 13-1), and each newsgroup was placed in a specific hierarchy. Six of the hierarchies had specific descriptions, while a seventh (misc) was used for all the groups that did not fit anywhere else.

Figure 13-1: The seven original Usenet hierarchies

Hierarchy Description
compComputers
miscMiscellaneous
newsUsenet itself
recRecreation, hobbies, arts
sciScience and technology
socSocial and cultural issues
talkDebate, controversial topics

As part of the reorganization of Usenet, a system was adopted for naming newsgroups. This system worked so well that we still use it today. Each newsgroup name consists of two or more parts, separated by a . (period) character. The first part of the name shows the hierarchy in which the group resides. The following parts describe the topic of the group. For example, within the rec hierarchy, there is a group named rec.humor that is devoted to jokes and humor.

— hint —

Within a newsgroup name, the . (period) character is pronounced "dot". For instance, the name rec.humor is pronounced "rec dot humor".

(Note: In the U.K. and Canada, it is pronounced "rec dot humour".)

Within the seven hierarchies, a new group could be established only by certain procedures: a discussion followed by a referendum in which anyone who was interested could cast a vote. In 1986, a new hierarchy named alt was established to offer more freedom. Within the alt hierarchy, anyone could create a new group without a formal vote, and it wasn't long before a variety of new, and often strange, newsgroups sprung up. At the same time, other hierarchies were established to serve various regions, schools and organizations. For example, there was a can hierarchy for Canadian newsgroups.

Now, as I mentioned earlier in the chapter, Usenet is controlled at a local level, by the people and organizations that administer the computers that provide the services. Each administrator chooses which newsgroups his or her computer will carry. The mere act of creating a new group in itself does not guarantee that the group will be propagated around the world. In order to become established, a new group must be accepted by a large number of Usenet administrators.

Most Usenet administrators accept all new groups that are established according to the traditional discussion/voting procedure. However, other groups are not accepted as widely, especially where resources (such as disk space) are limited. For this reason, a group in the rec hierarchy, for example, will be carried by many more computer systems around the world than will a group in the alt hierarchy.

For this reason, the original hierarchies (including one other, humanities, that was added in 1995) are called MAINSTREAM HIERARCHIES. All new groups in the mainstream hierarchies are created using a well-established, traditional procedure and, thus, receive the widest distribution. The eight mainstream hierarchies are shown in Figure 13-2.

Throughout the years, hundreds of other hierarchies have been established, most of which have few restrictions on creating new groups. However, only five of these hierarchies (including alt) are widely distributed. These are the ALTERNATIVE HIERARCHIES and are shown in Figure 13-2 along with the mainstream hierarchies.

Figure 13-2: Mainstream and alternative Usenet hierarchies

Mainstream Alternative
compalt
humanitiesbionet
miscbit
newsbiz
reck12
sci
soc
talk

Together, the mainstream and alternative hierarchies comprise the most important part of Usenet, and contain virtually all the newsgroups most people care about. Figure 13-3 shows these hierarchies along with short descriptions. (Note: The bit hierarchy carries articles from a system of mailing lists called Bitnet, which we will talk about in Chapter 14.)

Figure 13-3: The most important Usenet hierarchies

Hierarchy Description
altWide variety of miscellaneous topics
bionetBiology
bitMiscellaneous (from Bitnet mailing lists)
bizBusiness, marketing, advertising
compComputers
humanitiesLiterature, fine arts
k12Kindergarten through high school
miscMiscellaneous
newsUsenet itself
recRecreation, hobbies, arts
sciScience and technology
socSocial and cultural issues
talkDebate, controversial topics

As I mentioned, Usenet has several hundred hierarchies. Most of these, however, were established to serve a particular region of the world (such as a city or country) or a particular organization (such as a university or company). We call these REGIONAL and ORGANIZATIONAL HIERARCHIES, and you can see some examples in Figure 13-4. (For a full list, take a look at the Internet Resources at the end of this section.)

As you might imagine, the regional and organizational hierarchies are less important than the mainstream and alternative hierarchies and are not carried as widely. For the most part, you can ignore them unless you have an interest in a specific region or organization.

Figure 13-4: Examples: regional/organizational hierarchies

Hierarchy Description
baSan Francisco Bay area
caCalifornia
canCanada
frFrance, French language
hepnetHigh Energy Physics Network
japanJapan, Japanese language
microsoftMicrosoft
nycNew York City
oxOxford University
utUniversity of Toronto

Now that you understand the idea of Usenet hierarchies, the system of naming newsgroups should make sense to you. Figure 13-5 shows some examples of typical newsgroup names. (I have chosen one from each of the mainstream and alternative hierarchies.) Notice that each newsgroup name starts with the name of its hierarchy.

Figure 13-5: Sample Usenet newsgroups

Newsgroup Description
alt.celebritiesCelebrities
bionet.biology.deepseaDeep-sea marine biology (moderated)
bit.listserv.travel-lTravel
biz.marketplace.internationalInternational business, import and export
comp.lang.java.helpJava programming, questions and answers
humanities.classicsCulture of ancient Greece and Rome
k12.newsNews for teachers
misc.creativityCreativity in all human endeavors
news.newusers.questionsQuestions & answers for new Usenet users
rec.parks.themeTheme parks
sci.chemChemistry
soc.feminismFeminism and women's issues
talk.environmentDebate about the environment

There are literally tens of thousands of newsgroups, with more being created all the time. However, for various reasons, a large number of the newsgroups are not functional. We call these BOGUS groups.

The largest number of bogus newsgroups lie within the alt hierarchy, where, over the years, many new groups have been created but not widely propagated. For example, a good number of the alt groups were started as jokes, often with foolish names. Other bogus newsgroups used to be legitimate, but have outgrown their usefulness, and have since been abandoned or replaced. Still other groups have been deserted because of too much spam that choked out the legitimate discussions. (As I mentioned, spam has hurt Usenet significantly.)

So now let us return to the question I posed at the beginning of this section. How many Usenet newsgroups are there?

If you were to collect a list of every possible newsgroup name, from every hierarchy that ever existed, you would find between 30,000 and 60,000 names (depending on how selective you chose to be). Many of these newsgroups would be bogus, and many more would belong to regional and organizational hierarchies that have only a limited distribution.

Suppose, however, that you started with this huge list, selected only the newsgroups that belonged to the thirteen mainstream and alternative hierarchies, and then eliminated the large number of bogus groups. How many groups would you have left?

The answer is, you would be left with about 8,000 legitimate groups that enjoy a global circulation. I know this because I maintain just such a master list. (I will talk about it later in the chapter.)

In other words, although there may be 30,000 different Usenet newsgroups, realistically, there are only about 8,000 groups you need to care about. However, don't feel deprived. These 8,000 newsgroups encompass a huge variety of topics. I can assure you that no matter what you are interested in, people are talking about it on Usenet.

List of Organizational and Regional Hierarchies

http://www.magma.ca/~leisen/mlnh/mlnhtables.html

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Configuring Your Newsreader

Before you can use your newsreader for the first time, you must configure it by giving it certain information. In particular, you need to specify the name of your news server. (This is the computer from which your newsreader will download articles.) For help in choosing a news server, see the discussion earlier in the chapter.

Your newsreader may also want you to specify your name and email address. This information is put at the beginning of every article you post to Usenet. Such information is important, because when people read your articles, they will want to know who wrote them. Moreover, it is handy to have a mail address, in case people want to send private replies.

Learn how to...

Configure Your Newsreader

If you have not yet configured your newsreader, you must do so before you can use it. You may be prompted to enter the configuration information automatically. If not, you can do it manually.

Against these needs, however, you must balance two considerations. First, you may want to maintain your privacy by being able to post articles without having people know who you are. You should understand that there are companies that archive every article posted to every newsgroup and store the information in publicly accessible databases. (See the discussion on Usenet search engines in Chapter 11.) Using one of these services, a person could read your article long after it has expired. It is also easy for someone to search for all the articles you have ever posted under your name.

The second consideration also relates to privacy: you may want to avoid getting on the lists of mail addresses used by spammers. (I talk about this problem in detail in Chapter 6.) Spammers use automated programs to scan every Usenet article in every newsgroup looking for new email addresses to add to their lists. This is done continually, and, if you ever post an article to Usenet with your real email address — even once — there is a good chance you will end up on spam lists. Before long, you will start to receive unsolicited advertising in your mailbox, and there will be nothing you can do about it.

So, when you configure your newsreader, you have several choices. You can specify your real name and your real address, and just not worry about the lack of privacy and the spam. Alternatively, you can specify a fake name and address, to protect your privacy. However, this will also make it impossible for the people who read your articles to send you private replies.

A good compromise is to use your real name, but to disguise your mail address. Change it in such a way that a person will know how to use it, but an automated spam program will not. For example, let's say your name is Ben Dover and your mail address is:

bendover@undependable.com

You can configure your newsreader to use an address similar to:

bendover@undependableREMOVE-ME.com

When a person replies to one of your articles, he will know to delete the characters REMOVE-ME from the address. The automated spam programs, however, will be fooled into adding the bogus address to their lists.

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Reading Usenet Articles

As I mentioned earlier in the chapter, newsreader programs are complex, and the details vary widely from one program to another. In this section, I am going to help you get started reading the News. I will explain the basic ideas you need to understand and show you how they work with Outlook Express. If you use a different newsreader, it won't be hard to figure out what to do.

To begin, start your newsreader.

Within Internet Explorer...

  • Pull down the Tools menu, select Mail and News, and then click on Read News. This will start Outlook Express.

Once your newsreader is configured, you need to tell it which newsgroups you want to look at. Your newsreader will download a list of all the available newsgroups from your news server, so you can see what is available.

Since there are so many newsgroups, the master list is huge, and it would be too much trouble to select your favorite ones each time you want to look at them. Instead, you designate certain groups as being the ones you normally want to read, and your newsreader keeps track of them for you.

When you choose a group in this way, we say you SUBSCRIBE to it. If you get tired of reading a particular group, you can UNSUBSCRIBE. (Actually, the term "subscribe" is a misnomer. All you are really doing is telling your newsreader to remember that you want to read a particular newsgroup.)

Subscribing to a newsgroup is easy.

Within Outlook Express...

  1. Click on the Newsgroups button.
  2. Choose a group and click on the Subscribe button.

You can build up your subscription list to be as long as you want. (To practice, start with some of the newsgroups I listed in Figure 13-5.)

Once you have subscribed to some newsgroups, you are ready to read them. The details are as follows. (Warning: The details may look complicated at first, but once you figure out how it all works, it's easy.)

Click the OK button and close the subscription window. Within the main window, you will see the name of your news server. To the left of the name will be a + (plus sign) character. Click on the + character and you will see the list of all your subscribed newsgroups.

To read a group, click on it. Your newsreader will now contact the news server and download a summary of the available articles. To read an article, just click on it in the summary list. Your newsreader will download the article and display it for you.

Within your browser, it is possible to specify a Usenet newsgroup as a URL. Simply type news: followed by the name of the newsgroup. For example:

news:alt.celebrities
news:rec.parks.theme

Whenever your browser encounters such a URL, it passes the name of the newsgroup to your newsreader, which then displays the group. (This is also what happens when you click on a news: URL on a Web page.)

— hint —

When you are using your browser, the quickest way to display a Usenet group is to enter news: followed by the name of the group.

Figures 13-6 shows what it looks like to read an article with Outlook Express. If you want, you can customize the appearance by changing the size and location of the various windows.

Figure 13-6: Reading a Usenet article with Outlook Express

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The Format of a Usenet Article

A Usenet article has three parts: a header, a body and an (optional) signature. If this sounds familiar, it is because it is the same format as a mail message. In fact, the description of a Usenet article is pretty much the same as for a mail message. The main difference is that Usenet articles have slightly different headers.

At the beginning of every article is a HEADER consisting of a number of specific HEADER LINES. These header lines contain technical information used by news servers and newsreaders. The most important header lines are as follows. For more information, please see the discussion about header lines in Chapter 5 and Appendix B.

Header Line Description
From:Name and address of person who posted the article
Newsgroups:Groups to which the message was posted
Subject:The subject of the article
Date:The time and date the message was posted
Organization:The organization from which the article was sent
Lines:Number of lines in message (not counting header)

— hint —

All newsreaders will show you the most important header lines by default. If you want to see the other header lines, you must tell your newsreader to show you more.

With Outlook Express, display the article. Then right-click on the Subject: line within the Subject box. Choose Properties and click on the Details tab.

Learn how to...

Create a Signature

When you post Usenet articles, using a signature allows you to insert a few lines of personalized information at the end of each article.

After the header comes the BODY of the article, the main content. Most of the time, the body will be simple text. However, it is possible to use HTML in an article. Articles can also include pictures, similar to the attachments that can be sent along with a mail message. If the body of an article contains a URL, most newsreaders will recognize it as such, and turn it into a link you can click on.

A SIGNATURE is a small amount of personalized information included at the end of an article. Having a signature is optional, though many people use one. A typical signature might contain your name, mail address, and a link to your Web site (if you have one). Here is an example:

=============================================
Harley Hahn            http://www.harley.com/
(202) 456-1414       harley@little-nipper.com
=============================================

To use a signature, you create a small file, called a SIGNATURE FILE, and put whatever you want in it. Then you tell your newsreader that you want to use a signature and give it the location of the file. From then on, every time you post an article, your newsreader will automatically append the contents of your signature file to the end of the article.

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Moderated Newsgroups

Usenet has been around for a long time, and throughout the years, people have developed a large number of customs and traditions. Some of these customs have to do with how Usenet is organized and maintained. Other customs involve how people talk, behave and use certain words. The overall effect is to keep Usenet running smoothly, and to allow people to communicate well without face-to-face contact. In the next few sections, I am going to explain a number of important ideas and traditions you will encounter as you start to use Usenet.

In general, Usenet groups are available for everyone to read. However, some newsgroups are MODERATED, which means that posting articles to the group is controlled by a person called the MODERATOR. All articles that are posted to a moderated newsgroup are first sent to the moderator. He or she looks at each article and decides whether or not to send it to the group.

Moderators do not censor. Rather, they discard articles that do not properly belong in the newsgroup. For these reasons, many people prefer moderated groups because the discussion is more focused, and there is no spam.

In most cases, you can't tell if a newsgroup is moderated just by looking at the name. You will have to look at the articles within the group. If you use my master Usenet newsgroup list (discussed later in the chapter), it will tell you if a group is moderated.

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Question Lists)

An important Usenet tradition is the FAQ, or frequently asked question list. Over the years, it has been noticed that most newcomers to a newsgroup seem to ask the same questions. In the computer newsgroups, beginners always ask the same computer questions; in the cat-related newsgroups, beginners ask the same cat-related questions; and so on. In general, people on Usenet like to help one another and answer questions, but answering the same questions over and over (for years) gets tiresome.

As a solution, many of the newsgroups have a volunteer who produces a FAQ containing the frequently asked questions along with their answers. Usenet has hundreds of FAQs on a large number of topics. Most FAQs are posted regularly (usually once a month) to the appropriate newsgroup. In addition, there are special newsgroups to which a copy of the FAQs are posted. These groups are shown in Figure 13-7.

Figure 13-7: Newsgroups to which FAQs are posted

Newsgroup Description
news.answersAll the FAQs from every newsgroup
alt.answersFAQs from the alt newsgroups
comp.answersFAQs from the comp newsgroups
humanities.answersFAQs from the humanities newsgroups
misc.answersFAQs from the misc newsgroups
rec.answersFAQs from the rec newsgroups
sci.answersFAQs from the sci newsgroups
soc.answersFAQs from the soc newsgroups
talk.answersFAQs from the talk newsgroups

Whenever you start reading a newsgroup for the first time, it is a good idea to begin by checking out the FAQ. It will contain wisdom and knowledge that has been distilled from the newsgroup over a long period of time. Personally, I find the various FAQs fascinating, and I like to browse through them every now and then. For more information, including the addresses of Web sites that act as FAQ repositories, see the section on FAQs in Chapter 11.

— hint —

On Usenet, it is considered good manners to look in the appropriate FAQ before you ask questions.

When you start to read a newsgroup that has a FAQ, you must read the FAQ before you post your first article to that group.

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Usenet Slang

People have been talking on Usenet for a long time, and over the years, certain words and expressions have evolved. Once you spend enough time reading newsgroups, you will begin to pick up the nuances. However, to help you get a head start, let's talk about a few of the words now.

To begin, people on Usenet use a great many abbreviations and acronyms. Such expressions are handy, and I want you to know what they mean. Figure 13-8 shows some of them, but when you get a moment, take a look at Appendix C, where I have put a larger and more comprehensive list.

Figure 13-8: Some abbreviations commonly used on Usenet

Abbreviation Meaning
:-)smiley
:)smiley
;-)winking smiley
BTWby the way
F2Fface to face (in person)
FAQfrequently asked question list
FWIWfor what it's worth
FYIfor your information
<G>grin (same as a smiley)
MOTASmember of the appropriate sex
MOTOSmember of the opposite sex
MOTSSmember of the same sex
Ob-(as a prefix) obligatory
Objokeobligatory joke
ROFLrolling on the floor laughing
SOsignificant other

The meaning of most of these abbreviations is obvious, once you know what they mean, but I do want to discuss a few of them. Let's start with the smileys.

There are many different types of people on Usenet, and it is not hard to make a remark that might be misinterpreted. Usenet is used around the world, and your articles will be read by people from another countries, many of whom speak English as a second language and come from an entirely different culture.

For this reason, whenever you suspect that what you are saying might be wrongly interpreted as being insulting, it is customary to use a SMILEY: a short sequence of characters that, when looked at sideways, looks like a small smiley face.

The purpose of a smiley is to show a sense of irony, as if you mean to say, "Just kidding." For example, say you are taking part in a discussion about the best way to make pizza. You might write:

I can't understand why you don't like to put macaroni
and tuna fish on your pizza. But then not everyone has good
taste like me :-)

(To see the smiling face, tilt your head sideways to the left.)

Smileys are important, and I want you to learn how to use them properly, so, when you get a moment, take a look at the section in Chapter 6 where I talk about them at length.

The next abbreviation I want to explain is the prefix Ob-. In some newsgroups, the participants make an effort to ensure that all the articles are relevant. For example, the group rec.humor is devoted to jokes and humor, and people do not like it when someone posts an article that does not have a joke. Of course, from time to time, someone does want to make a non- humorous comment, so, when they do, they always put at least one joke within the article. The tradition is to refer to this as an Objoke (obligatory joke). In other groups, you will sometimes see the Ob- prefix used in a similar way.

Sometimes the discussion of particular items does not belong in the same group as the items themselves. In such cases, there may be a separate newsgroup just for discussion. This group is often designated by a name ending with the characters .d (discussion). For example, the rec.humor newsgroup is supposed to be for jokes only. The group rec.humor.d is for related articles, such as the discussion of particular jokes or requests for jokes.

Here is another example. The newsgroup alt.sex.stories — an extremely popular group, by the way — is for people to post erotic stories (and only stories). Discussion about such stories must go to the group alt.sex.stories.d.

When you look at newsgroup names, another important suffix you will see is .misc. This indicates that there are several related groups, each devoted to a specific topic. The group whose name ends in .misc is for all the articles that don't belong in one of the other groups.

As an example, Figure 13-9 contains the names of newsgroups in which people discuss bicycles. Notice that most of the groups are for specific bicycle-related topics, while the .misc group is for everything else. In such cases, it is important to use the .misc group when appropriate. If you post miscellaneous articles to another, more specific group, it will dilute the focus of that group (and people will get mad at you).

Figure 13-9: Example: Usenet groups related to one another

Newsgroup Description
rec.bicycles.marketplaceBicycles: buying and selling
rec.bicycles.miscBicycles: miscellaneous topics
rec.bicycles.off-roadBicycles: mountain bikes
rec.bicycles.racingBicycles: racing
rec.bicycles.ridesBicycles: tours and routes
rec.bicycles.socBicycles: societal issues
rec.bicycles.techBicycles: technical aspects

Returning to our discussion of Usenet slang, there are a few more words I want to mention. First, it is common for people on Usenet to disagree and to argue, and sometimes the discussion turns nasty. When this happens, someone will post a real stinker in which he criticizes another person or complains vociferously. We call such an article a FLAME. If an argument gets out of hand, with a lot of arguing back and forth, we call it a FLAME WAR. We also use the word as a verb, for example, "Sam got flamed by a lot of people because he didn't bother to read the FAQ before he started asking questions."

Another important word you will see is SPOILER. This refers to a statement about a book, movie or play that gives away the ending or reveals a surprise.

For example, let's say you are thinking about going to a particular movie. To make up your mind, you look in the newsgroup devoted to movie reviews (rec.arts.movies.reviews) to see if anyone has posted a review of that movie. If, while you are looking, you see an article that says it contains a spoiler, you would know not to read that review as it gives away the ending of the movie.

The last few words I want to discuss have to do with posting articles. It is common for someone to read an article and post a reply. This is called a FOLLOW-UP article. When people start to post replies to the reply, the sequence of related articles is called a THREAD. You can tell your newsreader to arrange articles into threads, to make it easy to follow the various separate discussions within a newsgroup.

Finally, when you post an article, you specify the newsgroups to which the article should be sent. If you send an article to more than one group, we say that you CROSS-POST it.

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Pictures (Binaries)

There are a huge number of pictures posted to Usenet groups, so if you like to look at pictures, you are in the right place. However, I do need to tell you that, by far, most of the pictures on Usenet are erotic (or pornographic, depending on your point of view). Even a cursory inspection of the pictures people post to Usenet is enough to illustrate that, regardless of what anyone might say in public, looking at erotic pictures in private is an extremely popular pastime for human beings.

Still, I don't want to mislead you. Although most binary postings contain erotic material, they are there are a good number of non-erotic pictures such as images of computer graphics, cars, animals, sports, art, cartoons, and so on.

Most of the pictures are posted to special newsgroups that are designated as being just for pictures. These groups are in the alt hierarchy and have the word binaries as part of their name. (I'll explain why in a moment.) Figure 13-10 shows a list of some of these newsgroups.

Figure 13-10: Examples of Usenet newsgroups that contain pictures

Newsgroup Description
alt.binaries.clip-artClip art
alt.binaries.eroticaErotic pictures
alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.brunetteErotic pictures of brunettes
alt.binaries.nude.celebritiesNude celebrities
alt.binaries.pictures.autosAutomobiles
alt.binaries.pictures.cartoonsCartoons
alt.binaries.pictures.celebritiesCelebrities
alt.binaries.pictures.fine-artFine art
alt.binaries.pictures.gardensGardens
alt.binaries.pictures.grotesqueGrotesque images
alt.binaries.pictures.horsesHorses
alt.binaries.pictures.motorcyclesMotorcycles
alt.binaries.pictures.movie-postersMovie posters

What's in a Name?

binaries


In general, there are two types of data. TEXT consists of characters such as the letters of the alphabet, numbers, punctuation, and so on. Anything else is called BINARY DATA. The distinction is obviously a technical one, and I won't get into the details, except to say binary data is processed as bits (which I mentioned in Chapter 3) rather than as characters.

A file that contains binary data is called a BINARY FILE or, in the argot of Usenet, a BINARY. For this reason, the newsgroups devoted to non- text postings (such as pictures and sounds) all have the word binaries in their name.

Using Usenet to look at pictures is easy. Just read the articles in these newsgroups. If an article contains a picture, your newsreader will show it to you when you display the article. There is one problem, however, that you may encounter: your ISP may not carry the binary groups on its news server.

The most common reason for this is that carrying the binary groups can put a great strain on an ISPs resources. This is because binary files — which can contain, not only pictures, but videos, music or software — are much larger than ordinary text files.

If you want to look at pictures (erotic or otherwise), and your ISP's news server does not carry them the binary newsgroups, you have two choices. First, you can find a news server that does carry all the binary groups. If you look in the section called "News Servers", earlier in the chapter, you will find resources to help you find such a service.

Second, you can use a Web-based service that allows you to look at binary postings using your Web browser. When you use one of these services, you don't need a newsreader.

Web-Based Access to Binary Newsgroups

http://adult-xxx-newsgroups.com (free)
http://www.guba.com (commercial)
http://www.pictureview.com (commercial)

If you decide you really like looking at pictures, there are a number of programs that can simplify your life. These programs will search through a number of Usenet groups and automatically download all the pictures right to your computer. (You will, of course, need access to a new server that carries the binary groups.)

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Posting an Article

You can post a Usenet article either in reply to someone else's article (that is, a follow-up) or as a brand new article of your own. The details vary from one newsreader to another. I'll show you how to get started with Outlook Express (Internet Explorer), but generally speaking, posting an article is simple with all newsreaders.

Let's start with a follow-up. You are reading an article, and you decide to post a reply. You have a choice of either replying to the newsgroup (in which case everyone reads your reply) or replying directly to the author of the article (in which case your reply is private). Most of the time you will reply to the newsgroup, so your article will become part of the discussion.

Within Outlook Express, click on the Reply Group button. The newsreader will set up an article for you in a separate window. All you need to do is type your reply.

When your newsreader sets up your reply, the Subject: line will be filled in for you. To show that your article is a reply, the letters Re: will be inserted at the beginning of this line. For example, say you reply to an article with a subject of:

I need a Tuna and Grapefruit Recipe

The subject of your article will be:

Re: I need a Tuna and Grapefruit Recipe

Creating a brand new article is just as easy. The simplest way to do it is to open the newsgroup to which you want to post. Then tell your newsreader you want to compose a new article. (Within Outlook Express, click on the New Post button.)

Your newsreader will set up a new article for you in a separate window. All you need to do is type the subject and the body of the article. When you are finished, click on the Send button.

— hint —

To send a picture as part of your article, you simply attach a file that contains the picture, just as you do with a mail message. (See Chapter 5.)

When you reply to an article, it is customary to include part of the article in your reply, so people will know what you are talking about (just like when you reply to an email message). Your newsreader makes this easy by including the previous article within your reply.

When you include part of an article in this way, we say that you QUOTE it. To indicate which part of your message is quoted, your newsreader will insert a special character at the beginning of each line that is quoted. Traditionally, this character is a > (greater-than) sign.

— hint —

When you reply to a Usenet article, it is considered polite to keep the reply short by quoting only the relevant parts of the original article.

As you compose your reply, take a moment to delete all the unnecessary lines. As a general rule, the parts you quote should be shorter than the new lines you add. This makes your reply easier to read, which increases the chances that people will read it.

If you have never posted an article before, or if you are using a new newsreader, you may want to run a test. If so, it is considered bad manners to post a test article to a regular newsgroup. Instead, there are several groups just for test messages. You can post a message to one of these groups, and then take a look to see if your message came through successfully.

The test groups are shown in Figure 13-11. It is okay to send anything you want to these groups — that's what they are for. If you want to test posting a message to a moderated group, send it to the special group misc.test.moderated.

Figure 13-11: Usenet groups for sending test messages

alt.test
bit.test
biz.test
comp.test
k12.test
misc.test
misc.test.moderated
news.test

To conclude this section, I would like to mention a few ideas for you to think about as you post articles to Usenet. Following these guidelines will help smooth your way in the Usenet community.

Don't bother flaming. Most people on Usenet are nice, but there are some idiots. If someone writes something that makes you mad, ignore him. Flaming someone is generally a waste of time, and all it does is put you in a bad mood. (As you get older, one of the great lessons you learn about life is that it is okay to ignore people you don't like.)

Read the FAQ. If a newsgroup has a FAQ, read it before you post an article to that group.

Use a short signature. If you include a signature, keep it short.

Don't use HTML. Some newsreaders allow you to include HTML within your articles. Do not do so. HTML belongs on Web pages, not in Usenet articles. There are many different newsreaders in use, and what looks good on your screen will probably not look good to other people. For a longer discussion of why you should avoid using HTML in messages, see Chapter 6.

Don't use all caps. Do not type using all capital letters. Within a Usenet article, using all capital letters means YOU ARE SHOUTING.

Think before you post. Once you post an article, there is no effective way to cancel it. Your article will remain on news servers around the world for several days to several weeks. In addition, it will be archived by the Usenet search engines (discussed in Chapter 11) and will be available to people indefinitely. So, as you compose an article, do your best to use good judgment, especially if you are angry or upset.

Avoid cross-posting. As a general rule, you should post an article to one group only. If the article is relevant to more than one group, think carefully and pick the best one. On rare occasions, you might cross-post to two or three groups, but do not do so as a habit. The people you really want to read your article probably look at all the groups related to that topic, so cross-posting is almost always unnecessary. Some people do it, but they are not as intelligent and well-mannered as you and I.

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Finding What You Want on Usenet

People often ask me for advice about how to use the Internet to find information. If I think what they need will be on a Web page, I tell them to use a search engine (see Chapter 11). However, much of the time, I find myself telling people that the best way to get what they want is to send a question to the appropriate Usenet newsgroup and wait for someone to post an answer. This is especially true when you are looking for advice. Millions of people use Usenet, and many of them will be glad to help you.

The trick is, how do you find the right newsgroup? For example, say your baby has colic. Which newsgroup is the one to send a request for ideas and help? Suppose you want to buy a camera. Where do the photography buffs hang out? What if you want to talk about your favorite music group or writer or television show. Which group is the best one to read?

Sometimes you can guess what a group is for just by looking at its name. (For example, look at the newsgroups in Figure 13-5.) However, there are a huge number of newsgroups, and it is not an easy task to look through the entire list. Moreover, many of the names are obscure and won't make sense to you anyhow.

There is no easy answer to the question of how to find the newsgroup you want, but I can give you some good ideas. The best place to start is my Yellow Pages book, if you have it (Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages). In the book, I have thousands of items, organized into categories, and a lot of these items have Usenet newsgroups as well as Web sites. In many cases, the quickest way to find the newsgroup you want is to look up a related topic in the book.

Another way to find a group is to search for it on the Web. There are a number of resources available. The best one I know of is the master list of Usenet groups that I maintain on my Web site. This list contains the names of all the non- bogus groups in the thirteen important hierarchies, about 8,000 groups in all. (See the discussion about hierarchies earlier in the chapter.)

For each group, I have written a short one-line description and placed the group in a category, so it is easy to search for what you want. Conversely, if you see the name of a newsgroup somewhere and you are not sure what it means, you can use my master list to look up the description. This is the same list I use when I need to find a newsgroup quickly, so I am sure you will find it helpful.

Harley Hahn's Master List of Usenet Newsgroups

http://www.harley.com/usenet/

Aside from my master list, there are a number of other Web sites you can use. First, there is the Usenet search engine I described in Chapter 11. At this site, you can not only look for newsgroups, you can search the archives of expired Usenet articles. Second, you can visit the Web sites that offer Web-based Usenet access (described earlier in this chapter). These sites allow various types of searches, and one of them may help you find what you need.

Usenet Search Engine

http://groups.google.com/

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How Are Newsgroups Created?

Through the years, various procedures have been developed to create new Usenet groups. These procedures ensure that the process is handled in a thoughtful and practical manner. As I explained earlier, there are hundreds of Usenet hierarchies, the most important ones being the eight mainstream hierarchies and the five alternative hierarchies. The mainstream hierarchies have the most well- defined procedures for creating new groups, so let's start with those.

Within the news hierarchy, there are two groups that are used specifically for newsgroup creation. These groups are: news.announce.newgroups and news.groups. news.announce.newgroups is a moderated group, and is used only for announcements relating to the creation of new groups. news.groups is an unmoderated group and is used for general discussion about new groups. Here is how it all works.

When the need arises for a new newsgroup, somebody will post an article to news.announce.newgroups proposing the creation of the group. This type of proposal is called an RFD ("request for discussion"). The moderator of news.announce.newgroups posts the RFD, at which time discussion begins in news.groups.

In most cases, the RFD will be discussed in other groups as well. For example, if the RFD proposes the creation of a new group related to bicycles, the discussion will take place not only in news.groups, but also in the various bicycle newsgroups. In this way, the people who would be most interested in the creation of a new group are the ones who discuss it. During the discussion, the people involved settle on a name for the group and create a CHARTER: a statement explaining the purpose of the group.

If, after several weeks of discussion, it is determined that there is a real need for the group, someone posts another article to news.announce.newgroups calling for a vote. This announcement specifies a voting period, which must be between 21 and 31 days. During this time, people vote by email for or against the creation of the new group. Anyone is allowed to vote, and each person may vote only once.

At the end of the voting period, the results are announced. For a new group to be created, it must receive at least two-thirds "yes" votes, and there must be at least 100 more "yes" votes than "no" votes. If this criteria is not met, the group is not created. If the criteria is met, the moderator of news.announce.newgroups will create the group.

The moderator creates a new group by using a special directive called a CONTROL MESSAGE. This is a short message that is transported throughout Usenet in the same way as a regular article. However, a control message has special header lines that are recognized by all news servers, and within these header lines are instructions to the news server telling it to perform a specific task.

To create a newsgroup, the moderator sends out a control message instructing all news servers to add the new group to their master list. (If it becomes necessary to delete a newsgroup, it is possible to send a different type of control message telling news servers to remove a specific group from their master list.)

As I mentioned earlier in the chapter, Usenet administration is distributed, not centralized, and each individual news administrator decides which newsgroups will be carried on his or her system. In order to create a new newsgroup, you not only have to send an appropriate control message to news servers throughout the world, you also have to get the news administrators to agree to accept the newsgroup on their systems.

Because all mainstream groups go through a careful and deliberate creation process, news administrators throughout the world will always honor a control message from the moderator of news.announce.newgroups requesting the creation of a new group.

In the other hierarchies, however, newsgroup creation is handled differently. Some hierarchies are controlled by one person, some by a group of people, and others by nobody. The most important of these other hierarchies is alt, which is, by far, the largest hierarchy in all of Usenet, so let's talk about how an alt group is created.

The alt hierarchy was established as an alternative to the original mainstream hierarchies. As such, the rules for establishing new alt groups are far more liberal than in the mainstream hierarchies. In particular, there is no formal voting procedure. Anybody who knows how to send a control message can create a new alt group.

Within the alt hierarchy, there is a special newsgroup, alt.config, that is used for discussion of new alt groups. Before someone creates a new alt group, it is considered proper to post an article to alt.config describing the new group and asking for comments. Before actually creating the group, a person should wait at least a week to see how other people respond to the suggestion.

Remember, in order to successfully create a new group, it is necessary for the news administrators around the world to agree to create the group. If the group has not been previously discussed in alt.config, many news administrators will not create it. In fact, in such situations, it is common to see other people send out control messages canceling the group.

Some news administrators, however, will honor all newsgroup creation requests, and, as a result, you will see many frivolous alt groups with silly names. Still, the alt hierarchy does have a huge number of useful and active newsgroups, and the freedom that it offers is important to Usenet as a whole.

You will probably never need to create a new Usenet group, but if you ever decide to do so, make sure to wait until you have a fair amount of experience with Usenet. Wait until you understand how Usenet works and how groups are named and organized, and, before you move forward with your idea, discuss it in the related groups to see what other people have to say. Within the mainstream hierarchies, new groups usually arise as a consensus among a number of people. This is not necessary for alt groups, but having a discussion beforehand does make for better results. For more detailed information about newsgroup creation, check out the following resources.

(In the lists below, you will notice that I have specified the names of several newsgroups as URLs. The format is news: followed by the name of the group. I discuss this type of URL earlier in the chapter.)

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