CeePrompt! Computer Connection 

Originally published Monday, February 09, 1998

  Have you heard the news?

Have you heard the news? Perhaps you didn't realize this, but built into just about every electronic mail program or web browser is a program called a newsreader. This application enables you to read and post messages to public bulletin boards, in much the same way as you exchange personal e-mail.

Newsgroups aren't really "news" at all, but rather a collection of discussion groups where people of similar interests exchange ideas and information. Before the explosion of the World Wide Web and live "chat rooms", newsgroups were the most popular medium for online discourse. While there are many bizarre and offbeat special interest groups amongst the thousands of discussion platforms, there are by far many more interesting and utilitarian forums where users post questions, give advice or expound upon a particular viewpoint.

Newsgroups reside on a global system called Usenet. Originally conceived in 1979 at Duke University, Usenet is comprised of government agencies, universities, high schools, businesses large and small as well as home-based PCs. It's described as the "largest decentralized information utility in existence".

Usenet, short for Users Network, is not a true network, but rather a collection of discussion groups. It's completely separate from the World Wide Web and while most Usenet computers operate within the Internet system, many groups reside on networks outside the Net as well. Newsgroups are offered through your Internet provider, who can choose which discussion groups to pass onto customers.

Just as you need a web browser to participate in the World Wide Web, a newsreader enables you to participate in Usenet newsgroups, as long as your Internet provider supports this service. Like the Internet, no one owns Usenet, no one is in charge and any rules for Usenet participation are simply understood and tacitly agreed upon by the millions of users.

Newsgroups aren't quite as user friendly as the Web, primarily because of their cryptic, UNIX-based naming conventions. With titles such as, bit.molbio.ageing, the newsgroup name often belies the true identity of the forum. In this case bit.molbio.ageing is a discussion of "cellular and organismal aging".

Newsgroups are divided into two general categories: Mainstream and Alternative. Within those categories, there is a proscribed hierarchy that all newsgroups fall within. Recreational discussion groups begin with the name "rec", science topics begin with "sci" and computer discussions begin with "comp", for example.

Discussion groups within a given hierarchy are fine-tuned and separated by periods in the name, for example: comp.os.ms~windows.advocacy is a group that debates the merits of Microsoft Windows. Your ISP may not host every available newsgroup, since they require huge amounts of storage disk space, but rather may opt to carry only the most popular, mainstream newsgroups.

There are many websites that offer good information for beginners interested in Usenet newsgroups. From Yahoo! you can search on Newsgroups or go directly to their newsgroups listings and information at http://www.yahoo.com/News_and_Media/Usenet/Newsgroup_Listings/. Here you'll find descriptive information on the many newsgroups as well as FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) regarding newsgroup etiquette and protocol.

Various search engines, such as AltaVista, allow you to narrow your search parameters to include only newsgroups, thereby enabling you to search for special interest newsgroups by keyword or search strings.

Subscribing to a newsgroup is the easy part, once you find a discussion group that interests you. From your newsreader, you can display the list of available newsgroups, then select the group or groups you wish to add to your own subscription list. "Subscription" is a misnomer, since it's a free service that's included with your monthly online fees.

Once subscribed to a newsgroup, regular postings are downloaded to your computer, just as if you were receiving e-mail. You can simply read the posts or participate by sending a message to the group. Responses are posted for the group to see, and also sent to your personal mailbox. Moderated groups are monitored to weed out inappropriate posts, while unmoderated groups are totally free form.

To locate newsgroups on your system, check your browser or e-mail program for a menu item labeled "News". From Netscape 4.0, choose Communicator, Collabra Discussion Groups from the menu bar to explore your newsgroup options. In Explorer, click on Go, News for the same choices. Various e-mail programs have "News" options built-in as well.

So whether you have an opinion on President Clinton, care to commiserate about the end of Seinfeld or simply philosophize about evolution, you'll find these topics and thousands more...on the news!

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.
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