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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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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