Introduction to USEnet Newsgroups

This is a slightly modified version of a project I did for my English class, E309M - Computers and Writing


In the late 1970s programmers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina wanted to share ideas. Their solution: connect computers at both locations together, and then set up a program which forwards any communication from one end to the other. Copies of all articles, regardless of their origin, are stored at each site, divided into "newsgroups" according to their content. This allows articles to be chosen by subject matter, and to be read locally, with the local copies being automatically updated to match the rest of the world.

The first version of this news software was only designed to handle a few articles per group, and the dozen or so groups were all in the "net" heirarchy (net.editors would be a group for discussing editors). Eventually, as popularity grew and it became more difficult to keep different groups apart, a seven-part heirarchy was adopted, with sets of groups arranged by major topic:

Shortly thereafter, another major mainstream heirarchy was created, " alt" for alternate/alternative, to push some of the noise out of the comp heirarchy (for computer-related discussions). The requirements for creating a newsgroup in the alt heirarchy are also quite different from those to add a group to the "Big Seven". Whereas sufficient interest in a new group has to be demonstrated, and a vote taken before a regular newsgroup can be created, anyone (with the proper access) can create a new alt group.


The size of Usenet has exploded in the last few years. From the original seven, there are now around three hundred top-level domains, although most are for specific geographic regions, i.e. nj for New Jersey and utexas for the University of Texas. The number of newsgroups has also grown from a hundred or so in the mid-1980s to over 10000 today.

Since Usenet consists of (usually) human-generated articles, in any one of thousands of newsgroups, there is a wealth of information to be gathered. As a means for distributing information, it is fast and able to link people of like interest regardless of the physical or temporal distance between them. It is also subject to human error, however, so not all information can be trusted.

There are three main things to be done on Usenet: read, post, and reply.

to (obviously) read an article in some newsgroup.
to compose an article, and then send (post) it to one or more groups. Posting the same article to several related groups is called cross-posting .
similar to posting, a reply is a response to someone else's post. This may be further information, a correction, or merely your opinion.

The dos and don'ts of Usenet culture

Usenet, though a microcosm of real life, has some rules which seem strange and arbitrary to visitors. This document addresses the issue of communication on newsgroups, especially regarding what is allowed and what is frowned-upon.

Many users who discover newsgroups are overwhelmed by their number and the sheer volume of information which they embody. They are often attracted first to some of the more "unbelievable" groups like or They observe these groups for a while and see mostly rampant anarchy and freedom of expression taken to the extreme. They shortly discover that groups exist which are actually more in line with their interests, like comp.sys.os.linux (discussion about the Unix-based operating system for IBM PC-compatibles, linux) or A simple post to one of these groups is then rewarded by hateful flame mail from people all over the world, and the user retreats, feeling betrayed and wounded. What happened?

This is a clear case of "failure to lurk". Lurking is spending time reading a newsgroup, but never "participating" by posting. Lurkers gain the wisdom that comes with time; they can learn by observation the character of a newsgroup, and what the rules are. No two newsgroups are exactly the same, and things which are encouraged in some groups are vilest sin in another.

The main question centers around two inversely related issues:

A thorough knowledge of what is and isn't accepted in a given newsgroup will save the overwhelmed poster a lot of time and offense, and will please the rest of the 'net community.

What can you say?

Usenet is an exercise in free speech, and one that spans the globe. It is a place for everything. There is virtually no topic which does not have a newsgroup devoted to it. This makes it reasonably easy to find someone who wants to hear what you have to say.

In theory, you can say anything you want, anywhere you want, at least once. Some truly evil (in the eyes of network administrators) posts may get you kicked off the 'net, but generally the worst consequence is a little flame mail.

Here are some tips for communicating effectively in Usenet:

Avoid all the dont's.

Consider your audience.
Even when speaking to those with similar views, and especially when speaking to a hostile audience, a feel for the "crowd" is vital. Knowing what the group will want to hear will allow you to phrase your comments, even if they are unpopular, in a way that is more easily digested and thus more likely to 'stick'.

Know that they will consider the source.
Since Usenet is still a text-only medium, you will be communicating through writing. Good writing includes not only a good argument but a convincing form. Grammar should be correct and your post should be free of spelling errors; all these hurt your credibility.

You have a limited space
Although most news servers can deal with posts as long as 1000 lines, most readers will run out of patience after the first couple of pages. Make your comments concise and clear. Also, keep in mind that many people must pay for each article they download. They are not likely to download an article which does not sound interesting; your Subject: line is important. Sometimes, it may be the only part of your carefully-crafted argument that gets read. It should then be intriguing but accurate, like a good headline.

Say what you mean
Almost none of your potential readers will know you as well as you do. That is, they will not likely be familiar with your colloquialisms, slang, or sense of humor. It is generally a good idea to let someone else read any important posts before you send them to make sure that your words read the same way you wrote them. Fewer people than you think understand irony, especially in print. Sarcasm is likewise hard to convey; make sure you are not being misunderstood. This does not mean to avoid humor - amusing posts are often more interesting than simple dissertations; just be sure your humor comes across as such.

And probably most importantly...

Have something to say
Usenet hungers for original, interesting and relevant information. A fascinating article is more welcome than ten well-written, relevant arguments that no one cares about. This takes a bit more luck than skill, but remember that no one is forcing you to post.

What can't you say?

With its expanding size, Usenet has also developed a culture of its own, with rules and taboos. These rules are often common sense, which unfortunately often gets left behind when leaving real life (RL) and entering the Internet. Some of the most important are:

"Look before you leap."
Before you post to any newsgroup, watch the newsgroup for at least a week. This allows you to determine the atmosphere of the group, and avoid some of the common mistakes new posters make. One of the biggest is posting a question which has been asked (and answered) literally hundreds of times before. Many newsgroups have an associated FAQ, which contains a list of Frequently-Asked Questions and their answers. Reading this will save you lots of time and potential backlash.

"When in Rome..."
Before you post to any newsgroup, watch the newsgroup for at least a week. The names of newsgroups are sometimes ambiguous, and posting an article to an unrelated newsgroup will also incur the ire of long- time readers. Realize that readers of the group live all over the world, and may not have the same views you do. Just because you are interested in both knitting and the computer game DOOM does not mean that the readers of rec.crafts.kniting will want to hear that id (the creators of DOOM) have just released a new game. Such a post belongs in (and they probably already know).

"When in Rome..." - [part 2 of 2]
Another way to prevent posting to the wrong group is to have a good idea of what other related groups there are. Some groups (like are devoted to binary postings, while others are for discussion only ( Posting long commentary to a binary newsgroup is frustrating for those looking for pictures, while a 20-part encoded photo of the Grand Canyon is unlikely to be popular even in If in doubt, ask before you post something irregular.

"If you don't have something nice to say..."
Some posts just do not need to be copied to thousands of computers all over the world. That is, in Usenet, there is such thing as a stupid question. Don't ask, "Is Venice the capital of France?" And especially don't post a reply to such a message. If you feel you absolutely must respond, try sending email directly to the person responsible. They will get it sooner, and only one copy is created (as opposed to thousands).

The moral of the story is to always read a group for a while before posting. Posting inappropriately to a newsgroup can result in anything from annoying a few people to losing your net access. Reading inappropriately affects only you.