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An Introduction to Usenet News

by Tim McLellan

Copyright 1997. All Rights Reserved.

This article is available for personal and public non-commercial use and may be referenced or reproduced, in whole or in part by any means, without further permission from the author. We only ask that you exercise due diligence in ensuring the accuracy of the materials reproduced and that the author be credited for the work.

- Introduction
- Newsgroups
- Newsgroup Names
- Major Newsgroup Categories
- Newsreaders
- Subscribing to a Newsgroup
- Reading Newsgroup Articles
- Posting Articles
- Cross-Posting
- Identifying Yourself

Most of us have an unlimited supply of free advice, whether we want it or not. It's usually good to hear the thoughts and ideas of other people. When that free advice speaks from experience, we tend to listen more intently. Sometimes when we're looking for some free advice, we have a hard time finding anyone knowledgeable enough. At other times it's possible that our own experiences could be helpful or invaluable to someone else, if only they knew or could ask us. Connecting with the right people is probably the most difficult aspect in trying to share our knowledge and experience. Luckily, the Internet has a place where we can gather, question, and discuss our experiences within a wide variety of topics. It's called Usenet News. Some users also call it Net News.

Think of Usenet News as a giant, worldwide bulletin board. Anyone can freely post something on this bulletin board. Everyone else can read the posted items and add their own items. These voluntary contributions and free exchange of information are the foundation of the Internet. Usenet News allows people on the Internet to share their opinions and experiences, openly and freely, on a level playing field. No one has priority or seniority over anyone else. Usenet News gives everyone an equal opportunity to participate in the discussions.


When you send an e-mail message, the only people who can read it are the recipients (for the most part). When you post an article on Usenet News, every person on the Internet could read it and respond to it. Not that they ever would, but they could. That's a lot of people and a lot of opinions, and only a few of them come from true experience.

Usenet News consists of many, ongoing discussions, dealing with a wide variety of subjects. The topics relate to both work and leisure. Usenet News tries to encompass only those people interested in a particular topic by dividing the subject areas into newsgroups. Users also call them conferences, forums, and discussion groups. Each newsgroup involves one subject or topic. Some newsgroups deal with very specific topics, for example: Meso-American Archaeology (sci.archaeology.mesoamerican). Other newsgroups are more general in nature, as in books (alt.books).

There are tens of thousands of newsgroups. Some of them are applicable to a global audience; others are more applicable to a country, city, or organization. Most of the newsgroups are available to everyone on the Internet. However, some of the newsgroups have a limited audience. For example, there may be a newsgroup for Gravel Quarry 101 at the Bedrock Trades School, but it is not available or of interest to anyone outside of the school.

No one on the Internet could possibly read every article, in every newsgroup, every day. When you post an article in a particular newsgroup, the only people who might read your article are those interested in the subject area of the newsgroup. This sharpens the focus of attention and experience on your posted article. Instead of generally addressing everyone on the Internet, you are reaching out to only those people who have shown enough of an interest in the subject to read that newsgroup.

Due to the inherent nature of Usenet News, there are many people who give freely of their time and experiences. If you ask a question in a newsgroup, you're sure to receive a few answers and perhaps raise some discussion between those who did answer. By the time you get a final answer, people may have debated the question for quite awhile. It's fun to follow the discussion for even the simplest of queries. It's amazing to see how many people worldwide have something to say, or at least have something in common with you.

You will find that most people reading and replying in a newsgroup are very helpful and considerate. However, you will also come across a few who haven't the patience to deal with your question, or they may be rude in their replies. That's the nature of the Internet and Usenet News.

Newsgroup Names

Every newsgroup has a distinct and fairly understood name. The naming convention creates the newsgroup names in a hierarchical fashion. That is, each name comprises of one or more words; each word separated by a period. Each subsequent word clarifies or narrows the subject matter represented in the previous words.

For example, look at the newsgroup name "comp.periphs.printers". First of all, the newsgroup deals with computers, and so it has "comp" as the first word in its name. Within the broad subject of computers, this newsgroup deals with computer peripheral equipment, and so it has "periphs" as the second word in its name. Finally, within the subject of computer peripherals, this newsgroup specifically deals with printers, and so the last word in the newsgroup name is "printers".

If the news administrators felt that an existing newsgroup was encompassing too broad a subject matter, they could subdivide it into smaller newsgroups. Users can also vote to have a new newsgroup formed. For example, look again at the comp.periphs.printers newsgroup. The administrators could divide the newsgroup further by the type of printer, for example dot matrix, laser, and ink jet. One of the new newsgroup names could be comp.periph.printers.laser, for example.

Major Newsgroup Categories

Usenet News divides the newsgroups into major categories by the first word or level in the newsgroup names. Some of the more common first-level categories include:

alt. - alternative discussions
comp. - computers
rec. - recreational interests
soc. - social discussions

More specific newsgroup categories include:

can. - Canadian discussions
k12. - kindergarten to grade 12 discussions

The newsgroup naming convention makes it convenient for system administrators to restrict access to a specific newsgroup or to an entire series of newsgroups. Some of the newsgroup subjects are controversial. Others may be less applicable to a specific community of users. As examples, administrators could restrict access to all of the newsgroups that start with "alt.nonsense." or "ubedrock.". System administrators are under no obligation to carry all of the newsgroups in Usenet News.


To read and post articles in a newsgroup, you need the appropriate software. We call this software a newsreader. There are many newsreaders available, some are free, others are shareware, and still others are available by retail. These newsreaders include WinVN, Agent, NewsXpress, and Gravity for the PC, and NewsWatcher, InterNews, and NewsHopper for the Macintosh. As well, many Internet web browsers have their own newsreader component as a part of their product. Although there are many programs available to read the news, most of them provide the same basic functionality and features.

Once you have connected with your Internet service provider, or ISP, the newsreader program can request a list of all the newsgroups available from your ISP. This may take a few minutes depending on how many newsgroups your ISP carries and the speed of your connection. Here are only a few of the newsgroups possibly available through your ISP:


Some newsreaders display a description of each newsgroup; others display only the newsgroup names. While browsing through the newsgroups, you can watch for ones that you might want to read. These would include newsgroups with interesting topics, or ones where your own knowledge and experiences could be of interest to others. Remember this is a give and take community.

After locating a particular newsgroup, you tell the newsreader to show you the articles in that newsgroup. The newsreader displays all of the current articles. Most newsreaders indicate which articles you have and haven't read. This makes it easier to select the unread articles when you're reading the latest news.

Within the list of articles, some newsreaders show the original article and all of the people who replied to it. Other newsreaders simply display a number indicating how many replies exist for an article. Each newsreader displays this information slightly different. The following is a partial list of articles in a WordPerfect newsgroup from one newsreader:

1         Loading WordPerfect                          Rez
2    + 2  popce.exe patch for WP6.1                    Bill Garland
3    +    5.1 Dos tables look and print differently in Judy Dillard
4    + 3  WP Mag for Windows.... arrived in the Bronx  Roz Fruchtman
5    +    Headers vs. Page Numbering - WP 6.1          Marcy Shain Messa
6    +    WP6.1 Win Quick Data Entry macro coding
7    + 4  WPWIN 8 and legal version                    Richard Georges
8    +    WP WIN 6.1 (Corel) -Reply                    Joy Gonzalez
9    + 4  Watermark & Redline won't print              Gary L. Menne

When the newsreader lists the articles, it usually displays the subject of the article, the author, and the date the author posted the article to the newsgroup. You can browse through the articles and choose which ones you want to read. You do not have to read all of the articles in a newsgroup. If an article's subject isn't of interest, you can skip over it. This is why it is important to provide a good subject line when posting an article. If the subject does not reflect the content of your article, or if the subject provides no hint of the article's content, people may not read your article.

Your ISP determines how many days' worth of current articles it will keep on its news server. Some ISPs might keep the articles for only a couple of days, while others might keep them for a week or longer. It often depends on how much storage space or system power your ISP has available for the news system. So even if you don't read all the articles in a newsgroup, they will eventually disappear from the list of current articles.

Subscribing to a Newsgroup

After browsing for a while, you will have seen all of the newsgroups either by name or by the articles posted in them. You will have also identified the newsgroups that are the most interesting and applicable to you. These are the newsgroups that you will want to read on a regular basis.

If the newsreader displays your regular newsgroups close to each other within the long list of newsgroups, you won't find it difficult selecting each of them for reading. When the newsreader displays your regular newsgroups far from each other, you may have to scroll up and down the list until you find the next one. Your scrolling might be a little easier if the newsreader lists the newsgroups in alphabetical order, but the scrolling can still be tedious for regular news reading.

Most newsreaders have some capability for remembering those newsgroups you identify as your regulars or favorites. Imagine your own collection of books where you have your most read, most favorite books together on one shelf or in a special pile. To tell the newsreader to treat a particular newsgroup as one of your favorites, you subscribe to the newsgroup.

When you subscribe to a newsgroup, the newsreader distinguishes it from the other newsgroups. It might put the subscribed newsgroups together in a separate area or display them at the top of the newsgroup list. In any case, the subscribed newsgroups are usually easier to access. You can still read from the other newsgroups, even without subscribing to them.

As easily as you subscribe to a newsgroup, you can also unsubscribe from a newsgroup. This makes it convenient to have a newsgroup close at hand for a while, and then later put it back with the other unsubscribed newsgroups.

Reading Newsgroup Articles

Reading newsgroup articles is similar to reading your e-mail. After you see an article with a subject that interests you, you tell the newsreader to show you the entire article. Here is an article taken from a newsgroup:

Subject:       Re: Toolbars change when I open someone else's document
Date:          Tue, 22 Apr 1997 20:07:20 -0400
From:          "Steve Millet" <>
Newsgroups:    bit.listserv.wpwin-l

On Tue, 22 Apr 1997, Mhampton wrote:
> On a seemingly random basis, the icons on my toolbar change when I open a
> document created by someone else.  I know that this happens if I use
> another template, but it is sometimes happening when I simply open another
> document.  Is there a way to always keep my toolbar when opening another
> document and/or template?

It may be that the toolbar definitions are coming over with the docs.
Simplest workaround is to import the file into a new doc, which should
strip off the old header, and leave you in your own standard template.

Steve Millet

The newsreader may display the author of the article and when they wrote it. It may also show some text quoted from a previous article. Some newsreaders identify the quoted text with a greater than sign (">") along its left side. Others may display the quoted text in an italic font. In either case, you can distinguish between the text the author wrote, and the text they quoted from a previous article.

When a subject or question is being discussed at length in a newsgroup, and there are many posted articles, we refer to them together as a thread. Within a newsgroup, the participants may be carrying on numerous threads. Sometimes a discussion can get quite heated or very specific. It can be quite exciting.

Your newsreader program remembers which articles you read, so you don't have to read them again. No one else in a newsgroup knows that you are reading the newsgroup's articles. You can stay on the sidelines as long as you like, watching the action, being an anonymous observer. We refer to this as lurking. It is up to you to decide if and when you want to participate in a discussion, or ask a question. When you finally post your first article, we say that you are delurking yourself.

Posting Articles

Posting an article to a newsgroup is similar to sending an e-mail message. Many newsreader programs have a facility that allows you to post a new article or reply to an existing article. For a new article, you supply an informative subject line and enter the text of the article.

When you post a reply to an article, many newsreaders start your reply by quoting all of the text of the original article. This allows you to include the relevant pieces and delete the rest. It's a good habit to limit the amount of quoted text in your article to only that which is applicable to your reply. This shows you to have good netiquette, that is good network etiquette. No one wants to re-read an entire article before they read your reply.

Once you have prepared your article, you tell your newsreader to post it to the newsgroup. Within a short time, your article appears in the list of newsgroup articles. It is then available for everyone to read. Some newsreaders also allow you to e-mail your reply directly to the author of the original article.

If someone ignores the netiquette of Usenet News by posting an offensive article, they may find themselves the target of a flame. A flame is a reply that lashes out at what was posted. A flame war can develop if people throw further barbs at each other. There are even newsgroups set up specifically for flames and flame wars.


Sometimes you might not be sure which is the best newsgroup to post your article. There may be a couple of newsgroups that are applicable. Most newsreaders allow you to post your article to more than one newsgroup. Before you post your article, you specify all of the newsgroups to which you want to post.

Cross-posting is posting an article to more than one newsgroup. The newsreader simply posts the same article to each of the specified newsgroups. The article looks exactly the same as if you had posted it to each newsgroup yourself. Most newsreaders list the cross-posted newsgroups with the article. People replying to your cross-posted article will find their replies in each of the listed newsgroups, unless they remove some of them first.

Spamming is posting an article to many or all of the newsgroups. This is similar to a mass mailing in the regular mail. Spamming often happens when someone sends out advertising for their product or service or as a marketing ploy. The article has little in common with any of the posted newsgroups. This is not the proper way to use Usenet News.

After noticing a spam, some people might organize themselves and send many e-mail flames to the spammer. We sometimes refer to these e-mail messages as mail bombs. A sudden, large amount of e-mail sent to one site often catches the eye of the spammer's ISP. The administrators might take action against the spammer. In some cases, they may even pull the plug on the spammer's Internet account. However, there are some ISPs that provide their services specifically to spammers, and ignore the mail bombs.

Identifying Yourself

There are a few unscrupulous people out there, as well as money-hungry businesses. They use computer programs and scan the posted articles, looking for e-mail addresses. This opens the door for their unsolicited e-mail, not unlike junk mail or phone solicitations.

Most newsreaders automatically include your name, e-mail address, and an optional signature as a part of your posted articles. The newsreaders usually put your name and e-mail address at the top of your articles, and your signature file at the bottom. Depending on your newsreader program, you might be able to specify your name, e-mail address, and signature. Other newsreaders might get this information directly from your Internet account.

If your identity in Usenet News is a concern to you, or you don't want unsolicited e-mail, you might consider using a pseudonym and a less than accurate e-mail address. If you disguise your e-mail address, those businesses scanning for e-mail addresses might not get a correct e-mail address for you. For example, if Fred Flintstone included the word "nojunk" in his e-mail address, it might look like this:

Since there is no such site as, any e-mail sent to that address would bounce back to the sender, and never bother Fred.

Fred's signature file could include a reminder for people to delete the "nojunk" portion from his e-mail address before they try to send him legitimate e-mail. Those computers scanning for e-mail addresses won't be reading or following those instructions. This procedure will at least stop some of the unsolicited, automated e-mail you receive.

Usenet News offers us a wealth of free resources. It also provides a sounding board to share our opinions. It's a place where we can offer our knowledge and experience to others. As long as the users maintain good manners, and are willing to give and take, the Usenet News community is a very valuable source of free advice.