Go to the previous, next chapter.

Usenet: the Global Watering Hole

Imagine a conversation carried out over a period of hours and days, as if people were leaving messages and responses on a bulletin board. Or imagine the electronic equivalent of a radio talk show where everybody can put their two cents in and no one is ever on hold.

Unlike e-mail, which is ``one-to-one,'' Usenet is ``many-to-many.''

Usenet is the international meeting place, where people gather to meet their friends, discuss the day's events, keep up with computer trends or talk about whatever's on their mind. Jumping into a Usenet discussion can be a liberating experience. Nobody knows what you look or sound like, how old you are, what your background is. You're judged solely on your words, your ability to make a point.

To many people, Usenet IS the Net. In fact, it is often confused with Internet. But it is a totally separate system. All Internet sites CAN carry Usenet, but so do many non-Internet sites, from sophisticated Unix machines to old XTs and Apple IIs.

Technically, Usenet messages are shipped around the world, from host system to host system, using one of several specific Net protocols. Your host system stores all of its Usenet messages in one place, which everybody with an account on the system can access. That way, no matter how many people actually read a given message, each host system has to store only one copy of it. Many host systems ``talk'' with several others regularly in case one or another of their links goes down for some reason. When two host systems connect, they basically compare notes on which Usenet messages they already have. Any that one is missing the other then transmits, and vice-versa. Because they are computers, they don't mind running through thousands, even millions, of these comparisons every day.

Yes, millions. For Usenet is huge. Every day, Usenet users pump upwards of 25 million characters a day into the system -- roughly the equivalent of volumes A-E of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Obviously, nobody could possibly keep up with this immense flow of messages. Let's look at how to find messages of interest to you.

The basic building block of Usenet is the newsgroup, which is a collection of messages with a related theme (on other networks, these would be called conferences, forums, bboards or special-interest groups).

There are now more than 4,500 of these newsgroups. With so many newsgroups, it can be hard finding ones of interest to you. We'll start off by showing you how to get into some of the more interesting or useful newsgroups so you can get a feel for how it all works.

Some public-access systems try to make it easier by dividing Usenet into several broad categories. Choose one of those and you're given a list of newsgroups in that category. Then select the newsgroup you're interested in and start reading.

Other systems let you compile your own ``reading list'' so that you only see messages in conferences you want. In both cases, conferences are arranged in a particular hierarchy devised in the early 1980s. Newsgroup names start with one of a series of broad topic names. For example, newsgroups beginning with ``comp.'' are about particular computer-related topics. These broad topics are followed by a series of more focused topics (so that @news{comp.unix} groups are limited to discussion about Unix). The main hierarchies are:

Research biology

Conferences originating as Bitnet mailing lists


Computers and related subjects

Discussions that don't fit anywhere else

News about Usenet itself

Hobbies, games and recreation

Science other than research biology

``Social'' groups, often ethnically related

Politics and related topics

Controversial or unusual topics; not carried by all sites

In addition, many host systems carry newsgroups for a particular city, state or region. For example, @news{ne.housing} is a newsgroup where New Englanders look for apartments. A growing number also carry K12 newsgroups, which are aimed at elementary and secondary teachers and students. And a number of sites carry clari newsgroups, which is actually a commercial service consisting of wire-service stories and a unique online computer news service (see section News of the World).

How do you dive right in? On the Free-Net and some other systems, it's all done through menus -- you just keep choosing from a list of choices until you get to the newsgroup you want and then hit the ``read'' command. On Unix systems, however, you will have to use a ``newsreader'' program. Two of the more common ones are known as rn (for ``read news'') and nn (for ``no news'' -- because it's supposed to be simpler to use).

For beginners, nn may be the better choice because it works with rudimentary menus -- you get a list of articles in a given newsgroup and then you choose which ones you want to see. To try it out, connect to your host system and, at the command line, type

nn news.announce.newusers

and hit enter. After a few seconds, you should see something like this:

Newsgroup: news.announce.newusers                  Articles: 22 of 22/1 NEW

a Gene Spafford 776 Answers to Frequently Asked Questions b Gene Spafford 362 A Primer on How to Work With the Usenet Community c Gene Spafford 387 Emily Postnews Answers Your Questions on Netiquette d Gene Spafford 101 Hints on writing style for Usenet e Gene Spafford 74 Introduction to news.announce f Gene Spafford 367 USENET Software: History and Sources g Gene Spafford 353 What is Usenet? h taylor 241 A Guide to Social Newsgroups and Mailing Lists i Gene Spafford 585 Alternative Newsgroup Hierarchies, Part I j Gene Spafford 455 Alternative Newsgroup Hierarchies, Part II k David C Lawrenc 151 How to Create a New Newsgroup l Gene Spafford 106 How to Get Information about Networks m Gene Spafford 888 List of Active Newsgroups n Gene Spafford 504 List of Moderators o Gene Spafford 1051 Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists, Part I p Gene Spafford 1123 Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists, Part II q Gene Spafford 1193 Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists, Part III r Jonathan Kamens 644 How to become a USENET site s Jonathan Kamen 1344 List of Periodic Informational Postings, Part I

-- 15:52 -- SELECT -- help:? -----Top 85%----- Explanatory postings for new users. (Moderated)

Obviously, this is a good newsgroup to begin your exploration of Usenet! Here's what all this means: The first letter on each line is the letter you type to read that particular ``article'' (it makes sense that a ``newsgroup'' would have ``articles''). Next comes the name of the person who wrote that article, followed by its length, in lines, and what the article is about. At the bottom, you see the local time at your access site, what you're doing right now (i.e., SELECTing articles), which key to hit for some help (the ? key) and how many of the articles in the newsgroup you can see on this screen. The ``(moderated)'' means the newsgroup has a ``moderator'' who is the only one who can directly post messages to it. This is generally limited to groups such as this, which contain articles of basic information or for digests, which are basically online magazines (more on them in a bit).

Say you're particularly interested in what ``Emily Postnews'' (see section Dear Emily Postnews) has to say about proper etiquette on Usenet. Hit your c key (lower case!), and the line will light up. If you want to read something else, hit the key that corresponds to it. And if you want to see what's on the next page of articles, hit return or your space bar.

But you're impatient to get going, and you want to read that article now. The command for that in nn is a capital Z. Hit it and you'll see something like this:

Gene Spafford: Emily Postnews Answers Your Questions on Netiquette
Original-author: brad@looking.on.ca (Brad Templeton)
Archive-name: emily-postnews/part1
Last-change: 30 Nov 91 by brad@looking.on.ca (Brad Templeton)

**NOTE: this is intended to be satirical. If you do not recognize it as such, consult a doctor or professional comedian. The recommendations in this article should recognized for what they are -- admonitions about what NOT to do.

``Dear Emily Postnews''

Emily Postnews, foremost authority on proper net behaviour, gives her advice on how to act on the net.


Dear Miss Postnews: How long should my signature be? -- verbose@noisy

A: Dear Verbose: Please try and make your signature as long as you -- 09:57 --.announce.newusers-- LAST --help:?--Top 4%--

The first few lines are the message's header, similar to the header you get in e-mail messages. Then comes the beginning of the message. The last line tells you the time again, the newsgroup name (or part of it, anyway), the position in your message stack that this message occupies, how to get help, and how much of the message is on screen. If you want to keep reading this message, just hit your space bar (not your enter key!) for the next screen and so on until done. When done, you'll be returned to the newsgroup menu. For now hit Q (upper case this time), which quits you out of nn and returns you to your host system's command line.

To get a look at another interesting newsgroup, type

nn comp.risks

and hit enter. This newsgroup is another moderated group, this time a digest of all the funny and frightening ways computers and the people who run and use them can go wrong. Again, you read articles by selecting their letters. If you're in the middle of an article and decide you want to go onto the next one, hit your n key.

Now it's time to look for some newsgroups that might be of particular interest to you. Unix host systems that have nn use a program called nngrep (ever get the feeling Unix was not entirely written in English?) that lets you scan newsgroups. Exit nn and at your host system's command line, type

nngrep word

where word is the subject you're interested in. If you use a Macintosh computer, you might try

nngrep mac

You'll get something that looks like this:


Note that some of these obviously have something to do with Macintoshes while some obviously do not; nngrep is not a perfect system. If you want to get a list of ALL the newsgroups available on your host system, type

nngrep -a |more
nngrep -a |pg

and hit enter (which one to use depends on the Unix used on your host system; if one doesn't do anything, try the other). You don't absolutely need the |more or |pg, but if you don't include it, the list will keep scrolling, rather than pausing every 24 lines. If you are in nn, hitting a capital Y will bring up a similar list.

Typing ``nn newsgroup'' for every newsgroup can get awfully tiring after awhile. When you use nn, your host system looks in a file called .newsrc. This is basically a list of every newsgroup on the host system along with notations on which groups and articles you have read (all maintained by the computer). You can also use this file to create a ``reading list'' that brings up each newsgroup to which you want to ``subscribe.'' To try it out, type


without any newsgroup name, and hit enter.

Unfortunately, you will start out with a .newsrc file that has you ``subscribed'' to every single newsgroup on your host system! To delete a newsgroup from your reading list, type a capital U while its menu is on the screen. The computer will ask you if you're sure you want to ``unsubscribe.'' If you then hit a Y, you'll be unsubscribed and put in the next group.

With many host systems carrying 4,000 or more newsgroups, this will take you forever.

Fortunately, there are a couple of easier ways to do this. Both involve calling up your .newsrc file in a word or text processor. In a .newsrc file, each newsgroup takes up one line, consisting of the group's name, an exclamation point or a colon and a range of numbers.

Newsgroups with a colon are ones to which you are subscribed; those followed by an exclamation point are ``un-subscribed.'' To start with a clean slate, then, you have to change all those colons to exclamation points.

If you know how to use emacs or vi, call up the .newsrc file (you might want to make a copy of .newsrc first, just in case), and use the search-and-replace function to make the change.

If you're not comfortable with these text processor, you can download the .newsrc file, make the changes on your own computer and then upload the revised file. Before you download the file, however, you should do a couple of things. One is to type

cp .newsrc temprc

and hit enter. You will actually download this temprc file (note the name does not start with a period -- some computers, such as those using MS-DOS, do not allow file names starting with periods). After you download the file, open it in your favorite word processor and use its search-and-replace function to change the exclamation points to colons. Be careful not to change anything else! Save the document in ASCII or text format. Dial back into your host system. At the command line, type

cp temprc temprc1

and hit enter. This new file will serve as your backup .newsrc file just in case something goes wrong. Upload the temprc file from your computer. This will overwrite the Unix system's old temprc file. Now type

cp temprc .newsrc

and hit enter. You now have a clean slate to start creating a reading list.

It's a little easier to do this in rn, so let's try that out, and as long as where there, see how it works.

If you type

rn news.announce.newusers

at your host system's command line, you'll see something like this:

********  21 unread articles in news.announce.newusers--read now? [ynq]

If you hit your Y key, the first article will appear on your screen. If you want to see what articles are available first, though, hit your computer's = key and you'll get something like this:

152 Introduction to news.announce
153 A Primer on How to Work With the Usenet Community
154 What is Usenet?
155 Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
156 Hints on writing style for Usenet
158 Alternative Newsgroup Hierarchies, Part I
159 Alternative Newsgroup Hierarchies, Part II
160 Emily Postnews Answers Your Questions on Netiquette
161 USENET Software: History and Sources
162 A Guide to Social Newsgroups and Mailing Lists
163 How to Get Information about Networks
164 How to Create a New Newsgroup
169 List of Active Newsgroups
170 List of Moderators
171 Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists, Part I
172 Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists, Part II
173 Publicly Accessible Mailing Lists, Part III
174 How to become a USENET site
175 List of Periodic Informational Postings, Part I
176 List of Periodic Informational Postings, Part II
177 List of Periodic Informational Postings, Part III
End of article 158 (of 178)--what next? [npq]

Notice how the messages are in numerical order this time, and don't tell you who sent them. Article 154 looks interesting. To read it, type in 154 and hit enter. You'll see something like this:

Article 154 (20 more) in news.announce.newusers (moderated):
From: spaf@cs.purdue.EDU (Gene Spafford)
Newsgroups: news.announce.newusers,news.admin,news.answers
Subject: What is Usenet?
Date: 20 Sep 92 04:17:26 GMT
Followup-To: news.newusers.questions
Organization: Dept. of Computer Sciences, Purdue Univ.
Lines: 353

Archive-name: what-is-usenet/part1 Original from: chip@tct.com (Chip Salzenberg) Last-change: 19 July 1992 by spaf@cs.purdue.edu (Gene Spafford)

The first thing to understand about Usenet is that it is widely misunderstood. Every day on Usenet, the ``blind men and the elephant'' phenomenon is evident, in spades. In my opinion, more flame wars arise because of a lack of understanding of the nature of Usenet than from any other source. And consider that such flame wars arise, of necessity, among people who are on Usenet. Imagine, then, how poorly understood Usenet must be by those outside!


This time, the header looks much more like the gobbledygook you get in e-mail messages. To keep reading, hit your space bar. If you hit your N key (in lower case), you'll go to the next message in the numerical order.

To escape rn, just keep hitting your q key (in lower case), until you get back to the command line. Now let's set up your reading list. Because rn uses the same .newsrc file as nn, you can use one of the search-and-replace methods described above. Or you can do this: Type


and hit enter. When the first newsgroup comes up on your screen, hit your u key (in lower case). Hit it again, and again, and again. Or just keep it pressed down (if your computer starts beeping, let up for a couple of seconds). Unsubscribing from every single group this way could take five or ten minutes. Eventually, you'll be told you're at the end of the newsgroups, and asked what you want to do next.

Here's where you begin entering newsgroups. Type

g newsgroup

(for example, g comp.sys.mac.announce) and hit enter. You'll be asked if you want to ``subscribe.'' Hit your y key. Then type

g next newsgroup

(for example, g comp.announce.newusers) and hit enter. Repeat until done. This process will also set up your reading list for nn, if you prefer that newsreader. But how do you know which newsgroups to subscribe? Typing a lower-case l and then hitting enter will show you a list of all available newsgroups. Again, since there could be more than 2,000 newsgroups on your system, this might not be something you want to do. Fortunately, you can search for groups with particular words in their names, using the l command. Typing

l mac

followed by enter, will bring up a list of newsgroups with those letters in them (and as in nn, you will also see groups dealing with emacs and the like, in addition to groups related to Macintosh computers).

Because of the vast amount of messages transmitted over Usenet, most systems carry messages for only a few days or weeks. So if there's a message you want to keep, you should either turn on your computer's screen capture or save it to a file which you can later download). To save a message as a file in rn, type

s filename

where filename is what you want to call the file. Hit enter. You'll be asked if you want to save it in ``mailbox format.'' In most cases, you can answer with an n (which will strip off the header). The message will now be saved to a file in your News directory (which you can access by typing cd News and then hitting enter).

Also, some newsgroups fill up particularly quickly -- go away for a couple of days and you'll come back to find hundreds of articles! One way to deal with that is to mark them as ``read'' so that they no longer appear on your screen. In nn, hit a capital J; in rn, a small c.

There are some newsgroups you might want to include in your reading list. The @news{news.newusers. questions} newsgroup is where newcomers can ask questions about how Usenet works. The newsgroup @news{news.announce.newsgroups} carries information about new or proposed newsgroups.

The @news{news.answers} newsgroup is a fascinating one and can help you find interesting newsgroups. Many newsgroups have regularly compiled lists of ``frequently asked questions'' or FAQs related to the newsgroup's particular discussions. The people who write these lists post them in @news{news.answers}. You'll learn how to fight jet lag in an FAQ from the @news{rec.travel.air} newsgroup; read more than you probably wanted to know about bloodhounds in an FAQ from @news{rec.pet.dogs}; find answers to common questions about Windows in @news{comp.os.ms-windows}. There's even a newsgroup set up just for these FAQs: @news{news.answers}. This can be an interesting newsgroup to browse through, because you'll find everything from tips on saving money on airline tickets to facts about U.S. space missions.

Now to put your two cents in.

``Threads'' are an integral part of Usenet. When somebody posts a message, often somebody else will respond. Soon, a thread of conversation begins. Following these threads is relatively easy. In nn, related messages are grouped together. In rn, when you're done with a message, you can hit control-N to read the next related message, or followup. As you explore Usenet, it's probably a good idea to read discussions for a while before you jump in. This way, you can get a feel for the particular newsgroup -- each of which has its own rhythms.

Eventually, though, you'll want to speak up. There are two main ways to do this. You join an existing conversation, or you can start a whole new thread.

If you want to join a discussion, you have to decide if you want to include portions of the message you are responding to in your message. The reason to do this is so people can see what you're responding to, just in case the original message has disappeared from their system (remember that most Usenet messages have a short life span on the average host system) or they can't find it.

If you're using a Unix host system, joining an existing conversation is similar in both nn and rn: hit your F key when done with a given article in the thread. In rn, type a small f if you don't want to include portions of the message you're responding to; an upper-case F if you do. In nn, type a capital F. You'll then be asked if you want to include portions of the original message.

And here's where you hit another Unix wall. When you hit your F key, your host system calls up its basic Unix text editor. If you're lucky, that'll be Pico, a very easy system. More likely, however, you'll get dumped into emacs (or possibly vi), which you've already met in the chapter on e-mail.

The single most important emacs command is

control-x control-c

This means, depress your control key and hit x. Then depress the control key and hit c. Memorize this. In fact, it's so important, it bears repeating:

control-x control-c

These keystrokes are how you get out of emacs. If it works well, you'll be asked if you want to send, edit, abort or list the message you were working on. If it doesn't work well (say you accidentally hit some other weird key combination that means something special to emacs) and nothing seems to happen, or you just get more weird-looking emacs prompts on the bottom of your screen, try hitting control-g. This should stop whatever emacs was trying to do (you should see the word ``quit'' on the bottom of your screen), after which you can hit control-x control-c. But if this still doesn't work, remember that you can always disconnect and dial back in!

If you have told your newsreader you do want to include portions of the original message in yours, it will automatically put the entire thing at the top of your message. Use the arrow keys to move down to the lines you want to delete and hit control-K, which will delete one line at a time.

You can then write your message. Remember that you have to hit enter before your cursor gets to the end of the line, because emacs does not have word wrapping.

When done, hit control-x control-c. You'll be asked the question about sending, editing, aborting, etc. Chose one. If you hit Y, your host system will start the process to sending your message across the Net.

The nn and rn programs work differently when it comes to posting entirely new messages. In nn, type


and hit enter in any newsgroup. You'll be asked which newsgroup to post a message to. Type in its name and hit enter. Then you'll be asked for ``keywords.'' These are words you'd use to attract somebody scanning a newsgroup. Say you're selling your car. You might type the type of car here. Next comes a ``summary'' line, which is somewhat similar. Finally, you'll be asked for the message's ``distribution.'' This is where you put how widely you want your message disseminated. Think about this one for a second. If you are selling your car, it makes little sense to send a message about it all over the world. But if you want to talk about the environment, it might make a lot of sense. Each host system has its own set of distribution classifications, but there's generally a local one (just for users of that system), one for the city, state or region it's in, another for the country (for example, usa), one for the continent (for Americans and Canadians, na) and finally, one for the entire world (usually: world).

Which one to use? Generally, a couple of seconds' thought will help you decide. If you're selling your car, use your city or regional distribution -- people in Australia won't much care and may even get annoyed. If you want to discuss presidential politics, using a USA distribution makes more sense. If you want to talk about events in the Middle East, sending your message to the entire world is perfectly acceptable.

Then you can type your message. If you've composed your message offline (generally a good idea if you and emacs don't get along), you can upload it now. You may see a lot of weird looking characters as it uploads into emacs, but those will disappear when you hit control-X and then control-C. Alternately: ``save'' the message (for example, by hitting m in rn), log out, compose your message offline, log back on and upload your message into a file on your host system. Then call up Usenet, find the article you ``saved.'' Start a reply, and you'll be asked if you want to include a prepared message. Type in the name of the file you just created and hit enter.

In rn, you have to wait until you get to the end of a newsgroup to hit F, which will bring up a message-composing system. Alternately, at your host system's command line, you can type


and hit enter. You'll be prompted somewhat similarly to the nn system, except that you'll be given a list of possible distributions. If you chose ``world,'' you'll get this message:

This program posts news to thousands of machines throughout the entire civilized world. Your message will cost the net hundreds if not thousands of dollars to send everywhere. Please be sure you know what you are doing.

Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this? [ny]

Don't worry -- your message won't really cost the Net untold amounts, although, again, it's a good idea to think for a second whether your message really should go everywhere.

If you want to respond to a given post through e-mail, instead of publicly, hit R in nn or r or R in rn. In rn, as with follow-up articles, the upper-case key includes the original message in yours.

Most newsgroups are unmoderated, which means that every message you post will eventually wind up on every host system within the geographic region you specified that carries that newsgroup.

Some newsgroups, however, are moderated, as you saw earlier with @news{comp.risks}. In these groups, messages are shipped to a single location where a moderator, acting much like a magazine editor, decides what actually gets posted. In some cases, groups are moderated like scholarly journals. In other cases, it's to try to cut down on the massive number of messages that might otherwise be posted.

You'll notice that many articles in Usenet end with a fancy ``signature'' that often contains some witty saying, a clever drawing and, almost incidentally, the poster's name and e-mail address. You too can have your own ``signature'' automatically appended to everything you post. On your own computer, create a signature file. Try to keep it to four lines or less, lest you annoy others on the Net. Then, while connected to your host system, type

cat >.signature

and hit enter (note the period before the s). Upload your signature file into this using your communications software's ASCII upload protocol. When done, hit control-D, the Unix command for closing a file. Now, every time you post a message, this will be appended to it.

There are a few caveats to posting. Usenet is no different from a Town Meeting or publication: you're not supposed to break the law, whether that's posting copyrighted material or engaging in illegal activities. It is also not a place to try to sell products (except in certain @news{biz.*} and for-sale newsgroups).

@vskip 0pt plus 1filll @flushright Disclaimer - These opiini^H^H damn! ^H^H ^Q ^[ .... :w :q :wq :wq! ^d X ^? exit X Q ^C ^? :quitbye CtrlAltDel ~~q :~q logout save/quit :!QUIT ^[zz ^[ZZZZZZ ^H man vi ^@ ^L ^[c ^# ^E ^X ^I ^T ? help helpquit ^D ^d man help ^C ^c help exit ?Quit ?q CtrlShftDel "Hey, what does this button d..."

--- .signature @end flushright