What is Usenet?

Newsgroup: Specifics and Details

Up to this point, we've explained Usenet and newsgroups in general. Now, it's time to focus on an individual newsgroup. This page will give some insight on locating and accessing newsgroups and explain some concepts regarding the history and culture behind newsgroups.

As explained in our Newsgroups article, newsgroups are sorted into a hierarchy, which represents them much like a family tree. The most basic categories that newsgroups are sorted into are known as top-level hierarchies. There are eight top-level hierarchies that are carried by almost all newsgroup hosts, which are known as the 'Big 8'. These hierarchies are:

  • comp.* - computer-related discussions
  • humanities.* - literature, religion, history, etc. discussions
  • misc.* - any newsgroup that doesn't belong in another hierarchy
  • news.* - discussions regarding Usenet itself (creation/removal of newsgroups, abuse issues, etc.)
  • rec.* - discussions regarding recreation of all types
  • sci.* - discussions of scientific topics
  • soc.* - current events & societal issues, as well as simple socializing ("chatting")
  • talk.* - discussions of sensitive topics; newsgroups here tend to include very lively debates, where soc.* is more casual

Under these broad umbrellas is where individual newsgroups can be found. Let's examine the rec.* hierarchy as an example. rec.sport is a newsgroup devoted to sporting in general, but it is so general that not many users choose to post there. A step deeper would contain newsgroups devoted to particular sports, rec.sport.football being an example. This newsgroup is still a bit too general; there is nothing to distinguish between American or European style football. Going even further into the hierarchy, newsgroups such as rec.sport.football.college can be found. This could go further and further into newsgroups devoted to particular teams or regions.

In addition to the Big 8, there is also an alt.* hierarchy which has much more relaxed guidelines for the newsgroups it contains. Short for 'alternative,' this hierarchy was meant to contain newsgroups that would not be allowed in any of the Big 8, particularly for taboo topics. However, because of its lax nature, the alt.* hierarchy has many innocuous newsgroups that might seem better placed in a different hierarchy. Generally, alt.* topics have a narrower focus than those in other newsgroups — discussing a single player as opposed to a sports team in general, for example.

After finding a newsgroup that interests you, it is necessary to subscribe to the newsgroup. This tells your newsgroup software which groups you would always like to see, so that it isn't necessary to browse through the hierarchies every time you connect.

Once you have subscribed to a newsgroup, your software will display all of the headers in the newsgroup. An article's header is the same as the subject line in an email, a concise summary of the content in an article. Replies to an article will have "RE:" in their headers, again behaving just like email. Some newsgroups have hundreds of thousands of articles, especially through a high retention host like Giganews, and most newsgroup software allows you to limit how many headers to obtain at once to conserve resources. Reading an article is as simple as selecting its header.

Replying to an article is about as simple as writing an email, but before sending anything to a newsgroup, some things should be said about the accepted conventions of posting in newsgroups. Newsgroups are one of the oldest group communication forums on the Internet, and quite a few users today have been accessing them for a number of years. Some of the norms established by the newsgroup community over the years have even been adopted in other forms of online communication like email and message boards. For example, the term 'spam' was first used to describe unsolicited advertisements posted in newsgroups. Many of the rules of Netiquette (Internet etiquette) also developed in the newsgroups. Observing the rules of Netiquette is probably the most important thing to do when posting to a newsgroup. Netiquette rules are largely unspoken, and explaining them is a subject all its own, but the best practice is to keep your articles well-composed and civil. Most newsgroups are peer-moderated, meaning that the users themselves enforce the rules, and a "Golden Rule" attitude is the best way to respect that: as a user, post only what you would like to see posted.

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