Freedom Of Assembly: Usenet Newsgroups

Read at your own risk

This document dates from the early web period, and is kept for archival purposes only. It is no longer updated, and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate.
  1. Mailing Lists
  2. Freedom Of Assembly

Mailing lists are controlled discussion on the net. There’s a central list of members, and some individual controls who is in and who is not in that list. In most cases, that control is handed to an impartial computer program, but the control is there.

Usenet has no such central control. Anyone can read and anyone can post to Usenet without asking for permission from a central “Usenet” moderator. There is no “list of users” for Usenet. There are some newsgroups that do have moderators, but they’re the exception, not the rule. And even in those cases, the moderator doesn’t control any form of membership list. The moderator approves messages one at a time, rather than controlling who joins and who doesn’t.

The Usenet Hierarchy

Usenet is a collection of newsgroups on a huge variety of topics. A “newsgroup” is just a place to go and discuss whatever topic the newsgroup was created for. These newsgroups are arranged hierarchically. There are seven basic sets of newsgroups: computers, miscellaneous, recreational, science, social/sociological, talk, and Usenet news itself.

Within each of these “top-level” hierarchies, there are further “branches” specifying discussions in ever more detail. So, within the “rec” (recreation) newsgroups, there is “” for discussion of music, and within that there is, for discussion of the Grateful Dead musical group. Within the “comp” (computers) discussion hierarchy, you’ll find “comp.sys” for discussion of computer systems, “comp.sys.mac” for discussion of the Macintosh computer, and comp.sys.mac.hardware for discussion solely of hardware-related issues on the Macintosh.

There are other hierarchies outside the “big seven”. One of the biggest is the alternate hierarchy. Within the “alt” groups, you’ll find even more free-wheeling discussions than you’ll find on the big seven.

Finding A Newsgroup

It is much easier to find a useful newsgroup than it is to find a useful mailing list. Go to DejaNews and look around. Also, if you go into your Usenet news reader, you can usually ask it to search the list of newsgroup names. Interested in discussing Rush Limbaugh? Type limbaugh as the search keyword. Here’s a sample of what you might find:

The descriptions of Usenet newsgroups are a bit shorter than the descriptions of mailing lists, so you may want to try a couple of times, with different keywords, if your first try doesn’t find a newsgroup based on the topic you want. There are thousands of newsgroups, and one of them is bound to have what you want.

Joining and Leaving

My favorite Usenet newsreader is MT Newswatcher. You can find it at Download.Com. You can also use Netscape Communicator if you already have that.

Reading Messages

Taking part in a newsgroup means “posting” an “article” to the newsgroup. It can also mean “lurking” on the newsgroup--just reading, not posting. If you’re using Netscape or MT NewsWatcher to read your newsgroups, you can just click on the appropriate article or button to read or post to a newsgroup.

Replying To An Article

Somebody’s got your blood boiling, and you want to flame them to Helen Bach. You’ve got two choices—three, really. You can, of course, just ignore them, and you probably should.

You can reply to the individual privately, or you can “follow-up” to the article so that everyone on the newsgroup can read your reply.

Replying privately sends the message off via normal e-mail. This means that only the individual you’re replying to gets the message. If your message is not of value to the group as a whole, you should send it off privately. “Following up” to the newsgroup sends the message to the entire Usenet newsgroup, so everyone can read it, and reply to it if they so desire.

Saving Articles To A File

Articles on the newsgroups disappear very quickly. If you want to archive an article for future reference, you’ll have to save it as a file on your hard drive.

Canceling Messages

So you had a bad day and you just sent out a Usenet message threatening the life of the President of the United States. What can you do about it?

If you’re fast, you can save your life, that’s what you can do. You can “cancel” messages so that they don’t go anywhere, after you’ve sent them. You can only cancel your own messages.

If your message hasn’t gone upstream yet, your message is immediately canceled. Most likely, you aren’t that lucky. If your message has gone upstream, your cancel also goes upstream, ferreting it out in the forests and tributaries of Usenet. If all goes well (and it won’t), your message will be deleted from every newsfeed that accepted it. People who have already read your message will not have their memory erased, of course, and if they’ve saved a copy and forwarded it to the Secret Service, the cancel doesn’t follow that far. But any new readers checking into Usenet won’t see the message after it’s been canceled.

Note that you can no longer count on this working well. Many news servers no longer accept general cancels, because they are too easily forged.

Important Newsgroups

There are a few newsgroups that are very important. Two are important for anyone reading Usenet news.

With Great Power Comes...

Most of the things that you do on the Internet, you do on a computer which is being used by many other people. You have a responsibility to make sure you don’t allow electronic burglars to jeopardize the computer your account is on.

  1. Mailing Lists
  2. Freedom Of Assembly