The Kinder Gap: Usenet

  1. Cerebus the Gopher
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. What About Alt.Sex?

“[The] Internet is turning into the world’s biggest AM radio talk show.”(--Mark Thomas)

Okay, I talked a lot about this thing called Usenet in the last chapter. Usenet is not, however, the Internet, and Internet is not Usenet. Usenet is part of the infobahn. It is a major contributor to the vast network known as the information highway, and it is the most widely used discussion service on the net.

The Internet is a group of computers--millions at any count--that talk the same language, the Internet Protocol. Usenet is a group of discussion groups, or newsgroups, which are sent from computer to computer. Many of these computers are on the Internet, and the Internet seems to be the best way currently to get Usenet newsgroups. However, other computer networks besides the Internet exist, and Usenet is carried by some of these as well. Likewise, not all Internet computers accept Usenet news.

The best way to find out what Usenet is is to ask the people who use Usenet.

What Usenet Is (?)

Usenet is the set of people who exchange articles tagged with one or more universally-recognized labels, called “newsgroups” (or “groups” for short).

There is often confusion about the precise set of newsgroups that constitute Usenet; one commonly accepted definition is that it consists of newsgroups listed in the periodic postings “List of Active Newsgroups, Part *”, posted frequently to news.lists and other newsgroups.

(Note that the term “newsgroup” is correct, while “area,” “base,” “board,” “bboard,” “conference,” “round table,” “SIG,”, “echo”, “room”, “usergroup”, etc. are incorrect. If you want to be understood, be accurate.)


If the above definition of Usenet sounds vague, that’s because it is.

It is almost impossible to generalize over all Usenet sites in any non-trivial way. Usenet encompasses government agencies, large universities, high schools, businesses of all sizes, home computers of all descriptions, etc, etc.

(In response to the above paragraphs, it has been written that there is nothing vague about a network that carries megabytes of traffic per day. I agree. But at the fringes of Usenet, traffic is not so heavy.

In the shadowy world of news-mail gateways and mailing lists, the line between Usenet and not-Usenet becomes very hard to draw.)


Every administrator controls his own site. No one has any real control over any site but his own.

The administrator gets her power from the owner of the system she administers. As long as her job performance pleases the owner, she can do whatever she pleases, up to and including cutting off Usenet entirely. Them’s the breaks.

Sites are not entirely without influence on their neighbors, however.

There is a vague notion of “upstream” and “downstream” related to the direction of high-volume news flow. To the extent that “upstream” sites decide what traffic they will carry for their “downstream” neighbors, those “upstream” sites have some influence on their neighbors’ participation in Usenet. But such influence is usually easy to circumvent; and heavy-handed manipulation typically results in a backlash of resentment.

Usenet is not a right.

And, in the rebuttal to this message, Edward Vielmetti (?) said:

Usenet is a right, a left, a jab, and a sharp uppercut to the jaw. The postman hits! You have new mail.

The concepts of “upstream” and “downstream” are important to understanding Usenet. This is how articles in the Usenet newsgroups get propagated, which is a fancy net word for sent to everyone who wants them. Usenet is a lot like a collection of streams with fish fighting upstream to spawn. The streams are the flood of information coming to you, and the fish are your articles and your colleagues’ articles fighting to be heard in the din.

Articles on Usenet get passed from computer to computer, in much the same way that the ‘hub’ system passes airline passengers from airport to airport, except that the jets can go both ways at the same time, and Usenet usually gets your luggage to the correct destination. When I write an article and ‘post’ it to Usenet, it travels ‘upstream’ from the University of San Diego’s computers to the University of California in San Diego. UCSD passes my article ‘downstream’ to other ‘tributary’ organizations, some of whom may even pass it further downstream to bulletin board systems run by pioneering individuals. UCSD also passes my article ‘upstream’ to Internet Mountain, Mohammed’s radio. And on and on: everyone does their bit to rock and roll my article out to the rest of the net.

The same has already happened to the articles that I receive and read. Someone in Singapore posts an article to their company’s computer, who passes it on upstream to some central Singaporean computer, which in turn passes it upstream to a communications satellite circling the Earth. Eventually the message stops going ‘upstream’ and starts falling ‘downstream’, towards USD and me. Exactly where upstream ends and downstream begins could be a hotly contested argument, except that nobody cares. Like the Internet, Usenet can go on living with major chunks of it missing. If the Internet ever dropped Usenet, the other networks that carry it would probably, given time, take up the slack. Usenet existed before the Internet, and it will exist long after the Internet has been left in the dust for whatever the government comes up with next, some Superhighway Information Transport oozing its way into our homes.

In fact, Usenet is so useful that, were the Internet to stop carrying it, whatever service did still carry it would become the next Internet.

Everybody passes everything on, with no heed to the contents. My post could be anything from a recipe for granola to a call for the President’s violent assassination. (!) If anyone started denying passage based on content, they would find themselves cut off from the rest of the net, as their customers (downstream) bypassed them in favor of different providers with better adherence to the net standard of free speech. The net standard of free speech can be summed up in three words: “What, me worry?”

A computer could easily deny passage based on single words or groups of words as they appear in an article, denying passage to any message that includes the words “president” and “assassination” in the same sentence, for example.

We already know what would happen if some idiot tried this: a vocal minority--some of them respected members of the Usenet community--would make it a point to include those words in every post (!) that they make to the net. Everyone living ‘downstream’ from the computer censor would miss out on every such article. We already know this would happen because it already does, for a different reason. A few years ago there was a rumor, still current in some circles, that the NSA (or some other three-letter organization, such as the CIA or IBM) had computers devoted to searching out articles that included just such words. It became a fad for a while to include ‘dangerous’ words in the signature of articles. Somewhere else, some net legend had their computer automatically respond to any article that includes the name of the country “Turkey”, ostensibly to point out the horrible crimes of either Turkey or their enemies. That year, during Thanksgiving, his plan went down in flames, for obvious reasons. Again, it became fashionable to include ‘Turkey’ in your messages somehow, just to wear that person, or his computer, down.

Ken Arromdee (email: [a--om--e] at [])
ObYouKnowWho Bait: Stuffed Turkey with Gravy and Mashed Potatoes

Every so often, my ‘random signature’ includes

“I do not believe that Kibo will read this.”

to make fun of those who believe that Kibo searches all of Usenet for any mention of his name. (1)

In any case, censorship hasn’t been a problem. Whether out of good will or laziness, Usenet ‘newsfeeds’ are generally as pure as a mountain stream. There’s a saying among the pro-freedom members of talk.politics.guns that “an armed society is a polite society”. Usenet is proof that this is as true of the right to free speech as it is of the right to free guns. Every writer to Usenet is armed with an assault weapon. Every system administrator who supports Usenet is armed with a heavy suite of biological and nuclear weaponry. And yet, the “mother of all flamewars” has yet to materialize, despite the best attempts of ideologues such as net.legends Pim, Gannon, and Argic.

The people on Usenet refrain from using their computerized weaponry for the same reason that people in an “armed society” don’t shoot anything that moves: the “good citizen” on Usenet has no desire to shoot up the Usenet community. The scofflaw may have the desire, but refrains out of fear that those big weapons will be aimed at him or her. Interestingly, there’s been some talk in Congress about ‘regulating’ Usenet traffic. These laws will undoubtedly work as well as our gun control laws: the good citizens--who wouldn’t have done anything anyway--will no longer be armed, and the scofflaws will be able to use their weaponry without fear of retribution. And most people won’t realize that the single step “forward” to a bigger government presence is really two steps backward in an ever maddening waltz, with each new partner calling for more regulations to fix the flawed regulations enacted by their predecessors.

In short, Usenet will become like the real world, where history is, as everybody knows, a weak, brainless defense.

The Big Seven

Usenet is divided up into seven major hierarchies, and a plethora of little hierarchies. These can be further classified as being either boring or fun. There is a set of newsgroups for computers (boring), miscellaneous (boring), Usenet news (boring), recreation (fun), science (boring), social (either boring--social issues--or fun--socializing; be careful who you socialize with!), and talking (always fun!).

What do I read? In Usenet lingo, what you read is what you ‘subscribe’ to. I subscribe to a number of newsgroups, but I generally only scan through most of them. I actually sit down and read nineteen groups:

Newsgroup Topic
news.answersRepository for periodic USENET articles. (Moderated)
rec.arts.comics.infoReviews, convention information and other comics news. (Moderated)
rec.arts.comics.miscComic books, graphic novels, sequential art.
rec.bicycles.miscGeneral discussion of bicycling.
rec.bicycles.socSocietal issues of bicycling. and rebuttals about various role-playing systems. of happenings in the role-playing world. (Moderated) fantasy stories and other projects. (Moderated) discussions of role-playing games.
sci.psychologyTopics related to psychology.
sci.psychology.digestPSYCOLOQUY: Refereed Psychology Journal and Newsletter. (Moderated)
sci.psychology.researchResearch issues in psychology. (Moderated)
soc.history.moderatedAll aspects of history. (Moderated)
talk.politics.drugsThe politics of drug issues.
talk.politics.gunsThe politics of firearm ownership and (mis)use.
talk.politics.miscPolitical discussions and ravings of all kinds.
alt.comics.alternativeYou could try a book without pictures, for example. explicit tales. For those who need it *NOW*.

You can see five of the seven main hierarchies represented here. The newsgroup name is a ‘continuing hierarchy’, or a ‘tree’, branching into more detailed leaves. There are quite a few talk newsgroups, for example. I only read the talk newsgroups that have to do with politics, and of those, I read about the politics of drugs, and guns. There are many talk groups that have nothing to do with politics, and many talk.politics groups that have nothing to do with guns or drugs.

I also glance over the miscellaneous (misc) political newsgroup. This newsgroup is for all political topics that don’t fall into one of the ‘specific’ newsgroups. It’s a catch-all, and whenever any single topic begins to dominate it, that topic will often be ‘spun off’ into a newsgroup of its own. Almost all newsgroup ‘areas’ have a ‘misc’ group. A few years ago, for example, the only comic book newsgroup in the rec hierarchy was rec.arts.comics. When the comic book newsgroup was split into rec.arts.comics.xbooks and, a ‘misc’ newsgroup, rec.arts.comics.misc, was created to catch any comic book discussion that doesn’t fall into Marvel’s X-Men or the ‘info’ group. In some cases, such as the comic book split, the ‘misc’ group remains the major newsgroup for discussion. In others, discussion is shunted into the specific newsgroups, with ‘misc’ becoming an electronic ghetto for those who didn’t have the votes to get their own damn newsgroup.

Getting Your Own Damn Newsgroup

Usenet has no central control. It has no government. Usenet is classical anarchy. It is an example of what would happen in the United States if the federal and state governments were to give it all up and pop off to Bermuda for lunch and never come back. Usenet has heeded the words of Samuel bar Elkanah and Benjamin Eleazar bar Joshua, and while we have many Judges, perhaps, we have no Kings. You want your own newsgroup? No Usenet Jackboot Patrol is going to break down your door in the middle of the night. Create it yourself. Poof! You’ve got your own damn newsgroup.

As you might have expected, it isn’t really that easy. Usenet has no central control, but it does have ‘control’. This control is shared between every single computer that accepts Usenet newsgroups, and every single reader who reads Usenet news. There’s a newsgroup out there for discussion about newsgroups. It’s called news.groups. Sometime ago, the people of Usenet got together and created ‘rules’ for creating new newsgroups. These rules are, at the time of this writing,

  1. An ‘RFD’, or Request For Discussion must be issued on news.groups, and discussion will generally follow. Expect discussion to go off on tangents you never dreamed existed. The very name of the proposed newsgroup will be questioned and torn apart. From this discussion, a charter for the newsgroup will develop.
  2. Neutral Volunteer Vote-takers (the Knights who say Ack?!) issue a ‘CFV’, or Call For Votes. Anybody who feels like it can send a vote to the Knights by electronic mail.
  3. If the number of ‘yes’ votes exceeds the number of ‘no’ votes by 100, and the ‘yes’ votes consist of two thirds the votes received, the group ‘passes’. Otherwise, the group ‘fails’. The results are announced to the net. Argument ensues. (!) Dire predictions are appropriate at this point. If your predictions are wrong, you’ll be forgotten and it won’t matter. If your predictions succeed, you can take great pleasure in saying “I told you so” to everyone dumb enough to listen.
  4. The new newsgroup creation signal is sent out across the Usenet. It gets ‘propagated’ across the Usenet airwaves just like any other Usenet article. When the signal arrives at each Usenet site, the system administrator decides whether to accept or reject the new newsgroup. If accepted, each Usenet reader at that site is notified, and must choose whether to subscribe to the new newsgroup or ignore it.

These rules are not enforced by any single person or policing group. They are enforced by whether or not the net at large feels that the vote process went okay. Therefore, if you want your group to work, you have to follow the spirit of the rules as well as the letter. There are people out there on Usenet who are sticklers for accuracy. If you don’t follow the exact letter of the voting rules, they will not carry your new newsgroup. There are others who couldn’t give a flying fuck about the letter of the law, but who do care a great deal about the spirit of the net. If they don’t think you’ve followed the spirit--if they think you’ve cut corners or tried to ‘get around’ the rules like a President getting around a constitution, they won’t carry your new newsgroup. Whether or not the system administrators carry the new newsgroup, individuals may decide to ignore the new newsgroup if they feel the creation process was violated. Hell, they may decide to ignore your new newsgroup if they don’t like the newsgroup’s name. You can’t win for losing, and you can’t win for winning, either, unless you follow the spirit of the rules. This has led to the following useful advice from Brendan Kehoe: (?)

So, you may ask: How is a new user supposed to know anything about the “spirit” of the guidelines? Obviously, she can’t. This fact leads inexorably to the following recommendation:

If you’re a new user, don’t try to create a new newsgroup alone.

If you have a good newsgroup idea, then read the news.groups newsgroup for a while (six months at least) to find out how things work. If you’re too impatient to wait six months, then you really need to learn; read news.groups for a year instead. If you just can’t wait, find a Usenet old hand [to help you].

Readers may think this advice unnecessarily strict. Ignore it at your peril. It is embarrassing to speak before learning. It is foolish to jump into a society you don’t understand with your mouth open. And it is futile to try to force your will on people who can tune you out with the press of a key.

Usenet is a nation of men, not a nation of laws, and it focuses on the ‘spirit’ of its ‘national’ laws as much or more than it does the letter. Despite this or because of it, the Usenet process continues to work even as its readership increases into the millions. So well, in fact, that physical nations are bound to step in sooner or later to ‘fix’ things.

The Eighth Wonder of Usenet

Because Usenet doesn’t know how to count, there’s an eighth major hierarchy, which is really an entire alternate Usenet. It’s fun. Too much fun. So much fun I could die. It’s the dreaded, loved, feared, and hated alt hierarchy. There is even less control in the alt world than there is in the ‘big seven’, and less than nothing is pretty low. Some alt groups are voted on, some aren’t. Some alt groups see as much traffic as the largest big seven groups. Some groups are created on the spur of the moment, in response to some event of national import. Others have no resemblance to national importance, yet are created on the spur of the moment anyway...

  1. Mark Thomas, , June 21, 1994.
  2. From What Is Usenet?, Part 1, posted to news.answers on November 21, 1994.
  3. Edward Vielmetti, What is Usenet? A second opinion, posted to news.answers on December 21, 1994.
  4. I have, in fact, posted one of these, but not the other.
  5. “ObCensor: I do not support the assassination of the President of Toontown.”
  6. I have not, as of yet, received any reply from master Kibo. At least, I don’t think I have. He might be one of those weirdos who leaves me messages every week requesting help, without leaving any reply address.
  7. Yes, there is an entire hierarchy on Usenet devoted to talking about Usenet.
  8. The argument itself isn’t part of the ‘rules’ for newsgroup creation. It is the second rule of Usenet itself. No matter what you do, arguments always ensue.
  9. Brendan P. Kehoe, Zen and the Art of the Internet, p. 32, February 2, 1992. Also available in expanded form at your local computer store. Selah.
  1. Cerebus the Gopher
  2. The Kinder Gap
  3. What About Alt.Sex?