Usenet: The Internet As A Village
By Judith Rogow
Sep 1, 2002 - 5:17:00 PM

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LOS ANGELES—If the Internet is the "information superhighway", then Usenet is a small town on a one-lane road that branches out from the Internet highway. Usenet, if you haven't yet discovered it, is a series of forums where posters discuss topics from appliqu's to Zoology - and everything in between.

With over 100,000 groups available - some 30,000 of which are active - the choices can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are hierarchies - the "big eight as they are called" - that categorize Usenet into manageable sections. Some categories are self evident, comp, (Computer) for instance is dedicated to groups interested in topics like OSs, software, hardware, etc. Humanities groups deal with literature, art or other topics covered by a humanities course in college. Soc (social) and Sci (Science) are pretty much what they say - discussions of social or scientific issues. Rec (Recreation) covers topics from travel, pet care, and cooking to sports, entertainment, and hobbies. News is the central information desk for both Usenet users and administrators. The groups under that hierarchy cover topics such as Usenet abuse issues, Spam filtering, new newsgroup announcements, news software, as well as helpful startup information for people new to the Usenet groups. Talk is simply a collection of groups that debate controversial topics, such as politics and religion. Misc (Miscellaneous) covers all the bases not mentioned above.

Many of the Big-8 groups are moderated, that is, a person or committee keeps the discussion on topic and referees any disagreements.

Alt. Groups are far less formalized, and the most populated. Most alt. Groups are unmoderated, discussions can get heated, and flaming (nasty comments) is an art form. Trolls (those who join in a discussion solely to cause dissention) are fond of alt groups, since there is no one to rein in trouble makers.

Usenet newsgroups are "distributed" among tens of thousands of "news servers" operated by Internet service providers, universities, companies and other organizations. Each server receives copies of all messages in a newsgroup, and stores them in a sort of database. News servers automatically exchange these messages among themselves, to keep each other's databases up to date.

Each participant in a newsgroup reads messages from, and posts messages to, his/her "local" news server, using news-reading software like Outlook Express, the newsgroup module in Netscape Communicator or standalone software such as Forte Agent.

The Usenet community continues to grow at a tremendous rate. From a content standpoint the community has a history of doubling in size every 9 months. Your ISP will give you directions on how to subscribe to Usenet using their connection, which comes as part of the service package. There are also fee-based Usenet servers, more about them next month. 

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