developed over time. It is the people participating in Usenet that make it worth the effort to read and maintain; for Usenet to function properly those people must be able to interact in productive ways. This document is intended as a guide to using the net in ways that will be pleasant and productive for everyone.
This lesson is not intended to teach you how to use Usenet.
It is a guide on how to use Usenet politely, effectively and
efficiently. Communication by computer is new to almost everybody,and there are certain aspects that can make it a frustratingexperience until you get used to them. This lesson should help you avoid the worst traps.
The easiest way to learn how to use Usenet is to watch how others
use it. Start reading the news and try to figure out what people
are doing and why. After a couple of weeks you will start
understanding why certain things are done and what things shouldn’tbe done. There are documents available describing the technicaldetails of how to use the software. These are different depending on which programs you use to access the news. You can get copies of these from your system administrator. If you do not know who that person is, they can be contacted on most systems by mailing to account “news”, “usenet” or “postmaster”.
Usenet is a world-wide distributed discussion system. It consists of a
set of “newsgroups” with names that are classified hierarchically by
subject. “Articles” or “messages” are “posted” to these newsgroups by people on computers with the appropriate software — these articles are then broadcast to other interconnected computer systems via a wide variety of networks. Some newsgroups are “moderated”; in these newsgroups, the articles are first sent to a moderator for approval before appearing in the newsgroup. Usenet is available on a wide variety of computer systems and networks.
There are thousands of Usenet newsgroups, and it is sometimes difficult to find the right newsgroup to ask a question or start a discussion. This lesson gives some general methods of finding the right newsgroup or mailing list for a topic. To find what groups are relevant for your subject, you might search through your local list of newsgroups that your ISP (internet service provider) has provided. .
Then subscribe to those groups, and look at some of the recent traffic, to make sure that your question is suitable for the group. (For example, questions about Microsoft Windows belong in comp.os.ms-windows.*, not comp.windows.*)
[The asterisk, ‘*’, means multiple objects (here, groups) are referenced.] On some systems, your .newsrc file won’t contain the names of newsgroups you haven’t subscribed to. In that case, read the documentation for your newsreader to find out how to add newsgroups, and use the methods mentioned below to find out the names of groups that might be available on your system.
On some ISP systems, the ‘newsgroups’ command will show you a file containing a one-line description of the purpose of each newsgroup (the newsgroups file), or longer descriptions of the purpose and contents of each newsgroup (the newsgroup charters.) Ask the ISP news administrator if these or similar resources are available on your system.
A way to find newsgroups where your topic is discussed is to use one of the Web search tools, such as http://www.dejanews.com/ or http://www.altavista.digital.com/ and enter a keyword search for your topic. As with all search engines, taking a few moments to learn how to compose an effective search will make the results much more useful.
Once you have checked local resources, and the formal newsgroup
descriptions, if you are still uncertain as to what groups are ‘right’
for your post, you can ask in news.groups.questions – this group is
designed for people to ask what existing newsgroup is appropriate for a given topic or sub-topic of discussion.
Very few sites carry all available newsgroups (there are thousands).
Your local news administrator can help you access newsgroups that are not currently available, or explain why certain groups are not available at your site. If your site does not carry the newsgroup(s) where your post belongs, do NOT post it in other, inappropriate groups.
WHAT USENET IS NOT
1. Usenet is not an organization.
No person or group has authority over Usenet as a whole. No one
controls who gets a news feed, which articles are propagated
where, who can post articles, or anything else. There is no
“Usenet Incorporated,” nor is there a “Usenet User’s Group.”
You’re on your own.
Granted, there are various activities organized by means of Usenet newsgroups. The newsgroup creation process is one such
activity. But it would be a mistake to equate Usenet with the
organized activities it makes possible. If they were to stop
tomorrow, Usenet would go on without them.
2. Usenet is not a democracy.
Since there is no person or group in charge of Usenet as a whole
— i.e. there is no Usenet “government” — it follows that Usenet
cannot be a democracy, autocracy, or any other kind of “-acy.”
(But see “The Camel’s Nose?” below.)
3. Usenet is not fair.
After all, who shall decide what’s fair? For that matter, if
someone is behaving unfairly, who’s going to stop him? Neither
you nor I, that’s certain.
4. Usenet is not a right.
Some people misunderstand their local right of “freedom of speech”
to mean that they have a legal right to use others’ computers to
say what they wish in whatever way they wish, and the owners of
said computers have no right to stop them.
Those people are wrong. Freedom of speech also means freedom not to speak. If I choose not to use my computer to aid your speech,
that is my right. Freedom of the press belongs to those who own
5. Usenet is not a public utility.
Some Usenet sites are publicly funded or subsidized. Most of
them, by plain count, are not. There is no government monopoly
on Usenet, and little or no government control.
6. Usenet is not an academic network.
It is no surprise that many Usenet sites are universities,
research labs or other academic institutions. Usenet originated
with a link between two universities, and the exchange of ideas
and information is what such institutions are all about. But the
passage of years has changed Usenet’s character. Today, by plain
count, most Usenet sites are commercial entities.
7. Usenet is not an advertising medium.
8. Usenet is not the Internet.
The Internet is a wide-ranging network, parts of which are
subsidized by various governments. It carries many kinds of
traffic, of which Usenet is only one. And the Internet is only
one of the various networks carrying Usenet traffic.
9. Usenet is not a UUCP network.
UUCP is a protocol (actually a “protocol suite,” but that’s a
technical jargon) for sending data over point-to-point
connections, typically using dialup modems. Sites use UUCP to
carry many kinds of traffic, of which Usenet is only one. And
UUCP is only one of the various transports carrying Usenet
10. Usenet is not a United States network.
It is true that Usenet originated in the United States, and the
fastest growth in Usenet sites has been there. Nowadays, however,
Usenet extends worldwide.
The heaviest concentrations of Usenet sites outside the U.S. seem
to be in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.
Keep Usenet’s worldwide nature in mind when you post articles.
Even those who can read your language may have a culture wildly
different from yours. When your words are read, they might not
mean what you think they mean.
11. Usenet is not a UNIX network.
12. Usenet is not an ASCII network.
13. Usenet is not software.
There are dozens of software packages used at various sites to
transport and read Usenet articles. So no one program or package
can be called “the Usenet software.”
Software designed to support Usenet traffic can be (and is) used
for other kinds of communication, usually without risk of mixing
the two. Such private communication networks are typically kept
distinct from Usenet by the invention of newsgroup names different
from the universally-recognized ones.
Well, enough negativity.
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 “List of Active Newsgroups” postings which appear regularly in news.lists and other newsgroups. A broader definition of Usenet would include the newsgroups listed in the article “Alternative Newsgroup Hierarchies” (frequently posted to news.lists). An even broader definition includes even newsgroups that are restricted to
specific geographic regions or organizations. Each Usenet site makes its own decisions about the set of groups available to its users; this set differs from site to site.
(Note that the correct term is “newsgroups”; they are not called areas, bases, boards, bboards, conferences, round tables, SIGs, echoes, rooms or usergroups! Nor, as noted above, are they part of the Internet, though they may reach your site over it. Furthermore, the people who run the news systems are called news administrators, not sysops. 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.
To help hold Usenet together, various articles are periodically posted in newsgroups in the “news” hierarchy. These articles are provided as a public service by various volunteers.They are few but valuable.
Among the periodic postings are lists of active newsgroups, both “standard” (for lack of a better term) and “alternative.”
In the old days, when UUCP over long-distance dialup lines was the
dominant means of article transmission, a few well-connected sites had real influence in determining which newsgroups would be carried where. Those sites called themselves “the backbone.”
But things have changed. Nowadays, even the smallest Internet site
has connectivity the likes of which the backbone admin of yesteryear
could only dream. In addition, in the U.S., the advent of cheaper
long-distance calls and high-speed modems has made long-distance
Usenet feeds thinkable for smaller companies.
There is only one eminent site for transport of Usenet in the U.S., namely UUNET. But UUNET isn’t a player in the propagation wars, because it never refuses any traffic. UUNET charges by the minute, after all; and besides, to refuse based on content might jeopardize its legal status as an enhanced service provider.
THE CAMEL’S NOSE?
As was observed above in “What Usenet Is Not,” Usenet as a whole is not a democracy. However, there is exactly one feature of Usenet that has a form of democracy: newsgroup creation.
A new newsgroup is unlikely to be widely propagated unless its sponsor follows the newsgroup creation guidelines; and the current guidelines require a new newsgroup to pass an open vote.
There are those who consider the newsgroup creation process to be a remarkably powerful form of democracy, since without any coercion, its decisions are almost always carried out. In their view, the democratic aspect of newsgroup creation is the precursor to an
organized and democratic Usenet Of The Future.
On the other hand, some consider the democratic aspect of the
newsgroup creation process a sham and a fraud, since there is no power of enforcement behind its decisions, and since there appears little likelihood that any such power of enforcement will ever be given it. For them, the appearance of democracy is only a tool used to keep
proponents of flawed newsgroup proposals from complaining about their losses.
So, is Usenet on its way to full democracy? Or will property rights
and mistrust of central authority win the day? Beats me.
Never Forget that the Person on the Other Side is Human.
Because your interaction with the network is through a computer it is easy to forget that there are people “out there.” Situations arise where emotions erupt into a verbal free-for-all that can lead to hurt feelings.
Please remember that people all over the world are reading your words. Do not attack people if you cannot persuade them with your presentation of the facts. Screaming, cursing, and abusing others only serves to make people think less of you and less willing to help you when you need it. If you are upset at something or someone, wait until you have had a chance to calm down and think about it. A cup of (decaf!) coffee or a good night’s sleep works wonders on your perspective. Hasty words create more problems than they solve. Try not to say anything to others you would not say to them in person in a room full of people. Don’t Blame System Admins for their Users’ Behavior. Sometimes, you may find it necessary to write to a system administrator about something concerning his or her site. Maybe it is a case of the software not working, or a control message escaped, or maybe one of the users at that site has done something you feel requires comment. No matter how steamed you may be, be polite to the sysadmin — he or she may not have any idea of what you are going to say, and may not have any part in the incidents involved. By being civil and temperate, you are more likely to obtain their courteous attention and assistance.
Never assume that a person is speaking for their organization.
Many people who post to Usenet do so from machines at their office or school. Despite that, never assume that the person is speaking for the organization that they are posting their articles from (unless the person explicitly says so). Some people put explicit disclaimers to this effect in their messages, but this is a good general rule. If you
find an article offensive, consider taking it up with the person
directly, or ignoring it. Learn about “kill files” in your newsreader,
and other techniques for ignoring people whose postings you find
Be Careful What You Say About Others.
Please remember — you read netnews; so do as many as 3,000,000 other people. This group quite possibly includes your boss, your friend’s boss, your girl friend’s brother’s best friend and one of your
father’s beer buddies. Information posted on the net can come back
to haunt you or the person you are talking about. Think twice before you post personal information about yourself or others. This applies especially strongly to groups like soc.singles and alt.sex but even postings in groups like talk.politics.misc have included information about the personal life of third parties that could get them into serious trouble if it got into the wrong hands.
Never say in ten words what you can say in fewer. Say it succinctly and it will have a greater impact. Remember that the longer you make your article, the fewer people will bother to read it.
Your Postings Reflect Upon You — Be Proud of Them.
Most people on Usenet will know you only by what you say and how well you say it. They may someday be your co-workers or friends. Take some time to make sure each posting is something that will not embarrass you later. Minimize your spelling errors and make sure that the article is easy to read and understand. Writing is an art and to do it well requires practice. Since much of how people judge you on the net is based on your writing, such time is well spent.
Use Descriptive Titles.
The subject line of an article is there to enable a person with a limited amount of time to decide whether or not to read your article. Tell people what the article is about before they read it. A title like “Car for Sale” to rec.autos does not help as much as “66 MG Midget for sale: Beaverton OR.” Don’t expect people to read your article to find out what it is about because many of them won’t bother. Some sites truncate the length of the subject line to 40 characters so keep your subjects short and to the point.
Think About Your Audience.
When you post an article, think about the people you are trying to
reach. Asking UNIX(*) questions on rec.autos will not reach as many of the people you want to reach as if you asked them on
comp.unix.questions or comp.unix.internals. Try to get the most
appropriate audience for your message, not the widest.
It is considered bad form to post both to misc.misc, soc.net-people,
or misc.wanted and to some other newsgroup. If it belongs in that
other newsgroup, it does not belong in misc.misc, soc.net-people,
If your message is of interest to a limited geographic area (apartments, car sales, meetings, concerts, etc…), restrict the distribution of the message to your local area. Some areas have special newsgroups with geographical limitations, and the recent versions of the news software allow you to limit the distribution of material sent to world-wide newsgroups. Check with your system administrator to see what newsgroups are available and how to use them.
If you want to try a test of something, do not use a world-wide newsgroup! Messages in misc.misc that say “This is a test” are likely to cause large numbers of caustic messages to flow into your mailbox. There are newsgroups that are local to your computer or area that should be used. Your system administrator can tell you what they are.
Be familiar with the group you are posting to before you post! You
shouldn’t post to groups you do not read, or post to groups you’ve
only read a few articles from — you may not be familiar with the on-going conventions and themes of the group. One normally does not join a conversation by just walking up and talking. Instead, you listen
first and then join in if you have something pertinent to contribute.
Remember that the Usenet newsgroup system is designed to allow readers to choose which messages they see, not to allow posters to choose sets of readers to target. When choosing which newsgroup(s) to post in, ask yourself, “Which newsgroups contain readers who would want to read my message” rather than “Which newsgroups have readers to whom I want to send my message?”
Be Careful with Humor and Sarcasm.
Without the voice inflections and body language of personal
communications, it is easy for a remark meant to be funny to be
misinterpreted. Subtle humor tends to get lost, so take steps to make sure that people realize you are trying to be funny. The net has developed a symbol called the smiley face. It looks like “:-)” and points out sections of articles with humorous intent. No matter how broad the humor or satire, it is safer to remind people that you are being funny.
But also be aware that quite frequently satire is posted without any
explicit indications. If an article outrages you strongly, you
should ask yourself if it just may have been unmarked satire.
Several self-proclaimed connoisseurs refuse to use smiley faces, so
take heed or you may make a temporary fool of yourself.
Only Post a Message Once.
Avoid posting messages to more than one newsgroup unless you are sure it is appropriate. If you do post to multiple newsgroups, do not post to each group separately. Instead, specify all the groups on a single copy of the message. This reduces network overhead and lets people who subscribe to more than one of those groups see the message once instead of having to wade through each copy.
Please Rotate Messages With Questionable Content.
Certain newsgroups (such as rec.humor) have messages in them that may be offensive to some people. To make sure that these messages are not read unless they are explicitly requested, these messages should be encrypted. The standard encryption method is to rotate each letter by thirteen characters so that an “a” becomes an “n”. This is known on the network as “rot13” and when you rotate a message the word “rot13” should be in the “Subject:” line. Most of the software used to read Usenet articles have some way of encrypting and decrypting messages.
Summarize What You are Following Up.
When you are following up someone’s article, please summarize the parts of the article to which you are responding. This allows readers to appreciate your comments rather than trying to remember what the original article said. It is also possible for your response to get to some sites before the original article.
Summarization is best done by including appropriate quotes from the original article. Do not include the entire article since it will
irritate the people who have already seen it. Even if you are responding to the entire article, summarize only the major points you are discussing.
When Summarizing, Summarize!
When you request information from the network, it is common courtesy to report your findings so that others can benefit as well. The best way of doing this is to take all the responses that you received and edit them into a single article that is posted to the places where you originally posted your question. Take the time to strip headers, combine duplicate information, and write a short summary. Try to credit the information to the people that sent it to you, where possible.
Use Mail, Don’t Post a Follow-up.
One of the biggest problems we have on the network is that when someone asks a question, many people send out identical answers. When this happens, dozens of identical answers pour through the net. Mail your answer to the person and suggest that they summarize to the network. This way the net will only see a single copy of the answers, no matter how many people answer the question. If you post a question, please remind people to send you the answers by mail and at least offer to summarize them to the network.
Read All Follow-ups and Don’t Repeat What Has Already Been Said.
Before you submit a follow-up to a message, read the rest of the messages in the newsgroup to see whether someone has already said what you want to say. If someone has, don’t repeat it.
Check your return e-mail address and expect responses.
When you post an article, make sure that the return e-mail address in its From: or Reply-To: headers is correct, since it is considered
inappropriate to post an article to which people are unable to respond by e-mail. If you are unable to configure your software to include a valid return address in your article header, you should include your address in a signature at the bottom of your message.
When you post an article, you are engaging in a dialogue, and others may choose to continue that dialogue by responding via e-mail. It is not courteous to post if you are unwilling to receive e-mail in response.
Check the Headers When Following Up.
The news software has provisions to specify that follow-ups to an
article should go to a specific set of newsgroups — possibly
different from the newsgroups to which the original article was
posted. Sometimes the groups chosen for follow-ups are totally
inappropriate, especially as a thread of discussion changes with
repeated postings. You should carefully check the groups and
distributions given in the header and edit them as appropriate. If
you change the groups named in the header, or if you direct
follow-ups to a particular group, say so in the body of the message
— not everyone reads the headers of postings.
Cite Appropriate References.
If you are using facts to support a cause, state where they came from. Don’t take someone else’s ideas and use them as your own. You don’t want someone pretending that your ideas are theirs; show them the same respect.
Mark or Rotate Answers and Spoilers.
When you post something (like a movie review that discusses a detail of the plot) which might spoil a surprise for other people, please mark your message with a warning so that they can skip the message. Another alternative would be to use the “rot13” protocol to encrypt the message so it cannot be read accidentally. When you post a message with a spoiler in it make sure the word “spoiler” is part of the “Subject:” line.
Spelling Flames Considered Harmful.
Every few months a plague descends on Usenet called the spelling flame. It starts out when someone posts an article correcting the spelling or grammar in some article. The immediate result seems to be for everyone on the net to turn into a 6th grade English teacher and pick apart each other’s postings for a few weeks. This is not productive and tends to cause people who used to be friends to get angry with each other.
It is important to remember that we all make mistakes, and that
there are many users on the net who use English as a second
language. There are also a number of people who suffer from
dyslexia and who have difficulty noticing their spelling mistakes.
If you feel that you must make a comment on the quality of a
posting, please do so by mail, not on the network.
Don’t Overdo Signatures.
Signatures are nice, and many people can have a signature added to their postings automatically by placing it in a file called
“$HOME/.signature”. Don’t overdo it. Signatures can tell the world
something about you, but keep them short. A signature that is longer than the message itself is considered to be in bad taste. The main purpose of a signature is to help people locate you, not to tell your life story. Every signature should include at least your return
address relative to a major, known site on the network and a proper
domain-format address.Your system administrator can give this to
you. Some news posters attempt to enforce a 4 line limit on
signature files — an amount that should be more than sufficient to
provide a return address and attribution.
Limit Line Length and Avoid Control Characters.
Try to keep your text in a generic format. Many (if not most) of
the people reading Usenet do so from 80 column terminals or from
workstations with 80 column terminal windows. Try to keep your
lines of text to less than 80 characters for optimal readability.
If people quote part of your article in a followup, short lines will
probably show up better, too.
Also realize that there are many, many different forms of terminals
in use. If you enter special control characters in your message, it
may result in your message being unreadable on some terminal types; a character sequence that causes reverse video on your screen may result in a keyboard lock and graphics mode on someone else’s terminal. You should also try to avoid the use of tabs, too, since they may also be interpreted differently on terminals other than your own.
Do not use Usenet as a resource for homework assignments.
Usenet is not a resource for homework or class assignments. A common new user reaction to learning of all these people out there holding discussions is to view them as a great resource for gathering
information for reports and papers. Trouble is, after seeing a few
hundred such requests, most people get tired of them, and won’t reply anyway. Certainly not in the expected or hoped-for numbers. Posting student questionnaires automatically brands you a “newbie” and does not usually garner much more than a tiny number of replies. Further, some of those replies are likely to be incorrect.
Instead, read the group of interest for a while, and find out what the
main “threads” are – what are people discussing? Are there any themes you can discover? Are there different schools of thought?
Only post something after you’ve followed the group for a few weeks, after you have read the Freq