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Usenet for Technical Writers

by Keith Soltys

Note: This article was originally published on the Official TECHWR-L web site.

Pick a friend or someone you work with and ask them what parts of the Internet they use. The odds are very high that they'll say "the Web" or "email" or possibly even "ftp." Most likely, they won't say "Usenet" or "newsgroups," even though Usenet is one of the oldest parts of the Internet.

So what is Usenet and how can it help you as a technical writer? The following sections describe Usenet and newsgroups, discuss how to access newsgroups, provide a listing of newsgroups that are useful to technical writers, and offer advice for using newsgroups.

What Is Usenet?

Note: If you're already familiar with accessing and using Usenet and newsgroups, you can skip ahead to Useful Newsgroups.

An article called "What is Usenet?" offers a concise definition of Usenet:

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.

If you're reading this article, you probably subscribe to the TECHWR-L mailing list. When you post a message to the list, it goes to the central mailing list server, which then sends it to everyone who subscribes to the list. A Usenet newsgroup is something like a mailing list; when you post a Usenet message, it goes to your ISP's (Internet Service Provider) news server, which is one of thousands distributed around the world. Your post to the newsgroup then gets replicated to all the news servers that carry the newsgroup to which your message belongs.

A more detailed discussion of how Usenet works is beyond the scope of this article. A good place to find more information is the Usenet References page. Start with the FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) and then read the articles on Usenet netiquette.

About Newsgroups

All messages on Usenet belong to one or more newsgroups, which are organized in a hierarchy of topics. In the early days of Usenet, there were seven top-level hierarchies: comp, misc, news, rec, sci, soc, and talk. The number has since expanded to about 25. Each hierarchy is further divided; for example, in comp we have comp.os, comp.sys, comp.text and so on, and each of those can be further divided.

Newsgroup names are made up of a series of words separated by periods, for example comp.text.frame or rec.music.beatles. When you post a message to Usenet, you must specify which newsgroup or newsgroups you want to post to. Posting to several newsgroups is called cross-posting; cross-posting to more than a few newsgroups will probably get you flamed. (You did read those articles on Usenet netiquette, didn't you?)

There are now more than 50,000 newsgroups covering every conceivable subject, and quite a few that some people would regard as inconceivable. Your news server may not (in fact, it probably won't) carry all newsgroups. Some are intended for specific countries or areas (can for Canada, uk for the United Kingdom), others may be considered offensive (the alt.binaries.erotica hierarchy) or potentially illegal (for example, the @Home network doesn't carry the alt.binaries.warez newsgroups used to pirate software).

How Do I Get On Usenet?

To access Usenet, you must have two things: An account on a news server and newsreader software.

News server accounts Most ISPs give their users a newsgroup account when they sign up. If your ISP doesn't offer Usenet access or their news server doesn't meet your needs (ISPs are notorious for offering substandard Usenet access), you can sign up with a commercial provider, such as Giganews Unlimited Newsgroup Access or Newscene.

For those on a limited budget, there are public news servers. They vary in quality and in the number of groups that they carry; many don't offer binary newsgroups, for example, where you could post non-text content. You can find lists of public news servers at NewsBot! and Free Usenet News Servers.

As a final alternative, you can use a Web-based interface to access Usenet. Google Groups, formerly Deja News, is the oldest and most complete. It allows you to search Google's archive of Usenet postings back to 1995; advanced search options allow you to focus on a newsgroup or hierarchy of newsgroups or search for postings by a particular author. A search under my name yielded 291 postings dating back to April 1996. If you stop to think about this, it may make you cautious about posting to Usenet, but more about that later.

(View a sample of using Google Groups to search for messages by an author.)

Newsreader software As for newsreader software, which lets you view and send Usenet postings, most Windows users have a copy of Outlook Express installed as part of the default Internet Explorer installation. Netscape users have Netscape Messenger. Both programs are easy to set up and are adequate for casual use. However, if you visit newsgroups regularly, using a dedicated newsreader will have a big payback. Programs such as Agent or Gravity offer fast navigation, multiple views, and sophisticated filtering, which will help you handle large volumes of postings. There are dozens of newsreaders available (freeware or open source, shareware, and commercial) across a wide variety of platforms; for a list by platform see Newsreaders.com.

Useful Newsgroups

For most users, the hardest aspect of using Usenet is navigating the number of newsgroups. For specific topics, there are a couple of ways you can find newsgroups. One is to do a search on Google Groups. Another is to search on a newsgroup name in your newsreader or use one of the Web-based newsgroup finder utilities.

(View an example of searching for a newsgroup in Outlook Express.)

Some companies provide private news servers as part of their support. Microsoft is probably the best-known example of this; msnews.microsoft.com contains more than 1000 newsgroups devoted to Microsoft products. Often these servers are not propagated across Usenet to public Internet servers; you may have to log on to them individually.

The following table lists some of the newsgroups and newsgroup hierarchies that many writers would find useful.

Useful Usenet Newsgroups
Topic Newsgroup Comment
Tools
FrameMaker comp.text.frame Low volume, lots of Frame for UNIX mavens
PaintShop Pro comp.graphics.apps.paint-shop-pro High volume
Photoshop alt.graphics.photoshop High volume
Photoshop comp.graphics.apps.photoshop High volume
SGML comp.text.sgml Not a Frame-specific group, low volume
Microsoft Word microsoft.public.word.* Hierarchy of groups devoted to Word, on Microsoft's public server msnews.microsoft.com
Word processing comp.os.ms-windows.apps.word-proc Windows word processing applications
XML comp.text.xml High volume
XML microsoft.public.xml On msnews.microsoft.com
XML netscape.public.dev.xml  
Writing
Creative writing alt.creative.writing  
Technical writing bit.listserv.techwr-l Mirrors the mailing list. You cannot post from the newsgroup back to the mailing list.
Writing alt.writing  
Writing misc.writing  
Computing
Operating systems comp.os* This hierarchy contains newsgroups for most current operating systems.
Computer languages comp.lang.* This hierarchy contains newsgroups for computer languages.
Programming comp.programming.* Computer programming, not language specific.

Tips on Posting and Usenet Etiquette

Usenet has been around for a long time, predating the Web by more than a decade. It's developed its own culture; if you don't pay attention to it, you may find yourself on the butt-end of some nasty postings, at the least. Those who frequent Usenet tend to be older, technically savvy, and not inclined to suffer fools gladly. (It's really time to read those FAQs if you haven't already.)

If you're posting to find the answer to a question or looking for information, you should always first do a search on Google Groups or check to see if there's a FAQ for the newsgroup you're posting to. Given the length of time the Usenet has been around, your question might not be original, and the answer may be there already.

Usenet is a text-mode environment. Although you may like the fancy formatting that you can get with HTML, newsgroup posts should always be plain text. Many news servers will bounce HTML-formatted messages; if yours doesn't and you post in HTML, you're making your post difficult or impossible to read for a large part of your potential audience.

You can send binary files over Usenet--for example, if you want to share photos or other non-text content; however, it's a good practice to avoid until you are sure you know what you're doing (read those FAQs!); posting a binary file to a non-binary newsgroup will make you very unpopular.

Remember too that the Internet is a public medium, and it is persistent. Everything that you post to mailing lists or newsgroups is archived somewhere, and Usenet postings are especially public. What's to stop a potential employer from looking up your name? If this is a real concern, you can use an alias when posting, or post through an anonymous mailer.

Because Usenet is a public medium, your posts may be read and used for purposes that you didn't intend or don't agree to. The most likely consequence of posting on Usenet is that you will start getting spam email. Spammers use bots--automated agent programs--that scan newsgroups and collect email addresses from the postings. One solution to this is to give your newsreader a fake or mangled email address, for example keith@soltys-nospam.ca. The downside to this is that anyone who wants to reply privately by email to your message will have to remember to edit your email address before replying. And spammers will often filter out such changes to get the correct email address. Another alternative is to set up an email account on one of the free email services, such as HotMail, and give your newsreader that email address.

Finally, in this article I've concentrated on technical writing-related resources. But Usenet is much broader than that and most likely you'll find a newsgroup for something that you're interested in: Amateur astronomy, beer making, crafts, diving (scuba or sky), electronics, figure skating, the Grateful Dead, horses, Islam, jazz, knights, lacrosse, motorcycles, Nevada, Oasis, parenting, quilting, rugby, science fiction, tiddlywinks, urban legends, vampires, welding, Xena, yoga, zebrafish--to name just 26.

Over the years, I've found Usenet to be a valuable resource, both personally and professionally. I hope you will too.

© Copyright 2001 by Keith Soltys

 

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