Who Uses Usenet Anymore?

Despite Shrinking Audiences, Newsgroups Are Still Great Places To Talk

by Heidi Anderson
Smart Computing

November 2000

You recently spent a week's salary on a gorgeous antique dresser, but it has a strong musty smell you can't get rid of. Maybe you bought a used computer and can't figure out its funky error messages. Perhaps you're traveling to a global hot spot and want the scoop from someone who also has been there.

In situations like these, your first stop might be one of the millions of Web sites. But when talking to others is the best way to get information, sometimes the Web isn't the best choice because online message boards and chat rooms can be tough to find, and the conversations are often controlled in some way.

The answer could be the freewheeling world of Usenet, a collection of conversations on thousand of topics. Less well-known than the Web and less frequently used than e-mail, Usenet newsgroups are nonetheless an important online component. Usenet, which is accessible via the Internet (as well as through non-Internet servers in some cases), is the virtual water cooler for millions of people worldwide. If you've never heard of Usenet, you aren't alone. While it's difficult to track down hard numbers on Usenet users, it's clear that the percentage of Internet users as a whole who frequent newsgroups is dropping.

For instance, consider the case of Pacific Bell, an Internet access provider and telephone company that recently made it more difficult for customers to participate in newsgroups by slowing down access speeds. Noting that only about 1% of its subscribers takes part in Usenet during high traffic hours, Pacific Bell limited its download speeds for Usenet users in order to provide what it called more reliable service for all customers. In other words, PacBell was concerned more with those who rely on the Web and e-mail.

The evolution of Deja.com, which was started in 1995 as Deja News as a way to provide a user-friendly interface to Usenet, provides another commentary on Usenet's popularity. "Usenet was very techie and not easy for individuals to access," says Mason Burnham, a Deja.com spokesperson. "It was just a way for researchers and educational types to communicate with one another and to share their findings. Deja.com archived and categorized newsgroups, allowing people to find information quickly."

But in 1999, Deja.com repositioned itself as a place for consumers to talk about products before buying them, and these days, the company touts its new Precision Buying Service, which Burnham admits has few ties to Usenet. The Deja.com home page still has a link to the Usenet community, but it's easily overlooked.

Earlier this year, the Microsoft Network removed newsgroups from its servers, noting that online message boards and other types of Internet communication tools were serving the purpose Usenet formerly filled.

As Usenet newsgroups' popularity has declined, Deja.com, once a Web-based tool for reading and accessing newsgroups known as Dejanews.com, shifted its main focus to online shopping advice.

This explanation points to why there's such a decline in Usenet usage. Usenet built a loyal following because it was one of the earliest and best ways to communicate with others; people could exchange messages on just about any topic. It still has loyal followers, but in recent years, other tools that are easier to find and use have taken over.

For instance, chat room technology has become easy to use on the Web within the past five years or so. Where it was once nearly impossible to hold conversations in real time on the Web (remember the days of manually refreshing the screen to see the latest postings?), chatting is now a seamless experience. Anyone who wants an answer quickly may consider a chat room a better resource than a newsgroup, which may take a few hours (or days) for an answer.

Online bulletin boards, which more closely resemble newsgroups than chat rooms, are also proliferating and easy
to find online. Suppose an experienced Web site user wants to talk about a hot news story. When the choices are newsgroups (which means learning to use new software and locating, subscribing to, and posting to a newsgroup) or clicking a favorite news site's "message board" icon that lets them do roughly the same thing, it's no surprise that many choose the latter.

Mailing lists can also serve the same purpose as newsgroups, and like Web message boards, the tool is familiar to most Internet users and is relatively easier for new users to learn to master. E-mail mailing lists let groups of individuals interested in a particular topic share thoughts, comments, questions, etc., and users don't need to go check a public bulletin board. The messages appear right in their
e-mail inboxes.

News Of The Past

Usenet's story begins back in 1979, more than a decade before eventual Netscape founder Marc Andreessen opened the Internet to a mass audience by introducing a graphical Web browser while he was a student at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. A couple of Duke University graduate students, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, wanted a better way to communicate, so they came up with the idea of connecting two computers running UNIX, an operating system commonly used by businesses and other large organizations. A graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Steve Bellovin, wrote the software for exchanging a few messages, called "news," among the two original computers and a third computer.

During the next few years, others rewrote the software so that it was more scalable, or capable of handling more messages, and the "news" postings were placed into "newsgroups." Both the software and the network of linked computers grew, and by 1986, newsgroups began to resemble the Usenet of today. Usenet moved over to using a protocol called NNTP (the Network News Transfer Protocol), which worked with TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), the basic language of the Internet.

Given its origins, it's unsurprising that when Usenet began, many of the newsgroups, or the discussions revolving around a particular subject, were highly technical in nature. By early 1993, there were about 3,500 newsgroups, many of which were related to computer science, covering hardware issues, software source code, and other technical topics. But plenty of groups covered topics in the broad categories of science, recreation, social issues, and miscellaneous other groupings.

Jump ahead a few more years, and you'll see how Usenet has grown. According to Liszt (http://www.liszt.com/news), a mailing list directory that also tracks and provides access to Usenet newsgroups, there are more than 30,000 newsgroups today. Like much of the Internet, Usenet has become more mainstream, and many of these newsgroups serve a commercial purpose. Not only do users go online to talk about products they've bought—our introductory mention of an antique dresser came from an actual posting—but they also discuss specific companies, often without the company even knowing that these discussions are taking place.

Since there's no central control of newsgroups, conversations are often unmediated and remarkably candid, which is one factor in newsgroups' unique flavor. Of course, there's no hierarchical directory or body governing what Web sites may or may not carry either, but each Web site has its own content monitors. Usenet newsgroups, in contrast, often are unmoderated, and the word "anarchy" is often associated with newsgroups. You'll find everything from obscenities to slanderous remarks to outlandish theories.

Plus, several services let you post anonymously, which encourages some individuals to be more outspoken than if others knew they were behind postings. Throw in newsgroups' worldwide user base, and in short, if you're looking for any type of conversation, you're bound to find it with Usenet.

How Newsgroups Work

If you think this message exchange sounds like other methods of communicating online, you're right. But newsgroups have significant differences from other online communication methods, so before we get into exactly how newsgroups work, let's look at how they stack up next to chat rooms, instant messages, online bulletin boards, and other tools.

Online chat room discussions take place in real-time, where User A types a remark, user B replies, User A responds, User C may jump in, etc. Instant messages and other chat notification programs such as ICQ, which page you when your acquaintances are online, also occur in real time. Usenet newsgroup communications, on the other hand, don't take place in real-time. That is, User A may post a message, User B may read it a few hours later and respond, and the next day User A may add another comment. Usenet messages are stored online, whereas online chats typically disappear once the participating parties log off. Also, nearly anyone can join in a newsgroup discussion, but instant messaging usually takes place among a set group of friends and colleagues.

A BBS (bulletin board system) is more closely related to a newsgroup, especially when you consider how messages are exchanged. BBS users access the board and post messages for all the world to see, and postings are archived. The main difference is in how users access BBSes. Typically, an individual dials into a host BBS computer via modem (or through Telnet, another way of accessing a remote computer), and BBSes tend to be independent of the Internet. Generally speaking, however, most people with Internet access also have Usenet access. For more information on BBSes, we recommend visiting The BBS Corner at http://www.thedirectory.org/zqrym2xq.sht.

Online message boards, such as bulletin boards hosted by Web sites, are also similar to newsgroups in how messages are exchanged, but they tend to be tightly controlled by the Web host and have more restricted discussions.

Usenet newsgroups are postings or "conversations" placed into a hierarchy of categories. Some of the main categories include those listed in the box on this page. Newsgroups fall into subcategories. For instance, the newsgroup "alt.airports" covers airports in general, and "alt.airports.uk.edinburgh" is devoted to flying through the Scottish capital. Other examples are "news .admin.net-abuse.email," which covers unsolicited commercial e-mail and "comp.ai.games", which is for discussions on computer games that rely on artificial intelligence.

Adding Your Thoughts

The way you access Usenet depends upon your Internet connection. Most ISPs (Internet service providers) offer direct access to Usenet (as opposed to going through a Web site), and the tech support folks should walk through configuring your system settings so that you can access the ISP's news server.

In that case, the primary software you'll need is a newsgroup reader. You'll find many online and available for free download from the Web, and chances are good that your e-mail reader already includes a way to access newsgroups. For instance, Outlook Express (information available at http://www.microsoft.com/windows/oe) has a newsreader component, as does Netscape Messenger (download instructions start at http://cgi.netscape.com/cgi-bin/su/select.cgi?category=).

These programs can be tricky for novices, so if you're in that category, try a program written solely for Usenet, such as Forté's Free Agent (http://www.forteinc.com/agent/freagent.htm). One nice Free Agent feature is the one that can download long articles while browsing other newsgroups.

You also can take advantage of some useful Web sites that let you access Usenet through a more familiar setting. Deja.com's Usenet Discussion Service (http://www.deja.com/usenet) and Liszt's Usenet Newsgroups Directory (http://www.liszt.com/news) are two free sites that make it easy to view and participate in Usenet discussions.

Once you know how you'll "read" newsgroups, you need to decide which ones to read and then figure out how to subscribe to them. (Note that most ISPs don't carry every newsgroup; ask your ISP for a list of those it carries.) With estimates putting the number of newsgroups as high as 38,000, one of the easiest ways to find a newsgroup is to visit Deja.com's Usenet page and type keywords in the search engine at the top of the page. Or, you can click any of the higher-level groups in the "Browse Discussions" box that dominates the page and scroll through the listings of subcategories, drilling down as deeply as you'd like.

To keep track of newsgroups and post your own notices, you'll need to "subscribe" to them, or register an identification for reading and sending postings. The method depends upon what software you're using. If you have any questions, consult the software's help file or your ISP's tech support.

One last piece of advice: Although Usenet can be as chaotic as a kindergarten classroom, a few customs and mores are in effect. Before jumping in, check out "A Primer on How to Work With the Usenet Community" posted in news.misc, news.answers or at http://www.deja.com/info/primer3.shtml.

What's News

The main categories of newsgroups begin with one of these abbreviations:

Copyright 2000