Newsgroups (1) from the December 2000 Actrix Newsletter

Usenet (The World of Newsgroups)
What it Is, What it Isn't, and How to Use It...
.

by Rob Zorn

I would like to start by thanking Lloyd Humphries for his letter asking about newsgroups. Just when I was thinking about the lead article for this month's newsletter, he asked some good and interesting questions about what newsgroups are and how to use them.

So, here we go.

The term "Usenet" refers to the network of machines around the world that exchange newsgroup articles. "Newsgroups" are the various groups dedicated to exchanging information about any given topic. There are thousands upon thousands of newsgroups, and more are being added every day. Personally I frequent the newsgroup "rec.music.dylan" most often, so pardon me for using it as the main model in this article.

What Usenet Is

Each ISP (Internet Service Provider, such as Actrix) in New Zealand and around the world is connected to Usenet. Each has a news server that connects to one or more other central news servers in New Zealand. These, in turn, are connected to other news servers around the world. These servers co-operate and exchange newsgroup postings on a very regular basis. So, when I post a message to rec.music.dylan, it goes from my home machine to the Actrix news server using "nntp" (Network News Transfer protocol) where it is given a unique identifying number. The Actrix news server periodically connects to other Usenet servers. When it does, it transfers my message (and any others it has received) setting it aside for the rec.music.dylan newsgroup.

At the same time, it transfers to itself any new newsgroup messages, sorting them into their relevant newsgroups. My machine then periodically connects to the Actrix news server (as often as I have set it to) and downloads to my machine any messages for rec.music.dylan. I can then read them, delete them, or reply to them, depending on what I want to do.

The various servers around the world that are connected to form "Usenet" interact with each other at different times, and some connect more frequently than others. It is conceivable therefore, that someone in France may post to my newsgroup. His or her post may have been read by someone in Istanbul, who replies to it.  Weirdly, I may receive the reply to the original message before I receive the original message itself, depending on which servers I am closest to, and how often these servers interact. Interaction times between Usenet news servers will vary from every few minutes to every few hours depending on settings. Normally, you will see your own postings appearing in the newsgroup pretty much right away, but they may not appear for others overseas for a couple of days.

What Usenet Isn't

Usenet is not an organisation. It has no central authority. In fact it has very little central anything. As a result, you can expect to come across anything and everything. There is very little you can do to stop someone who is behaving in an irritating or offensive way, especially if that person is far away from you geographically. Therefore, you may want to be careful about allowing your children unrestricted access to newsgroups. Even a mild and worthy newsgroup such as rec.music.dylan will contain posts with, shall we say, colourful language, innuendo and creatively suggestive insults. There are idiots the world over who seem to delight in offending. Some have nothing better to do that post to newsgroups dedicated to subjects that they hate. Newsgroups are free to anyone, so you may just have to "suffer such fools gladly."

This is not to say that participation in Usenet can't be a rewarding, enriching and informative experience. It certainly is. Besides being a great source of information, Usenet is a fine way to meet people from around the world with similar interests, and, with New Zealand being such a small country, this can be a real advantage.

Usenet, obviously then, is not fair. There is little in the way of moderation, and you participate at your own risk. If you choose to join even a reasonably innocent newsgroup, you can expect that before long someone will make an annoying ass of themselves. They may even reply insultingly to something you posted, for no apparent or discernible reason. So what can you do?

Firstly, approach newsgroups with a thick skin. It is usually best to ignore the "serial insulters." Such people are called trolls because they delight in hurting others, or they deliberately drag bait through a newsgroup to see who they can hook. There is an unofficial newsgroup saying, "Don't feed the trolls." What this means is that people who troll will grow bored if no one reacts to them. Such people will move on if they find no reactive joy in your newsgroup.

Is there any control? Of course there is some. Unfortunately there are newsgroups dedicated to subjects that most of us would find offensive or downright criminal. Actrix exercises its right not to carry or download messages for such newsgroups, and you probably don't need to fear too much that venturing onto Usenet will expose you to the sick or degrading. It's up to you which groups you subscribe to. Most, but not all, newsgroups can only be posted to in text, so you don't generally need to fear that offensive pictures will turn up, unless you have subscribed to a "binary" newsgroup.  Such newsgroups are dedicated to the exchange of pictures, so it is unlikely you will join such a group by mistake.

You will also have the ability to control what is downloaded to your machine to some extent. Most news-reading programs will include a facility for blocking senders that annoy you. This is popularly referred to as a "killfile" and it is one way that you can filter out unwanted or offensive material. Currently on rec.music.dylan, for example, there is more discussion of the American election than there is on Bob Dylan. A killfile could be used, therefore, to filter out any posts with the word "election" in the title. If someone continually posts what you consider to be mindless dribble, you can filter out posts from that person's email address. Generally, the more you know about Usenet and your "newsreader" the better your control will be. And there's only one way to learn.

Now, all that sounds pretty terrible, but please, don't be put off. I am describing worst case scenarios above. Most Internet users are familiar with and use Usenet in one form or another without great problems. You can almost bet, too, that, no matter what your interest, there will be a newsgroup dedicated to its discussion, whether that be roses, artists, computer programs, games or 17th Century bellybutton lint brushes.

So How Do I Subscribe?

Subscribing to newsgroups is a piece of cake, and it is a free. There are a variety of free downloadable newsreaders on the Internet, and each has its advantages, disadvantages, detractors and advocates. Many people simply use the newsreader function of Outlook Express, and this is more than adequate, especially for the Usenet beginner. I will detail the steps below. If you have problems, please give our help desk a call. They can talk you through the nitty-gritty if needed.

Subscribing with Outlook Express

Step One

1. With Outlook Express open, click the Tools menu, then click Accounts.
2. In the Internet Accounts box which comes up, there are a number of tabs, including Mail, News and Directory Service. Click the News tab.
3. On the right hand side, click the Add button, and then the News button in the small grey box that appears.
4. Work through the frames, adding your name and email address. When you come to the dialogue box requesting the name of your news (NNTP) server, type in news.actrix.co.nz (no full-stop at the end). Don't tick the "My news server requires me to log on" box.
5. Click Finish and your news account now exists on your computer. 

Step Two

6. On the right hand side of their Outlook Express program, most people have a list of folders. You should now see news.actrix.co.nz appearing near the bottom of the folder list. If you click this, your Outlook Express will turn into a newsreader.
7. A box should come up asking you whether you would like to view the list of available newsgroups. Click Yes. If this box doesn't come up, click on the Newsgroups button that appears near the top of the Outlook Express newsreader. A box called Newsgroup Subscriptions should appear as will a connection box if you are not already online.
8.Connect to the Internet if you aren't already connected. Outlook Express will automatically begin downloading a list of available newsgroups from the Actrix news server (news.actrix.co.nz). This may take a few minutes, but it only has to be done once.
9. Once you have the list of newsgroups down, you can use the search box ("Display newsgroups which contain") to locate newsgroups that suit you. Wait until all the newsgroups have been downloaded before you search. If you know the specific name of the newsgroup you want (e.g. rec.music.dylan) enter the whole thing in the search field.
10. Click on one you might like to subscribe to and then click the Subscribe button to the right and then click OK. Voila! You're subscribed!! You will notice that your chosen newsgroup now appears below news.actrix.co.nz in your list of folders.
11. Click on your chosen newsgroup in your folder list. Outlook Express will change to look pretty much the way it does for you as an email program.
12. Outlook Express may start downloading newsgroup messages on its own. If it doesn't, or you'd like it to download more, click the Tools menu and then click Get Next 300 headers. The number of headers to download at a given time can be set under Tools/Options.
13. Click the little cross beside main messages to expand them and see submessages. Altogether these messages and sub-messages are called threads.
14. That's pretty much it. From here you can use Outlook Express to select messages, reply to them in the newsgroup or reply to the sender privately (try right-clicking on the message header and choosing "Reply to Group" or "Reply to Sender") . Because the Internet is a wonderful vehicle of discovery, I will leave the rest to you for now. Experiment with a few settings and with the various tools to see what you can do.

Unsubscribing

Should you find that newsgroup is not quite what you expected, or if you'd like to unsubscribe for whatever reason, simply right-click on the newsgroup in your folder list. Then left-click on Unsubscribe. Outlook Express will unsubscribe you and automatically delete any headers it has already downloaded to your machine.

Usenet Etiquette

Stay tuned for next month when I'll write a little more on what is expected of Usenet participants. For now, though, remember your Ps and Qs. Most newsgroups have a few regular "high profile" participants who seem to be self-appointed leaders. It is usually best to just read the newsgroup for a few days or weeks until you're familiar with who they are and how others behave (this is called "lurking"). There is nothing more annoying than a newsgroup newbie bursting on the scene and pontificating about everything when he or she has little idea about what is currently being discussed or what has been posted in the recent past. Look before you leap, and get the feel of the water before you take the plunge. Remember, too, that everyone in the world has access to whatever you post to a newsgroup. Beware. Your sins will often find you out. Mine have.