More On Newsgroups from the January 2001 Actrix Newsletter

by Rob Zorn

Last month, you may recall, we looked briefly at Usenet, what it was, how it works, and how you can subscribe to a newsgroup using Outlook Express. This month I thought I'd write a little more about Usenet etiquette, or "netiquette," explain some of the terminology and briefly review Free Agent, an easily available "newsreader" program.

Let's assume that you have chosen a newsgroup to which you would like to subscribe. The first thing you should not do is post a message. What you should do is lurk for a while. Lurking just means reading a newsgroup but not posting to it. It is a good idea to read messages daily for a week or so to get a feel for the sorts of things that are expected and acceptable. You'll get a good idea of who the main characters in the newsgroup are, and what sort of things annoy those who are already members. You are about to join a community, and it is only fair and sensible that you learn how to interact with that community first.

One way you can do this is by reading the group's FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). Someone will usually post the group's FAQ reasonably often, or else they will post the URL (web address) of where you can find it. If the FAQ isn't immediately apparent, your first post to the newsgroup might be a brief introduction of yourself, and then a request for the group's FAQ. Someone will know where it is. They'll usually welcome you and point you in the right direction. A newsgroup's FAQ will usually contain the answers to commonly asked questions, too - and this is specifically designed to stop "newbies" coming onto the list and asking the same old questions that have been discussed over and over already.

When you feel ready, find an article that you think you could add to or comment on, select it in your newsreader and then use the "Reply to Group" function to post a message to the whole group. Your message is referred to as a post. A series of posts, replies and further added posts is called a thread. Your newsreader will usually sort posts out into threads for you, and it is always a good idea, if you haven't been there long, to look at previous posts in a thread to see what has already been covered.

Some newsgroups are moderated. This means that there is a "moderator" or someone who reads and gives their okay to a post before it is allowed into the newsgroup. A moderator may screen out offensive posts, or he or she might just filter out off-topic posts. Most news groups aren't moderated, however.

Newsgroups, unfortunately, are often targets for Spam (unsolicited advertising). You may feel tempted to advertise your services or product on a newsgroup, but this is a real no-no! Even if what you have to sell is directly related to the topic of discussion, any self-promotion on a newsgroup will probably be counter-productive for you.

Some newsgroups have what are called digests. This refers to a large e-mail that is sent out to those who request it on a regular basis containing all the latest posts. It's convenient if you read a newsgroup but rarely post to it. If you'd like to know whether your newsgroup has an e-mailed digest, simply ask politely and someone will will tell you, and point you in the right direction if there is such a facility.

Your newsreader will also allow you to reply to an individual's post off-list. This means that your reply will go to them as an e-mail and will not get sent to the whole newsgroup. This is a great way to meet people with similar interests, and is reasonably safe as long as you don't give out personal details. One thing you should never do is allow what someone has sent you privately to be posted to the list for all to see, even if it is innocent. If you feel the whole group would benefit from a private post, you should always get the other person's permission first, and state that you have done so when posting what they wrote to the group.

Lastly, be aware that with newsgroups, things are not always as they seem. Some regulars in the newsgroup will occasionally have alter-egos or other personas. Some access the newsgroup under other names, and even have arguments with themselves on-list. Perhaps, too, they just feel like insulting someone and don't want to do it under their own name. The bottom line is, don't take newsgroups too seriously. Remember, anyone can post to a newsgroup, and they may or may not be who they say they are, and what they say may or may not be true. Use your common sense and enjoy yourself. If someone insults you, it's best to ignore it, shake your head and shrug it off.

Free Agent

Free Agent is a free newsreader program that provides a lot more functionality than Outlook Express. Outlook Express is a good e-mail program that contains a newsreader. Free Agent is designed as a newsreader that contains e-mail functionality. As expected, therefore, it has a number of newsreader features and benefits that Outlook Express doesn't have.

You can download Free Agent (for Windows) in New Zealand from www.tucows.co.nz/news95.html (it's about the sixth newsreader down the list).  It is just over a Megabyte in size, so the download is not a lengthy one. The program is completely free for personal use, though you will be invited to download and purchase the big brother non-free version, simply called Agent. Unless you're a super news-nut, you won't need the full version.

Free Agent is easy to install and use. The picture below shows all the configuration needed for any Actrix customer (please use your own e-mail details) and this dialogue box comes up during installation.

As soon as you're installed, Free Agent downloads a list of the thousands of newsgroups available for subscription. Simply double-click the chosen group to subscribe.

Once the program is installed, it displays a screen split into three boxes. the top-left box contains a list of all groups, new groups or subscribed groups (it rotates through these three lists as you click the box heading. The top-right box contains a list of all the newsgroup headers (title, author, date, number of lines, etc) in red (messages you have read turn black). Double-click a header to download the whole message into the bottom window. What is new in the message will appear in black, while what has already been published as part of the thread will be in blue, so you can easily tell them apart. These colours  and the window layout can be changed under the Options menu.

Like all or most newsreaders, Free Agent will only download message headers to your machine, in the interests of saving your disk space. If you double-click a header, Free Agent will download the whole message from the news server for you. With Free Agent you can look through the headers and choose multiple messages. Once you've done that, click the "Get Marked Message Bodies" button to download all selected messages all at once.

There are a whole host of other features and functions that come with Free Agent making it a much better newsreader than Outlook Express. Why not download it and give it a try?