What are Newsgroups ?



When one thinks of "news" then one may instantly think about what is going on in the world. The television news, the radio news, the newspaper news etc. So one could reasonably think of "newsgroups" as having to do with the same sort of thing. In reality the majority of newsgroups do not discuss current affairs.


So what are they ? What do they discuss ?


To answer the first question. Newsgroups are like what some people would be familiar with as the fidonet system. Messages written by people who have access to some sort of electronic (computer) bulletin board system. Only with people across the world able to view/respond to messages (posts). If that means nothing to you then think of the "bulletin board" that you might find at your local shopping centre eg. at your supermarket.


In this system you might find someone "post" (write) a message saying something like "Have 2 kittens, will give to a good home, contact Fred at ph: 1234 5678". Or perhaps something like "Coin collector looking for 1930 Australian pennies, please phone Harry on 1234 7878." Maybe "Computer user/Chess player/tennis player/botanist interested in meeting like minded people. Phone... ."


When you think about it you could share ideas with a large number of people on a large number of "topics". If you can imagine anyone in Australia (with a computer and internet connection) being able to read/reply to your message then you will be on your way to understanding what a "national newsgroup" is about. Other newsgroups have people reading them from all over the world. For example an Australian might write something and then have someone in America comment, followed by someone in the United Kingdom, followed by someone in Sweden etc. etc. A great way to get international friends !


Each "newsgroup" is given a name. This is the "topic" of the newsgroup. If one newsgroup is called alt.dogs and another alt.cats then I expect you can work out what they are about ? Naturally, in this example there may be discussion of cats in the first and dogs in the second but I expect you should get the general idea. People are supposed to keep "on topic" and, on the whole, will do so. There are currently over 50,000 different newsgroups being sent from computer to computer via the internet. It would be pretty unusual if you couldn't find a number of these newsgroups with topics that interested you. See if you can work out what the following newsgroups discuss, and whether they are national, or international, in focus :


















Okay, pretty straight forward ? So how does one get involved in these discussions ? Firstly one needs a program that will collect the messages (posts) to do with a particular newsgroup. One also has to find out if the I.S.P. (Internet Service Provider) that we connect to the internet with carries any/all of the newsgroups that interest us. Not every I.S.P. gets all the messages/newsgroups available in the world. It would take up much too much computer disk space if they did.


The program that allows one to read/post messages in newsgroups is called a newsreader. This may be a program that only does this or it may be one that allows one to read/post news and read/post emails and/or access the world wide web etc. If you have Netscape Communicator, and/or Internet Explorer, on your computer at the moment then they should have a newsgroup reader included. Programs that are mainly intended for reading newsgroups are generally better programs, in my opinion, so I suggest a program like Free Agent, or Agent, instead.


So what is a newsreader like and how does it work ? Well, if you are used to using an email program then newsreaders are very similar. With an emailer you generally have two "windows". If you put your messages into different categories/folders then you may have a third window. One lists the message title/author/date sent etc. while another shows you the actual message and the third the names of the folders eg. "Home emails", "Work emails" etc. Newsreaders are set out in a similar way. Let's take a look at a newsreader and see what we may find. This newsreader is called Agent.


Agent Newsreader


This program allows me to create "desks" of newsgroups that I am interested in. In this case I have named one of them "Esoteric Newsgroups". There is no cost to "subscribe" to any newsgroup outside of any downloading charges that an I.S.P. may make.


The top R.H.S. window has the "title" of each message. Like an email title it is supposed to represent what is in the body of the message. Where someone adds another post to the original one this creates what is called a "thread". As you can see there are a number of messages, and replies to those messages. With the message titled "Soul Sensing" there are already a number of added posts to the thread. Probably comments on the original post.


The bottom (larger) window contains the message. Pressing "reply" on the toolbar will generally show the name of the newsgroup and the email address of the person who made the post. One can put an answer in the newsgroup (where everyone will see it) or send it directly to the person by email. In the latter case nobody but the person posting will see your answer. As news posts sometimes don't get to every I.S.P. in the world some people do both. So that the poster is certain to see the reply, at least once.


So how many messages are in a newsgroup ? Well, this will vary from newsgroup to newsgroup. Something like a windows Vista newsgroup may have something like 300, or more, messages a day in it. Something like a newsgroup on mice in Outer Mongolia may have 1 message a day. If that many ! As an I.S.P. may carry posts for a week, or two, before deleting the oldest posts one can see that an "initial" download of posts may add up to hundreds/thousands of posts.


Fortunately one does not have to read every message in every newsgroup. Even if one has only subscribed to a very small number of those available. One can get just the titles of the messages available (often referred to as "getting the headers") and then mark only those that interest us, and download them. For some people this is a better way to read newsgroups and maybe save some time and/or downloading data (important if you have a "download limit" of MB one can get in a period).


Other people find that this, two step, process is irritating so will download the contents (body) of a message at the same time as they get the titles of posts, poster's names etc (commonly called "header" information). This then means that one will have a lot of disk space being used and a lot of information to look at. Fortunately, the better newsreaders allow one to "killfile" posts that meet certain criteria.


What is killfiling ? It is just another word for filtering posts. For example, suppose that I find that a certain regular poster to a newsgroup posts uninteresting (to me) comments. Then I can filter the messages so that his posts are marked as read, or simply deleted. Either way I will then not need to read his posts. The same goes for killfiling on certain words. For example I might want to ignore all posts in a newsgroup called aus.politics that have the word "referendum" in.


Now, if you have a "limited time" I.S.P. then you might be imagining that all of this newsgroup stuff will quickly use up all your internet time. After all, downloading thousands of messages and replying must take heaps of online time. Right ? Nope.


For a start, you don't need to do all of this while your are "online" (i.e. while connected to your I.S.P.) You will need to be "connected" to get the list of newsgroups, to download posts, to send posts, but not to reply to them. Newsgroups are like getting emails. One can download the posts. Disconnect from the internet. Do your replies while unconnected, then re-connect to send them. You only need to get the newsgroup list once. Though you might like to check from time to time to see whether any "new" (topic) newsgroups have been added.


Your 3,000+ post download need not be that big either. Better newsreaders allow you to "sample" messages. For example you could choose to only get posts up to one day old. Even though your I.S.P. may carry 14 days worth of posts. Filtering so that you don't download very big posts can save time as well. Any posts of more than 400 lines for example. One does not have to get every post in a newsgroup either. Apart from the methods already discussed one could limit the total number of posts downloaded in each group. In a 200 post a day group you might only get a maximum of 100 posts for example.


Once you have done the above you may be tempted to post something immediately. Don't. Read the newsgroup(s) that interest you for at least a few days first. Even better would be a few weeks. This gives you a good idea of what sorts of things are normally discussed. Post too early and you might make a fool of yourself in some way. Not recommended. This situation of reading posts without writing any of your own is called being a "lurker". Some people "lurk" in a newsgroup for months/years before posting anything.


An example of the sort of stupid mistake you could make would be to post a message, with a graphic, in a newsgroup where graphics aren't allowed. Your picture of your pet dog might be fine if sent to one person by email BUT the same file going to a newsgroup would be sent to thousands of computers (servers) around the world. Resulting in thousands of copies ! As some people pay for the time/size of messages downloaded you may quickly become very unpopular. If a newsgroup does not have the word "binaries" in it then don't post them in it.


What happens if you make a blunder like this ? Is there any way to avoid this kind of thing ? Well, to answer the first question first. If you made this kind of mistake you would almost certainly be criticized by people. Either in the newsgroup, by direct email, or both. These comments may be quite angry and are termed "flames". Things can get worse. Some errors can result in people complaining to your internet provider. If justified then this can result in you losing your account. To avoid these sorts of things one can not only "lurk" for a while but also be on the lookout for a regular post, that has answers to frequently asked questions. Usually about that specific newsgroup. This is commonly referred to as the newsgroup's F.A.Q.


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