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Table of contents


§1. What Usenet Is Not

Usenet is not an organization. Usenet has no central authority. In fact, it has no central anything. There is a vague notion of "upstream" and "downstream" related to the direction of high-volume news flow. It follows that, to the extent that "upstream" sites decide what traffic they will carry for their "downstream" neighbors, that "upstream" sites have some influence on their neighbors. But such influence is usually easy to circumvent, and heavy-handed manipulation typically results in a backlash of resentment.

Usenet is not a democracy. A democracy can be loosely defined as "government of the people, by the people, for the people." However, as explained above, Usenet is not an organization, and only an organization can be run as a democracy. Even a democracy must be organized, for if it lacks a means of enforcing the peoples' wishes, then it may as well not exist.

Some people wish that Usenet were a democracy. Many people pretend that it is. Both groups are sadly deluded.

Usenet is not fair. After all, who shall decide what's fair? For that matter, if someone is behaving unfairly, who's going to stop him? Neither you nor I, that's certain.

Usenet is not a right. Some people misunderstand their local right of "freedom of speech" to mean that they have a legal right to use others' computers to say what they wish in whatever way they wish, and the owners of said computers have no right to stop them.

Those people are wrong. Freedom of speech also means freedom not to speak; if I choose not to use my computer to aid your speech, that is my right. Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

Usenet is not a public utility. Some Usenet sites are publicly funded or subsidized. Most of them, by plain count, are not. There is no government monopoly on Usenet, and little or no control.

Usenet is not a commercial network. Many Usenet sites are academic or government organizations; in fact, Usenet originated in academia. Therefore, there is a Usenet custom of keeping commercial traffic to a minimum. If such commercial traffic is generally considered worth carrying, then it may be grudgingly tolerated. Even so, it is usually separated somehow from non-commercial traffic; see comp.newprod.

Usenet is not the Internet. The Internet is a wide-ranging network, parts of which are subsidized by various governments. The Internet carries many kinds of traffic; Usenet is only one of them. And the Internet is only one of the various networks carrying Usenet traffic.

Usenet is not a Unix network, nor even an ASCII network. Don't assume that everyone is using "rn" on a Unix machine. There are Vaxen running VMS, IBM mainframes, Amigas, and MS-DOS PCs reading and posting to Usenet. And, yes, some of them use (shudder) EBCDIC. Ignore them if you like, but they're out there.

Usenet is not software. There are dozens of software packages used at various sites to transport and read Usenet articles. So no one program or package can be called "the Usenet software."

Software designed to support Usenet traffic can be (and is) used for other kinds of communication, usually without risk of mixing the two. Such private communication networks are typically kept distinct from Usenet by the invention of newsgroup names different from the universally-recognized ones.

Usenet is not a UUCP network. UUCP is a protocol (some might say protocol suite, but that's a technical point) for sending data over point-to-point connections, typically using dialup modems. Usenet is only one of the various kinds of traffic carried via UUCP, and UUCP is only one of the various transports carrying Usenet traffic. Well, enough negativity.

 

§1.1. Propagation of News

In the old days, when UUCP over long-distance dialup lines was the dominant means of article transmission, a few well-connected sites had real influence in determining which newsgroups would be carried where. Those sites called themselves "the backbone."

But things have changed. Nowadays, even the smallest Internet site has connectivity the likes of which the backbone admin of yesteryear could only dream. In addition, in the U.S., the advent of cheaper long-distance calls and high-speed modems has made long-distance Usenet feeds thinkable for smaller companies. There is only one pre-eminent UUCP transport site today in the U.S., namely UUNET. But UUNET isn't a player in the propagation wars, because it never refuses any traffic---it gets paid by the minute, after all; to refuse based on content would jeopardize its legal status as an enhanced service provider.

All of the above applies to the U.S. In Europe, different cost structures favored the creation of strictly controlled hierarchical organizations with central registries. This is all very unlike the traditional mode of U.S. sites (pick a name, get the software, get a feed, you're on). Europe's "benign monopolies", long uncontested, now face competition from looser organizations patterned after the U.S. model.

 

§1.2. Group Creation

As discussed above, Usenet is not a democracy. Nevertheless, currently the most popular way to create a new newsgroup involves a "vote" to determine popular support for (and opposition to) a proposed newsgroup. See section Newsgroup Creation, for detailed instructions and guidelines on the process involved in making a newsgroup.

If you follow the guidelines, it is probable that your group will be created and will be widely propagated. However, due to the nature of Usenet, there is no way for any user to enforce the results of a newsgroup vote (or any other decision, for that matter). Therefore, for your new newsgroup to be propagated widely, you must not only follow the letter of the guidelines; you must also follow its spirit. And you must not allow even a whiff of shady dealings or dirty tricks to mar the vote.

So, you may ask: How is a new user supposed to know anything about the "spirit" of the guidelines? Obviously, she can't. This fact leads inexorably to the following recommendation:

 If you're a new user, don't try to create a new newsgroup alone.

 If you have a good newsgroup idea, then read the news.groups newsgroup for a while (six months, at least) to find out how things work. If you're too impatient to wait six months, then you really need to learn; read news.groups for a year instead. If you just can't wait, find a Usenet old hand to run the vote for you.

 Readers may think this advice unnecessarily strict. Ignore it at your peril. It is embarrassing to speak before learning. It is foolish to jump into a society you don't understand with your mouth open. And it is futile to try to force your will on people who can tune you out with the press of a key.

If You're Unhappy...

Property rights being what they are, there is no higher authority on Usenet than the people who own the machines on which Usenet traffic is carried. If the owner of the machine you use says, "We will not carry alt.sex on this machine," and you are not happy with that order, you have no Usenet recourse. What can we outsiders do, after all?

That doesn't mean you are without options. Depending on the nature of your site, you may have some internal political recourse. Or you might find external pressure helpful. Or, with a minimal investment, you can get a feed of your own from somewhere else. Computers capable of taking Usenet feeds are down in the range now, Unix-capable boxes are going for under , and there are at least two Unix lookalikes in the price range.

No matter what, appealing to "Usenet" won't help. Even if those who read such an appeal regarding system administration are sympathetic to your cause, they will almost certainly have even less influence at your site than you do.

By the same token, if you don't like what some user at another site is doing, only the administrator and/or owner of that site have any authority to do anything about it. Persuade them that the user in question is a problem for them, and they might do something (if they feel like it). If the user in question is the administrator or owner of the site from which he or she posts, forget it; you can't win. Arrange for your newsreading software to ignore articles from him or her if you can, and chalk one up to experience.

 

§1.3. The History of Usenet (The ABCs)

1979

In the beginning, there were conversations, and they were good. Then came Usenet in 1979, shortly after the release of V7 Unix with UUCP; and it was better. Two Duke University grad students in North Carolina, Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, thought of hooking computers together to exchange information with the Unix community. Steve Bellovin, a grad student at the University of North Carolina, put together the first version of the news software using shell scripts and installed it on the first two sites: unc and duke.

1980

At the beginning of 1980 the network consisted of those two sites and phs (another machine at Duke), and was described at the January rewrote the scripts into C programs, but they were never released beyond unc and duke. Shortly thereafter, Steve Daniel did another implementation in the C programming language for public distribution. Tom Truscott made further modifications, and this became the "A" news release.

1981

In 1981 at the University of California at Berkeley, grad student Mark Horton and high school student Matt Glickman rewrote the news software to add functionality and to cope with the ever increasing volume of news---"A" news was intended for only a few articles per group per day. This rewrite was the "B" news version.

1982

The first public release was version 2.1 in 1982; all versions before 2.1 were considered in beta test. As The Net grew, the news software was expanded and modified. The last version maintained and released primarily by Mark was 2.10.1.

1984

Rick Adams, then at the Center for Seismic Studies, took over coordination of the maintenance and enhancement of the news software with the 2.10.2 release in 1984. By this time, the increasing volume of news was becoming a concern, and the mechanism for moderated groups was added to the software at 2.10.2. Moderated groups were inspired by ARPA mailing lists and experience with other bulletin board systems.

1986

In late 1986, version 2.11 of news was released, including a number of changes to support a new naming structure for newsgroups, enhanced batching and compression, enhanced ihave/sendme control messages, and other features. The current release of news is 2.11, patchlevel 19.

1987

A new version of news, becoming known as "C" news, has been developed at the University of Toronto by Geoff Collyer and Henry Spencer. This version is a rewrite of the lowest levels of news to increase article processing speed, decrease article expiration processing and improve the reliability of the news system through better locking, etc. The package was released to The Net in the autumn of 1987. For more information, see the paper News Need Not Be Slow, published in the Winter 1987 Usenix Technical Conference proceedings.

Usenet software has also been ported to a number of platforms, from the Amiga and IBM PCs all the way to minicomputers and mainframes.

 

§1.4. Hierarchies

Newsgroups are organized according to their specific areas of concentration. Since the groups are in a tree structure, the various areas are called hierarchies.There are seven major categories:

 COMP Topics of interest to both computer professionals and hobbyists, including topics in computer science, software sources, and information on hardware and software systems.

 MISC Group addressing themes not easily classified into any of the other headings or which incorporate themes from multiple categories. Subjects include fitness, job-hunting, law, and investments.

 SCI Discussions marked by special knowledge relating to research in or application of the established sciences.

 SOC Groups primarily addressing social issues and socializing. Included are discussions related to many different world cultures.

 TALK Groups largely debate-oriented and tending to feature long discussions without resolution and without appreciable amounts of generally useful information.

 NEWS Groups concerned with the news network, group maintenance, and software.

 REC Groups oriented towards hobbies and recreational activities

These "world" newsgroups are (usually) circulated around the entire Usenet---this implies world-wide distribution. Not all groups actually enjoy such wide distribution, however. The European Usenet and Eunet sites take only a selected subset of the more "technical" groups, and controversial "noise" groups are often not carried by many sites in the U.S. and Canada (these groups are primarily under the talk and soc classifications). Many sites do not carry some or all of the comp.binaries groups because of the typically large size of the posts in them (being actual executable programs).

Also available are a number of "alternative" hierarchies:

 ALT True anarchy; anything and everything can and does appear; subjects include sex, the Simpsons, and privacy.

 GNU Groups concentrating on interests and software with the GNU Project of the Free Software Foundation. For further info on what the FSF is, see section The Free Software Foundation.

 BIZ Business-related groups.

 

§1.5. Moderated vs Unmoderated

Some newsgroups insist that the discussion remain focused and on-target; to serve this need, moderated groups came to be. All articles posted to a moderated group get mailed to the group's moderator. He or she periodically (hopefully sooner than later) reviews the posts, and then either posts them individually to Usenet, or posts a composite digest of the articles for the past day or two. This is how many mailing list gateways work (for example, the Risks Digest).

news.groups & news.announce.newgroups

Being a good net.citizen includes being involved in the continuing growth and evolution of the Usenet system. One part of this involvement includes following the discussion in the groups news.groups and the notes in news.announce.newgroups. It is there that discussion goes on about the creation of new groups and destruction of inactive ones. Every person on Usenet is allowed and encouraged to vote on the creation of a newsgroup.

 

§1.6. How Usenet Works

The transmission of Usenet news is entirely cooperative. Feeds are generally provided out of good will and the desire to distribute news everywhere. There are places which provide feeds for a fee (e.g. UUNET), but for the large part no exchange of money is involved.

There are two major transport methods, UUCP and NNTP. The first is mainly modem-based and involves the normal charges for telephone calls. The second, NNTP, is the primary method for distributing news over the Internet.

With UUCP, news is stored in batches on a site until the neighbor calls to receive the articles, or the feed site happens to call. A list of groups which the neighbor wishes to receive is maintained on the feed site. The Cnews system compresses its batches, which can dramatically reduce the transmission time necessary for a relatively heavy newsfeed.

NNTP, on the other hand, offers a little more latitude with how news is sent. The traditional store-and-forward method is, of course, available. Given the "real-time" nature of the Internet, though, other methods have been devised. Programs now keep constant connections with their news neighbors, sending news nearly instantaneously, and can handle dozens of simultaneous feeds, both incoming and outgoing.

The transmission of a Usenet article is centered around the unique Message-ID: header. When an NNTP site offers an article to a neighbor, it says it has that specific Message ID. If the neighbor finds it hasn't received the article yet, it tells the feed to send it through; this is repeated for each and every article that's waiting for the eighbor. Using unique IDs helps prevent a system from receiving five copies of an article from each of its five news neighbors, for example.

Further information on how Usenet works with relation to the various transports is available in the documentation for the Cnews and NNTP packages, as well as in RFC-1036, the Standard for Interchange of USENET Messages and RFC-977, Network News Transfer Protocol: A Proposed Standard for the Stream-Based Transmission of News. The RFCs do tend to be rather dry reading, particularly to the new user. See section Requests for Comments for information on retrieving RFCs.

 

§1.7. Mail Gateways

A natural progression is for Usenet news and electronic mailing lists to somehow become merged---which they have, in the form of news gateways. Many mailing lists are set up to "reflect" messages not only to the readership of the list, but also into a newsgroup. Likewise, posts to a newsgroup can be sent to the moderator of the mailing list, or to the entire mailing list. Some examples of this in action are comp.risks (the Risks Digest) and comp.dcom.telecom (the Telecom Digest).

This method of propagating mailing list traffic has helped solve the problem of a single message being delivered to a number of people at the same site---instead, anyone can just subscribe to the group.

Also, mailing list maintenance is lowered substantially, since the moderators don't have to be constantly removing and adding users to and from the list. Instead, the people can read and not read the newsgroup at their leisure.

 

§1.8. Usenet "Netiquette"

There are many traditions with Usenet, not the least of which is dubbed netiquette---being polite and considerate of others.

If you follow a few basic guidelines, you, and everyone that reads your posts, will be much happier in the long run.


§2. Signatures

At the end of most articles is a small blurb called a person's signature. In Unix this file is named .signature in the person's login directory---it will vary for other operating systems. It exists to provide information about how to get in touch with the person posting the article, including their email address, phone number, address, or where they're located. Even so, signatures have become the graffiti of computers. People put song lyrics, pictures, philosophical quotes, even advertisements in their ".sigs". (Note, however, that advertising in your signature will more often than not get you DFN>flamed until you take it out.)

Four lines will suffice---more is just extra garbage for Usenet sites to carry along with your article, which is supposed to be the intended focus of the reader. Netiquette dictates limiting oneself to this "quota" of four---some people make signatures that are ten lines or even more, including elaborate ASCII drawings of their hand-written signature or faces or even the space shuttle. This is not cute, and will bother people to no end.

Similarly, it's not necessary to include your signature---if you forget to append it to an article, don't worry about it. The article's just as good as it ever would be, and contains everything you should want to say. Don't re-post the article just to include the signature.


§3. Posting Personal Messages

If mail to a person doesn't make it through, avoid posting the message to a newsgroup.

Even if the likelihood of that person reading the group is very high, all of the other people reading the articles don't give a whit what you have to say to Jim Morrison. Simply wait for the person to post again and double-check the address, or get in touch with your system administrator and see if it's a problem with local email delivery. It may also turn out that their site is down or is having problems, in which case it's just necessary to wait until things return to normal before contacting Jim.


§4. Posting Mail

In the interests of privacy, it's considered extremely bad taste to post any email that someone may have sent, unless they explicitly give you permission to redistribute it. While the legal issues can be heavily debated, most everyone agrees that email should be treated as anything that are carried with it.


§5. Test Messages

Many people, particularly new users, want to try out posting before actually taking part in discussions. Often the mechanics of getting messages out is the most difficult part of Usenet. To this end, many, many users find it necessary to post their tests to "normal" groups (for example, news.admin or comp.mail.misc). This is considered a major netiquette faux pas in the Usenet world. There are a number of groups available, called test groups, that exist solely for the purpose of trying out a news system, reader, or even new signature.

They include:

 alt.test

 gnu.gnusenet.test

 misc.test

some of which will generate auto-magic replies to your posts to let you know they made it through. There are certain denizens of Usenet that frequent the test groups to help new users out. They respond to the posts, often including the article so the poster can see how it got to the person's site. Also, many regional hierarchies have test groups, like phl.test in Philadelphia.

By all means, experiment and test---just do it in its proper place.


§6. Famous People Appearing

Every once in a while, someone says that a celebrity is accessible through "The Net"; or, even more entertaining, an article is forged to appear to be coming from that celebrity.

One example is Stephen Spielberg---the rec.arts.movies readership was in an uproar for two weeks following a couple of posts supposedly made by Mr. Spielberg. (Some detective work revealed it to be a hoax.)

There are a few well-known people that are acquainted with Usenet and computers in general---but the overwhelming majority are just normal people. One should act with skepticism whenever a notable personality is "seen" in a newsgroup.


§7. Summaries

Authors of articles occasionally say that readers should reply by mail and they'll summarize. Accordingly, readers should do just that---reply via mail. Responding with a followup article to such an article defeats the intention of the author. She, in a few days, will post one article containing the highlights of the responses she received. By following up to the whole group, the author may not read what you have to say.

When creating a summary of the replies to a post, try to make it as reader-friendly as possible. Avoid just putting all of the messages received into one big file. Rather, take some time and edit the messages into a form that contains the essential information that other readers would be interested in.

Also, sometimes people will respond but request to remain anonymous (one example is the employees of a corporation that feel the information's not proprietary, but at the same time want to protect themselves from political backlash). Summaries should honor this request accordingly by listing the From: address as anonymous or (Address withheld by request).


§8. Quoting

When following up to an article, many newsreaders provide the facility to quote the original article with each line prefixed by > , as in

In article <1232@foo.bar.com>, sharon@foo.bar.com wrote: > I agree, I think that basketweaving's really catching on, > particularly in Pennsylvania . Here's a list of every person> in PA that currently engages in it publicly: @centerline ... @rm{etc} ...

This is a severe example (potentially a horribly long article), but proves a point. When you quote another person, edit out article a better idea of what points you were addressing. By including the entire article, you'll only annoy those reading it. Also, signatures in the original aren't necessary; the readers already know who wrote it (by the attribution).

Avoid being tedious with responses---rather than pick apart an article, address it in parts or as a whole. Addressing practically each and every word in an article only proves that the person responding has absolutely nothing better to do with his time. If a "war" starts (insults and personal comments get thrown back and forth), take it into email---exchange email with the person you're arguing with. No one enjoys watching people bicker incessantly.


§9. Crossposting

The Newsgroups: line isn't limited to just one group---an article can be posted in a list of groups. For instance, the line

Newsgroups: sci.space,comp.simulation posts the article to both the groups sci.space and comp.simulation. It's usually safe to crosspost to up to three or four groups. To list more than that is considered "excessive noise." It's also suggested that if an article is crossposted a Followup-To: header be included. It should name the group to which all additional discussion should be directed to. For the above example a possible Followup-To: would be

Followup-To: sci.space which would make all followups automatically be posted to just sci.space, rather than both sci.space and comp.simulation. If every response made with a newsreader's "followup" command should go to the person posting the article no matter what, there's also a mechanism worked in to accommodate. The Followup-To: header should contain the single word poster:

Followup-To: poster Certain newsreaders will use this to sense that a reply should never be posted back onto The Net. This is often used with questions that will yield a summary of information later, a vote, or an advertisement.


§10. Recent News

One should avoid posting "recent" events---sports scores, a plane crash, or whatever people will see on the evening news or read in the morning paper. By the time the article has propagated across all of Usenet, the "news" value of the article will have become stale. (This is one case for the argument that Usenet news is.


§11. Quality of Postings

How you write and present yourself in your articles is important. If you have terrible spelling, keep a dictionary near by. If you have trouble with grammar and punctuation, try to get a book on English grammar and composition (found in many bookstores and at garage sales). By all means pay attention to what you say---it makes you who you are on The Net.

Likewise, try to be clear in what you ask. Ambiguous or vague questions often lead to no response at all, leaving the poster discouraged. Give as much essential information as you feel is necessary to let people help you, but keep it within limits. For instance, you should probably include the operating system of your computer in the post if it's needed, but don't tell everybody what peripherals you have hanging off of it.


§12. Useful Subjects

The Subject: line of an article is what will first attract people to read it---if it's vague or doesn't describe what's contained within, no one will read the article. At the same time, Subject: lines that're too wordy tend to be irritating. For example:

 Good Subject: Building Emacs on a Sun Sparc under 4.1

 Good Subject: Tryin' to find Waldo in NJ.

 Bad Subject: I can't get emacs to work !!!

 Bad Subject: I'm desperately in search of the honorable Mr. Waldo in the state of@dots

Simply put, try to think of what will best help the reader when he or she encounters your article in a newsreading session.


§13. Tone of Voice

Since common computers can't portray the inflection or tone in a person's voice, how articles are worded can directly affect the response to them. If you say

Anybody using a Vic-20 should go buy themselves a life. you'll definitely get some responses---telling you to take a leap. Rather than be inflammatory, phrase your articles in a way that rationally expresses your opinion, like

What're the practical uses of a Vic-20 these days? which presents yourself as a much more level-headed individual.

Also, what case (upper or lower) you use can indicate how you're trying to speak---netiquette dictates that if you USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, people will think you're "shouting." Write as you would in a normal letter to a friend, following traditional rules of English (or whatever language you happen to speak).


§14. Computer Religion

No matter what kind of computer a person is using, theirs is always the best and most efficient of them all. Posting articles asking questions like What computer should I buy? An Atari ST or an Amiga? will lead only to fervent arguments over the merits and drawbacks of each brand. Don't even ask The Net---go to a local user group, or do some research of your own like reading some magazine reviews. Trying to say one computer is somehow better than another is a moot point.

Frequently Asked Questions

A number of groups include Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) lists, which give the answers to questions or points that have been raised time and time again in a newsgroup. They're intended to help cut down on the redundant traffic in a group. For example, in the newsgroup alt.tv.simpsons, one recurring question is Did you notice that there's a different blackboard opening at the beginning of every Simpsons episode? As a result, it's part of the FAQ for that group.

Usually, FAQ lists are posted at the beginning of each month, and are set to expire one month later (when, supposedly, the next FAQ will be published). Nearly every FAQ is also crossposted to news.answers, which is used as a Usenet repository for them.


§15. The Pit-Manager Archive

MIT, with Jonathan Kamens, has graciously dedicated a machine to the archiving and storage of the various periodic postings that are peppered throughout the various Usenet groups. To access them, FTP to the system pit-manager.mit.edu and look in the directory /pub/usenet.


 

 

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