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Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea—massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it. Eugene Spafford
You need two things on Usenet—a civil tongue and a thick skin. Steve Dorner

Introduction to Usenet

Usenet is a worldwide distributed electronic bulletin board system. Several million people participate in Usenet. People discuss nearly every topic imaginable, ranging from recreational topics like archery and popular music to technical and scientific topics like artificial intelligence and the human genome mapping project.

Usenet started in late 1979. It was originally used at just a few sites in North Carolina to exchange technical information in the early UNIX computing community. Many programmers contributed to the further development of the system. The modern version of Usenet based on the standard NNTP protocol (Network News Transfer Protocol) was developed in the 1980s. The NNTP standard encouraged the development of a number of different kinds of servers and newsreading software on a wide variety of mainframe computers and minicomputers. Throughout the 1980s, Usenet grew at a rapid rate, but was still primarily used by professional computer people, scientists, and engineers. People began to use Usenet to discuss more topics than just computers. In the early 1990s, newsreading software for personal computers began to appear, and for the first time large numbers of non-technical people began to participate. Today, Usenet has outgrown its roots as a highly technical system only used by computing professionals to discuss computing issues. Usenet is now used by all sorts of people to discuss all sorts of topics.

Unlike commercial online services like CompuServe and America Online, there is no central authority which controls or operates Usenet. It is a distributed system. Each site is expected to operate its own special "news server" computer which contains a full copy of all the news. The computers at these sites run special news server software which communicates with other sites periodically to exchange new articles. A new site joins Usenet by finding a nearby site which will agree to act as a "news feed" for the site. In turn, new sites are usually expected to agree to act as "feeds" for additional new sites in the future. The system grows in a completely unorganized, unplanned, and frequently chaotic fashion.

Usenet is organized as a very large collection of separate "newsgroups" (or just "groups" for short). Each group is devoted to a single topic. For example, the "alt.archery" group is devoted to discussing archery, "comp.sys.mac.apps" is devoted to talking about Mac application software, and so on. Most sites offer somewhere between 4,000 and 25,000 different groups. The system administrators at each site decide which groups are available at that site.

Groups are named by words separated by periods. The first word in the group name identifies the broad category of topic. For example, the "comp" groups are for computer topics, the "rec" groups are for recreational topics, the "sci" groups are for scientific topics, the "soc" groups are for social topics, and so on. The "alt" groups are a free-for-all collection of miscellaneous groups ("alt" stands for "alternate"). The subsequent words in the group name further narrow the scope of the topic. For example, "comp.sys.mac.apps" is a computer group first ("comp"), then a group about a particular kind of computer system ("sys"), then a group about the Macintosh ("mac"), then a group about applications ("apps"). The group names form a hierarchy.

Groups contain individual "articles". Writing an article and sending it to a group is called "posting". When someone posts an article, it often leads to a sequence of replies called "followups". The original article together with its followups constitute a continuing discussion called a "thread".

When you post an article, you can send it to more than one group at the same time. This is called "cross-posting".

Discussions about controversial topics often lead to long threads which contain very passionate debate. All too often, these debates get out of control and degenerate into diatribes and exchanges of insults and personal attacks. These kinds of articles are called "flames", and the threads are called "flame wars".

When people reply to an article, they usually include the parts of the article to which they are directly responding in their followup, with the included text marked with the special ">" character. This is called "quoting".

Most groups are unrestricted. Anyone can read them, and anyone can contribute new articles to them. Some groups are "moderated". Anyone can read a moderated group, but all postings are automatically mailed to a "moderator" who decides whether or not they become part of the group. Moderated groups tend to be more focused and formal than the unmoderated groups, and they often have less traffic. "comp.sys.mac.announce" and "comp.binaries.mac" are examples of moderated groups.

Most groups are distributed all over the world. Some groups have more restrictive distribution. In particular, many sites have "local groups" which are not distributed outside the site.

Sometimes people attach specially encoded files to their postings. These files can be pictures, sounds, programs, documents, or any other kind of file. These attached files are called "binaries". Some groups are used almost exclusively for distributing files in this way. These are commonly called "binary groups". For example, "comp.binaries.mac" is used to distribute Mac freeware and shareware and demo programs and other Mac files.

Usenet is huge, and you can't possibly participate in all the groups. Most people like to build a small collection of groups which they are most interested in reading most of the time. Adding a group to this personal collection is called "subscribing", and removing a group from this collection is called "unsubscribing".

Articles do not stay on servers forever. News server administrators configure them to delete old articles after a certain period of time. Administrators can adjust these "expiration periods" on a group-by-group basis. Expiration periods vary widely from site to site, and are usually dictated by the amount of disk space available on the server.

Many people enjoy reading the news, but never post or post infrequently. There's nothing wrong with this. It's called "lurking".

Articles are divided into two parts: the "header" and the "body". The header contains addressing and other information about the article, while the body contains the actual article text. The header is further divided into individual "header lines". For example, the "From" header line identifies the author of the article, the "Subject" header line contains the subject of the article, and the "Date" header line specifies the date and time the article was posted.

One of the most popular traditions on Usenet is the "signature" (or just "sig" for short). Your signature appears at the end of all the articles you post. In addition to giving your name, email address, and other information, some people like to add aphorisms, jokes, quotes, song lyrics, and other personal items to their signatures.

Many groups have specific written charters. In addition, in many groups a volunteer or volunteers (or the group's moderator) maintain special lists of frequently asked questions on the group (and their answers, of course). The charter and/or the lists are posted periodically as special articles in the group called "FAQs". FAQs for many groups are archived at FAQs are also available at the web site

Note: MT-NewsWatcher can tell your browser to automatically display the FAQ for a selected group. Select the group you wish to display the FAQ for in a group window, or the full groups list. Select Get Newsgroup FAQ from the Special menu, and MT-NW tells your browser to load the FAQ.

It is difficult to convey emotion and subtle nuances on Usenet. In an attempt to substitute for facial expressions and other ways of conveying this kind of information, people often use something called "smilies". For example, the smiley :-) indicates an attempt at humor, often sarcasm. When you see this smiley, it is a signal that perhaps you shouldn't take what the author said too seriously. This smiley represents a smiling face on its side. Similarly, the smiley :-( indicates sadness. There are many variations on this theme. The smiley dictionary has quite a collection.

Finally, you will see many acronyms used widely on Usenet. The most common ones are:

BTW by the way
IMHO in my humble opinion
AFAIK as far as I know
IIRC if I remember correctly
FAQ frequently asked question
OTH on the other hand
HTH hope this helps
LOL laugh out loud
ROTFL rolling on the floor laughing
RTFM read the f__king manual
FYI for your information
FUBAR F__ked up beyond all repair/recognition


Usenet has an established culture with traditions, rules and regulations, and standards of conduct. These conventions are collectively referred to as "Usenet etiquette" or "network etiquette" or just "netiquette" for short. In most cases, they are not enforced by any central authority, rather by very strong peer pressure. Most of these rules are simple common sense.

For an amusing and instructive satire on netiquette, see the news.announce.newusers article titled "Emily Postnews Answers Your Questions on Netiquette". Other excellent articles in the same group are "A Primer on How to Work with the Usenet Community" and "Rules for posting to Usenet".

  • Don't threaten, abuse, or slander people. Don't post copyrighted material without the permission of the publisher. You are responsible and legally liable for your postings, and you could be sued. Take this seriously -- it has happened.
  • Try to be nice to each other. Feel free to be critical, but be polite. Avoid attacking people's intelligence or character. Remember that real live human beings will read your posting. Don't post comments which you wouldn't say to a person face-to-face. For example, say "I don't agree with this idea" rather than "I think you are full of shit." The former is much more likely than the latter to lead to an intelligent and productive discussion.
  • Try to avoid posting flames or participating in flame wars. It's just not worth it. Most people consider excessive flaming to be a sign of immaturity and emotional instability. If you get flamed, try not to take it personally. Take some time to cool off a bit before posting a followup. Better yet, just ignore the flame and don't followup at all.
  • When being sarcastic, if there's any danger of misinterpretation, use a smiley. Excessive sarcasm is often counter-productive and hurts people's feelings, even when it's unintentional.
  • People discuss anything and everything on Usenet, including politics, religion, and sex. If you are at all sensitive about any of these topics, or if you are at all easily offended, avoid the groups devoted to these topics.
  • Be coherent and concise. People hate long rambling articles which don't get to the point quickly.
  • Use concise but descriptive subjects. People should be able to get a good idea of what your posting is about just by looking at the subject line.
  • Use correct grammar and spelling, but don't bother to flame other's bad grammar and spelling. It's not worth it, and it's flailing at windmills anyway.
  • Avoid long rambling signatures. Keep your sig short and simple. MT-NewsWatcher encourages the "McQuary limit" for signatures-at most four lines of at most 80 characters each; if you enter a longer sig in the Personalities dialog, it will warn you. You cannot enter a sig longer than 8 lines.
  • Avoid unnecessary quoting. For example, it is considered very bad form to quote all of a long article and then add a single line of text saying "me too". Take the time to edit the quoted text to the bare minimum. Only quote text which is directly relevant to your replies. Place your replies so that they immediately follow the relevant sections of quoted text. Don't quote people's signatures (MT-NewsWatcher will automatically remove properly delimited signatures). This convention is such a tradition on Usenet that many news servers are configured to reject postings with more quoted text than new text.
  • When you subscribe to a new group, lurk for a while to get used to the group's focus and culture before posting. Check to see if the group has a FAQ. If it does, read it before posting, especially before asking questions. Nothing annoys regular readers of a group more than newbies asking the same simple questions from the FAQ over and over again.
  • If you are asking a question on a computer group about some particular program, check the user document for the program before asking the question. For example, it's amazing how many questions get asked about MT-NewsWatcher on comp.sys.mac.comm which are answered in this document (see Appendix F in particular). Often, such a question on comp.sys.mac.comm elicits an annoyed "RTFM" response from other readers or from your humble author.
  • Avoid excessive cross-posting (posting the same message to more than one group). In most cases, it's best to avoid cross-posting altogether. Pick the group which is most appropriate for your posting and use that one. Cross-posting to a huge number of groups is called "spamming", and it is universally despised.
  • If you must cross-post, don't post separate copies of your message to each group. Instead, select all the groups you want to post to, and then do 'New Message'. This allows smart news clients (like MT-NewsWatcher) to ignore all copies of your cross-post after the user has seen it in one group. Then, consider using the Followup-To header line to limit followup postings to a single group. Also consider using a "Followup-To: poster" header line to request that replies be sent to you via email rather than being posted. If you use a Followup-To header, mention it in the body of your posting so that people know what you are doing.
  • Don't post test messages to the regular groups. Only use special test groups which were explicitly created for this purpose. Most sites will have a local test group; if yours does not, try alt.test or misc.test
  • In almost all cases, it is considered very bad form to use Usenet for blatantly commercial purposes. When selling something, use the groups explicitly created for posting for-sale articles. There are also several groups for job offers and job requests. Use them.
  • Advertising for commercial products is inappropriate in almost all groups. Non-hyped announcements of new products, offers of free demos of products, and technical support for products are welcome in many groups, however.
  • Post articles to appropriate groups. For example, technical Mac programming questions belong in comp.sys.mac.programmer, not in the other Mac groups. Don't assume you know which groups are appropriate just from the group names.
  • When asking a question, consider offering to gather replies via email and post a summary.
  • If you change the topic of conversation in the middle of a thread, change the subject header.
  • When answering a question, consider a direct email reply in addition to or instead of a followup posting.
  • When posting information which is of interest only to an audience in a limited geographical area (e.g., a local restaurant review), post to a group which has its distribution limited to that area (e.g., chi.eats).
  • In many binary groups, the tradition is to post only binaries to the group. Questions and answers and discussions about the binaries often take place in a different group devoted to that purpose.
  • Don't use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS in your posts. Nothing screams "newbie" more than this. This practice is called "shouting".
  • Some groups are devoted to discussing a particular band, author, kind of computer, TV show, or whatever. You may not like that band, author, kind of computer, TV show, or whatever. Don't post flame-bait articles denigrating the subject of the group. For example, posting a "Pearl Jam Sucks" article on would not be viewed kindly.
  • Read the entire thread before following up to an article in the thread. Often, you will find that someone else has already answered the question or made the same point you were thinking of making. This is a common source of embarrassment for posters.
  • Don't quote private email in postings without the author's permission. This is very rude.
  • Don't get sucked in and spend all your time on the net. Addiction is bad. Moderation is good. Get a life. Go outside every once and a while. Talk to real live people face-to-face as much as possible. The net can be fun, and it can even be very seriously productive and important, but it's not the real world.
  • Don't believe everything you read on the net (or anywhere else, for that matter). There's tons of misinformation, silliness, and downright stupidity on Usenet. There's also some useful correct information and some intelligent commentary posted on rare occasions. Be discriminating. After you have participated in a group for a while, you'll get to know which people know what they are talking about (if any). :-)

Spaf's Words of Wisdom

The following words of wisdom are by Eugene Spafford ("Spaf"), a professor of computer science at Purdue University, a leading authority on computer security and ethics, one of the founding fathers of Usenet, and a self-proclaimed semi-pro curmudgeon.

People rail about their "rights" without understanding that every right carries responsibilities that need to be observed too, not least of which is to respect others' rights as you would have them respect your own. Reason, etiquette, accountability, and compromise are strangers in far too many newsgroups these days.

Axiom #1
The Usenet is not the real world. The Usenet usually does not even resemble the real world.
Corollary #1
Attempts to change the real world by altering the structure of the Usenet is an attempt to work sympathetic magic -- electronic voodoo.
Corollary #2
Arguing about the significance of newsgroup names and their relation to the way people really think is equivalent to arguing whether it is better to read tea leaves or chicken entrails to divine the future.
Axiom #2
Ability to type on a computer terminal is no guarantee of sanity, intelligence, or common sense.
Corollary #3
An infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of keyboards could produce something like Usenet.
Corollary #4
They could do a better job of it.
Axiom #3
Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to Usenet.
Corollary #5
In an unmoderated newsgroup, no one can agree on what constitutes the 10%.
Corollary #6
Nothing guarantees that the 10% isn't crap, too.

And finally, perhaps Spaf's best advice of all Don't sweat it—it's not real life. It's only ones and zeroes.

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