Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Usenet and newsgroups in a nutshell. Read all about it!

Wednesday, June 28, 2000 1

The best way to help you grasp the concept of newsgroups is probably to compare them to something which you're more familiar with. So, just to make sure we're on the same page, picture an all singing, all dancing state of the art forum. Got that? Now mentally remove all the graphics, the pretty emoticons, avatars, signature graphics, the whole shebang really. Now take away the community spirit, the personal touch and the sense of organization and what you're left with is pretty much the essence of a newsgroup. They've been around since the beginning of time (at least in internet terms), silently lurking in the background with all the pizzazz of a day out in Scunthorpe - the fact that they exist at all often escapes people's notice until they've been using the net for quite some time. As you can tell I'm not the world's biggest fan of newsgroups, but even I have to admit they do still have a lot to offer. What they do, they do well. They're functional, nothing more. You can get in, get what you want quickly and effortlessly and get out again all in the blink of a weary net surfer's eye, which makes them perfect for leeches and lurkers. Personally I happen to believe that there should be more to online communities than quickie downloads, but then everyone's entitled to their own opinion aren't they.

If it helps to put things in perspective, you can think of newsgroups as public notice boards where anyone and everyone can come along, read what has already been written in addition to writing their own messages which can then be pinned up alongside all the other notes. Each notice board contains messages concerning one or a handful of very specific topics that can be as diverse as the people who use them. The conglomeration of all the individual newsgroups, which literally number tens of thousands, comprise what is known as 'Usenet'. Luckily for us, each individual newsgroup isn't left to swim alone in the sea of information that is the net - they are grouped together by their general theme and named accordingly to make them easier to locate. Take the '' newsgroup for example. The prefix 'rec' places the group squarely in the recreation category. As we move from left to right we are given more specific hierarchical information which helps us to get a feel for what the group is all about. It doesn't take a genius to work out that the people participating in this newsgroup will be especially interested, or even dangerously obsessed with that timeless kid's past time, building things out of plastic interconnecting bricks.

Most newsgroup prefixes are fairly self explanatory, which is handy because it means that you don't need to consult a newsgroup manual to work out what sort of theme any particular group is concerned with. Newsgroups prefixed with 'alt' for instance, are designated as alternative discussion arenas, whereas the prefix 'news' indicates that a group is specifically tailored to the discussion of the Usenet system itself. One of the largest categorical divisions, however, is marked with the prefix 'binaries'. You can expect the subscribers of any newsgroup with such a prefix to be most interested in downloading encoded text files, which once decoded can be used in a myriad of different ways. These transformed text files can range from pictures and movies to music and software. The ability to effortlessly harvest this seemingly boundless content represents one of newsgroup's greatest appeals. Amongst the decipherable text messages you will receive via your newsgroup reader you will find segments of larger files encoded as what appear to be gibberish ascii characters. These can be split up to enable them to be transferred over the net via limited capacity newsgroup servers - this is why they are considered an especially suitable medium for the distribution for spanned, compressed archives.

So how do you reap the benefits of these miraculous resources? First of all you're going to need what's known as a newsgroup reader - Forte Agent available from is a particularly good specimen. Alternatively, if you're happy to lay out the welcome mat for malware and let it run riot on your system you can use Outlook Express, which more than likely you will already have installed. If this is the case, all you have to do to get started is visit the menu bar at the top of your screen, select the 'tools' option and click on 'accounts'. From within the ensuing dialog box prod the 'add' button and select 'news' from the expanding options menu.

Outlook Express being the inquisitive creature that it is will now ask you which news (or NNTP) server you would like to use to connect to Usenet. Ideally you would want to use the one provided by your ISP - since this is included in the monthly price you're paying for internet access, at least in theory it should be superior to the free ones available elsewhere. The name of your ISP's news server is nearly always the name of your ISP prefixed with the word 'news' or 'nntp' separated by a dot. For instance, if your ISP is Freeserve, the server name you need to enter into Outlook Express would be '' - if in doubt check the FAQs on your ISP's home page.

My tightwad ISP doesn't provide an NNTP server, so now what? You might want to consider subscribing to an independent news server. Last time I checked, eight-ish dollars a month was the average you could expect to pay for such a service. If protecting your anonymity whilst posting messages to newsgroups is of concern to you, you might like to look into the unmonitored options these companies offer. Otherwise shop around for a more advanced newsgroup reader - one equipped with built-in privacy protection features. Keep an eye open for the keyword 'proxy' as you explore your newsgroup reader's help files and you won't go far wrong. That said, many proxies aren't really anonymous at all despite their claims to be. To make sure you know which category yours falls into before using it you can perform an anonymity status check using the proxy tools cited in my anonymity tutorial.

A spot of Googling will soon reveal that a miniscule number of public news servers are provided free of charge, whilst the majority have to be paid for. Since almost anything freely available online is going to be highly sought after, you can expect the free servers to be oversubscribed and infuriatingly slow. Nonetheless, if you're prepared to accept this drawback and embrace a freebie server, I would advise you to visit dmoz's list of free NNTP news servers to see what is on offer.

So you've decided which news server to use, now what? You will be prompted to type in the name and email address you would like to be displayed alongside your posts, if you intend to make any. It is probably wise to use a fake name and/or email address here to maintain your anonymity and prevent your inbox from filling up with the spam of unscrupulous newsgroup email address harvesters. Alternatively, you may want to consider using a 'spam only' email address so that people can still get in touch with you if necessary. Whatever you decide, enter this information now and click 'OK' to progress to the next stage.

With these precursors out of the way, Outlook will ask you if you would like to download a list of all the newsgroups available for subscription. Select 'yes' and wait a moment or two while the information is processed. Decisions, decisions, which ones to choose? Tough isn't it? One way of selecting a newsgroup you wish to join is to scan through the names of all the groups sequentially until you find an interesting sounding one, but this is likely to take you all day. A better way is to narrow down the list using keywords, just as you would when using a search engine to filter out irrelevant web sites.

If you're in the fortunate position of already knowing the names of the newsgroups you would like to subscribe to you can tap in a partial address; if they are supported by your newsgroup server, Outlook Express will automatically fill in the remaining nodes of the address for you. Yet if your ISP is especially over zealous with regard to censorship, don't be surprised if no matches are found at all. If, for legal reasons, the newsgroups you wish to join aren't supported by your ISP you will have to go in search of an uncensored third party server.

Once you've found a selection of groups you wish to participate in, simply click on each one while holding down the control key and poke the 'subscribe' button to add them to your short list. If you glance in the direction of your inbox and then cast your eyes downwards slightly you will see that your newsgroup server has been appended to the bottom of the list of folders, and underneath that is a list of the newsgroups you are currently subscribed to. If you select one of these and click on the 'synchronize' button, a pre-designated number of message headers will be downloaded and placed in the area where the body of your emails usually appear. Note that it is only the headers you are downloading at this stage, not the contents of the messages or the encoded 'attachments'. To read one of these messages simply click on the header and wait for the message body to download.

Having lurked in one of your chosen groups for a while you will get a feel for the sort of subjects considered to be 'on-topic'. When you're ready to contribute to the discussions or share a file or two with the other subscribers all you have to do is click on the 'new post' button, type in a subject title, the body of your message and attach any files you want to upload using the 'attach' button. Surprisingly enough, the final stage involves hitting the 'send' button. If you wish to 'cross-post' - post to multiple newsgroups simultaneously that is - enter the names of all the newsgroups you wish to contribute to into the newsgroup field - separated with commas - and press 'send' in the usual manner.

But enough chat, you want to download the latest digital delicacies, right? Well to do this you are going to have to get to grips with the encoded gibberish text files we spoke of earlier. These aren't really attachments in the usual sense of the word, but since visualizing them as such will likely aid your understanding of the process I won't split hairs. If a message is accompanied with an attachment, a paperclip icon will appear adjacent to the message subject line along with the size in kilobytes of the attached file. Attachments are actually binary files that have been encoded using the UUENCODE format, which to the naked eye looks like scrambled text. This is because to use these attachments as they were intended to be used they first have to be decoded and combined (if they are spanned across multiple posts). To save an attachment contained within a single post simply select 'save as' from the 'file' menu and choose a place to store it. On the other hand, if the file you want to keep is a multi part attachment you will have to select all the messages the file is spanned across using the left mouse button and control key and select 'combine and decode' from the 'message' menu. Whenever you do this you will be asked to arrange the files in sequential order using the up and down arrows. Complete this task and all that remains to be done is to 'OK' the operation and choose a place to store the resultant decoded file.

Other operations you may wish to perform include replying to a post while quoting the author, and contacting the author privately via email. To perform the former, click on the header of the message you want to reply to, press the right mouse button and click on the 'reply to group' button - a new, pre-formatted message window will surface complete with a quoted text appendage to inform other subscribers what it is you are referring to. To execute the latter task, right-click on the message posted by the person you want to contact, press the right mouse button and select 'reply to sender'.

That just about covers the basics of using a news reader to browse the Usenet archives. Congratulations - that's another new skill you've added to your inventory. Some people hate installing extra software that must be regularly maintained and upgraded unless it is absolutely essential to do so. If you're especially opposed to the idea of using a software client to visit your favourite newsgroups, you'll be delighted to know that you can achieve the same ends by visiting a web based Usenet service instead. News reader or web site? The choice is yours.

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