A Class on the Net for Librarians with Little or No Net Experience

LESSON 19: USENET: THE WILD SIDE?

"Repartee is what you wish you'd said."

-- Heywood Broun, 1968


USENET

To many people, USENET *is* the Net. Even though USENET is just one of the tools available on the Internet, many devoted USENET news fans view it as *the* networking tool of choice, but it is certainly a tool that attracts its share of controversy. In a 1995 newspaper article, columnist Andrew J. Glass, Washington Bureau chief of the Cox Newspapers, called the Internet an "electronic slum" and backed up his statement by citing examples from USENET.

What's the fuss about? Like LISTSERV and other mailing lists, USENET news is a means for interacting with special interest groups. Unlike LISTSERV, however, USENET news is not email based: subscriptions aren't necessary, and messages aren't distributed to personal mailboxes. USENET news is another client/server Internet application, with messages publicly posted for all to access. USENET news is comparable to a bulletin board system. Articles are made available via a host running a USENET news server; participants use a special interface called a news reader to read and post messages to the various news groups.

A lot of the controversy stems from the fact that the forums are public, and USENET news groups aren't always sanitized for public consumption. You will find material that may offend, but freedom of speech is something USENET fans guard zealously.

Judgements aside, USENET is a very powerful tool on the Net. It affords a measure of economy in managing discussion forums: since participants link to a local server to read current messages, multiple copies aren't distributed, taking up bandwidth on the Net and diskstorage in individual's mailboxes. No matter how many people actually read a given message, only one copy needs to be stored on any given computer network.

USENET was created in 1979 by two graduate students at Duke University and another at the University of North Carolina who got together and wrote conferencing software linking the two institutions. Word spread about the program and two years later, a graduate student at Berkeley, working with a local high school student, released a new version that was able to handle large volumes of postings. USENET was born.


Today, USENET consists of thousands of individual newsgroups, variously called conferences, forums, bboards (BBSs), or special interest groups (SIGs). There are currently more than 6,000 newsgroups operating in several different languages at roughly 190,000 sites. It is estimated that more than seven million individual users read the information at these sites. No central organization or body runs USENET. It is, indeed, a living expression of freedom of the press, because you don't have to own a press to publish your own ideas on USENET.

Newsgroup discussions focus on everything from the serious to the silly, and, as noted above, sometimes the profane; topics range from computer network operations to tv sitcoms, from the radical left to the religious right.

Most newsreader software presents current messages through a menuing system that displays the various major subject categories. You select from the menu and are then presented with a subset of newsgroups assigned to the category. You select the newsgroup you're interested in and start reading and/or posting.

USENET is divided into broad subject categories, such as the following:


alt  -- controversial or "alternative" topics

bit  -- redistributions of a subset of LISTSERV mailing lists

comp -- computers and related subjects

misc -- discussions that don't fit anywhere else

news -- USENET news and software

rec  -- arts, hobbies, and recreation

sci  -- scientific research and application

soc  -- social issues and ethnicity

talk -- politics & related topics; (debate-oriented & long-winded)

In addition, many host systems carry newsgroups for a particular city, state or region. A growing number carry K12 newsgroups, which are aimed at elementary and secondary teachers and students. And a number of sites carry clari newsgroups, which are actually part of a commercial service consisting of wire service stories and a unique online computer news service. New newsgroups form daily. Some are long-lived, some die young. Some maintain archival files that can be retrieved months, even years, later.

From your site, you may not be able to access all of the USENET categories or the full range of their subsets because your host system, like many, may carry only certain newsgroups (yes, some sites do censor available groups; others limit the number of groups they distribute to save diskspace on the server). If you want to follow a newsgroup that isn't currently available on your news server, talk to the system administrator. Sometimes you may be accommodated!

Here are some examples of newsgroups and their discussion topics:

NOTE: There is an extensive listing of newsgroups in Eric Braun's _The Internet Directory_ and a comprehensive listing of "scholarly" newsgroups in Diane Kovacs' Directory of Scholarly and Professional E-Conferences (http://n2h2.com/KOVACS/). You'll also find newsgroup FAQs and archives at Reference.Com http://www.reference.com and at the Usenet Launchpad website: http://sunsite.unc.edu/usenet-i/

In his "Roadmaps" online workshop, Patrick Crispen describes USENET as "an international meeting place, where people gather to meet their friends, discuss the day's events, keep up with computer trends or talk about whatever's on their mind." Says Crispen:

Jumping into a USENET discussion can be a liberating experience. Nobody knows what you look or sound like, how old you are, what your background is. You're judged solely on your words, your ability to make a point.

(Some of you may have seen the now classic cartoon that appeared a few years ago in the _New Yorker_, showing a canine at a computer saying "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.")

READING, POSTING, AND RESPONDING

In order to read, post and respond to newsgroups, you must first have newsreader software that is installed either on your host server or on your own computer. This software usually allows you to save and download articles to your own computer system. Most likely, it will allow you to select from a list of subject headings and will delete references to articles you have already read.

Some newsreader software will allow you to follow a "thread," a topic of conversation that interests you and to eliminate articles that don't interest you; this is like compiling your own 'reading list" so that you see only messages from discussions you choose. A few newsreader programs will allow you to create a "kill" file of topics or email addresses of people whose postings you definitely DON'T want to see.

ALTERNATE MEANS OF ACCESS

WWW browsers also allow you to interact with USENET newsgroups. Some browsers, such as Netscape, provide a menu interface to available newsgroups, but any browser will allow you to open a specific newsgroup. For example, to open the newsgroup alt.quotations, just use the following URL format:
news:alt.quotations. (A very few browsers may require that you include the hostname of your news server, e.g. "news://somefunserver.edu/alt.quotations", in the URL.)

So, let's assume that you've read and read the postings in a particular newsgroup, and now you're ready to respond. The best advice I can give you is:

  1. look for FAQs on your newsgroup,

  2. "lurk" before you speak, and

  3. follow the "netiquette" guidelines presented in Lesson 11.

In addition to newsgroups, here's some other means of Internet communication you may be able to access:

IRC

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) is as close to the CB radio as you can get on the Internet. Not only do you use "channels," but you can create a nickname, or "handle" for yourself whenever you go online. If your host system supports IRC, you can hold live keyboard conversations, or "chats," with people around the globe. An interactive program, IRC lets you talk to anyone who happens to be online at the same time and on the same channel that you are. There may already be a chat in progress when you sign on. If so, you begin to receive messages immediately. You can join the conversation or you can choose to move to another unused channel and set up a conversation of your own. In IRC you compose an entire line of text before sending it off.

IRC has been used to get out the latest information on fast breaking stories. According to _EEF's Guide to the Internet_, when the Russian politicians barricaded themselves inside the parliament building in 1993, on-the-scene, up-to-the minute accounts were broadcast from Moscow on IRC. Similarly, in 1994, Los Angeles residents used IRC to relay information to the world about the Northridge earthquake.

To find out if your system supports IRC, you can query your system provider. As with other internet tools, there are a number of protocols you must learn. Check with your system provider for specifics.

TALK

If your host system does not support IRC, you can access TALK, by telnetting into a "MUD." (You'll find these sites listed in books, magazine articles, and by searching Yahoo, for example, on the Web.) MUDs (Multiple-User Dimensions or Dungeons) began as platforms for live, role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, but they soon expanded to include a much wider audience. You also may be able to access a TALK client directly from your workstation, if a TALK client is installed; check with your sysadmin.

Unlike IRC, which is designed for group discussions, TALK is a two-person communication service. When you initiate TALK, you must give the system the address of the person to whom you wish to speak. That person is notified and if (s)he agrees, the session begins. The software splits your screen in two; you type on one side and (s)he types on the other. You both see what the other person is typing. Since we all type much slower than we talk, multiple lines of conversation appear that seem to overlap each other. Those who've tried it say, "It's a strange experience."

My system does not support IRC, and I haven't experienced MUDs; maybe just as well -- here's what Patrick Crispen has to say about the subject in his "Roadmaps" online workshop:

  1. IRC, MUDs and MOOs are time *sponges*! They will suck up all of your time if you are not careful.
  2. Most Internet Service providers frown on your using their system to access a "chat" service during business hours (for obvious reasons.) Please check to see what your provider's policies are *BEFORE* you join a talker.
  3. Chat services seem to be a magnet for liars. People pretend to be more than they are, and they will say whatever is necessary to boost their own 'image.' Please be careful and consider EVERYTHING that you hear over a talker to be, at best, an exaggeration or, at worst, a bald-faced lie.
  4. If you see someone on one of the social MUDs named SimGod who says "ROLL TIDE" a lot, what out ... he's a squirrel : )
excerpted from "Roadmaps" by Patrick Crispen, (alias "the squirrel")

While Patrick's sentiments are shared by many, serious (and not-so-serious) Internet "conferencing" communications applications and WWW 'plugins' are a booming area of net development these days. Virtual "whiteboard" applications (share your doodles with your colleagues), web-based chats, video and audio conferencing systems for the net, and "phone" (where, yes, you can "call" individual parties without the phone charges -- very popular with long-distance carriers!) are all available. Check out Yahoo on chats, internet phone, Dave Wooley's Web Conferencing Software Guide, John December's Group Communications Tools summary, and the TeamWave homepage (free whiteboard/chat for educational use) for more info on net collaboration software.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT

ELECTRONIC WEB RESOURCES

Check out the following web sites for more info on USENET, IRC, and TALK:


* "BCK2SKOL" is a free electronic library classroom created by Ellen Chamberlain, Head Librarian, University of South Carolina Beaufort, and Miriam Mitchell, Sr. Systems Analyst, USC Columbia. Additional support is provided by the Division of Libraries & Information Systems, University of South Carolina Columbia.


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