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The Global Watering Hole

Imagine a conversation carried out over a period of hours and days, as if people were leaving messages and responses on a bulletin board. Or imagine the electronic equivalent of a radio talk show where everybody can put their two cents in and no one is ever on hold.

Unlike e-mail, which is usually "one-to-one," Usenet is "many-to-many." Usenet is the 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. 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.

To many people, Usenet IS the Net. In fact, it is often confused with Internet. But it is a totally separate system. All Internet sites CAN carry Usenet, but so do many non-Internet sites, from sophisticated Unix machines to old XT clones and Apple IIs.

Technically, Usenet messages are shipped around the world, from host system to host system, using one of several specific Net protocols. Your host system stores all of its Usenet messages in one place, which everybody with an account on the system can access. That way, no matter how many people actually read a given message, each host system has to store only one copy of it. Many host systems "talk" with several others regularly in case one or another of their links goes down for some reason. When two host systems connect, they basically compare notes on which Usenet messages they already have. Any that one is missing the other then transmits, and vice-versa. Because they are computers, they don't mind running through thousands, even millions, of these comparisons every day.

Yes, millions. For Usenet is huge. Every day, Usenet users pump upwards of 40 million characters a day into the system -- roughly the equivalent of volumes A-G of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Obviously, nobody could possibly keep up with this immense flow of messages. Let's look at how to find conferences and discussions of interest to you.

The basic building block of Usenet is the newsgroup, which is a collection of messages with a related theme (on other networks, these would be called conferences, forums, boards or special-interest groups). There are now more than 5,000 of these newsgroups, in several diferent languages, covering everything from art to zoology, from science fiction to South Africa.

Some public-access systems, typically the ones that work through menus, try to make it easier by dividing Usenet into several broad categories. Choose one of those and you're given a list of newsgroups in that category. Then select the newsgroup you're interested in and start reading.

Other systems let you compile your own "reading list" so that you only see messages in conferences you want. In both cases, conferences are arranged in a particular hierarchy devised in the early 1980s. Newsgroup names start with one of a series of broad topic names. For example, newsgroups beginning with "comp." are about particular computer-related topics. These broad topics are followed by a series of more focused topics (so that comp.unix groups are limited to discussion about Unix). The main hierarchies are:

Research biology

Conferences originating as Bitnet mailing lists


Computers and related subjects

Discussions that don't fit anywhere else

News about Usenet itself

Hobbies, games and recreation

Science other than research biology

"Social" groups, often ethnically related

Politics and related topics

Controversial or unusual topics; not carried by all sites

In addition, many host systems carry newsgroups for a particular city, state or region. For example, ne.housing is a newsgroup where New Englanders look for apartments. A growing number also carry K12 newsgroups, which are aimed at elementary and secondary teachers and students. And a number of sites carry clari newsgroups, which is actually a commercial service consisting of wire-service stories and a unique online computer news service (see section News of the World).

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