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[Tools] How To Use Usenet: A Biased Introduction

trn usenet client

trn usenet client (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usenet was the first discussion board on the Internet, way before there were things like the world wide web or anything really graphical. Yes, there was a time when the internet existed that was there before there was HTML.

A lot of people seem to forget that, but the net did not just pop into being in the beginning of the 90s to provide us with the unlimited stream of cat pictures and porn that we have now.
Usenet is actually a very interesting concept, not quite the same as email technically, but not so different either.

When connected to a server one can download a stream of messages connected with a certain newsgroup, not unlike one would download mails, then disconnect, read through the messages, write responses that also would be posted to this group, and the next time one connected to the server those would be posted to the group, and then distributed to all other servers that carried the group in question. At the same time one would download a new batch of mails.
For me this is one of the most well designed technologies of the last 40 years. It is decentralized (one does only connect to a server, which in turn connects to others), it allows for discussions even with unsteady internet connections (less of a problem today than it was before), and it is low resource (all the messages are barely altered plain text and can be worked on in most email programs).
Unfortunately it also is a little bit more complicated getting it running that a simple click on the browser and navigation to some message board is. That is also one of the reasons why it has been dying a slow death for the last 15 years or so.
But then again, it’s still there. It still survived the onslaught of spammers and distractions by shiny new HTML pages over time quite nicely. Right now most of it is used for file sharing, so at least part of the Usenet is brimming with activity: One can, in certain groups, attach files (so called binaries) to the messages, and distribute them like normal messages. This is used as an easy and secure way for file sharing, but it is rather resource intensive for the server, so most of the services that allow this have to be paid.
I am not really interested in that part of the Usenet anyway, I am more interested in the discussion forums. So this article will talk about those.
There are a lot of them, and not all of them are active. Actually quite a lot of them are not and never were. Estimates as to how much of Usenet is  still in use vary, but technically there are hundreds of thousands of groups, and the amount of really active ones is about 800-1000, with around 10.000-20.000 having at least sporadic messages. But those statistics are a few years old, so take them with a grain of salt.
But even then, there are a lot of groups that are still active, in use, and which still get a lot of messages. Well, comparatively a lot at least. There used to be so much more each day, but that was a long time ago.

Why use Usenet

Yes, why should anyone actually get on there at all? That is a good question, especially with so many alternatives around, so why go through all the trouble to get there in the first place?
Well, some of the reasons for me are:

  • it has a nicer interface. This is purely subjective of course, but I feel much better writing in a Newsreader/Email-Program than I feel writing in the typical forum. Mostly because in my experience for some reason every fourth or fifth message I write in most forums is lost due to technical problems. Something that hasn’t happened with me on Usenet. It does not freeze up just like that.
  • there is no moderation. Free speech! yaaaaaay. You can post whatever you want and it will be on there. This might also be one of the worse parts of Usenet though. The lack of moderation in most groups sometimes leads to some nutcases taking on the group as their personal soapbox. People can moderate what they read on the net though, through use of filters. Your right to say anything doesn’t mean that anybody has to listen.
  • There is not just one access to it. What happens if a web forum goes down? Be it either by acccident or by lack of funding/interest, if a forum goes down the community of it is shattered, and it might be nearly Impossible to get back whatever it was that was written on that forum. Usenet is not like that: one server is just one server in a sea of many of them, and as long as there are at least two servers that agree on sharing a group with each other the group still will be there. What won’t be there might be the archives of the whole group, but that’s where Google Groups and competitors come in
  • It’s searchable to way back. Newsposts can actually be searched through by web interfaces. The biggest and most available archive for things like that would be Google Groups, which originated in a different service called DejaNews. it allows searching through messages that go back into the 1980s. In other words, it’s a forum with a continouus history since 1980 or so

How to get there

To access usenet one needs acess to the internet, somehow.
Most ISPs used to provide usenet access, but this is not the case anymore. You might check if yours still provides access. (I know that mine does, but considering it’s instructions are in Polish and it’s bureaucracy worse than the local tax office I never bothered to check more than that)
There also are a few public servers which provide free access without any problems. The easiest in my opinion is news.aioe.org, an Italian server that carries one of the broadest spectrums of text groups possible. Aioe is a nice project that wants to help free communication in the world, and for the beginning it might be best to use this to have a look at the whole thing. It does limit the amount of allowed posted messages per day to 25 though, so if you really get into it it might be best to look for something else.

My personal choice for access normally is news.eternal-september.org, which gives a nice range of groups and good access. For Eternal September you would need to register first though. It is free to use though, just as aioe, it does have a nicely curated list of newsgroups, and it doesn’t limit posts.

Web-based

If you don’t want either there always also is Google Groups, which allows access to both it’s own groups, and a large amount of Usenet Groups. You would have to register for a Google account (or use your own if you have one) to be able to post on it, and you might not actually get so many answers back. Because of it’s ease of access Google Groups caused a whole lot of spam  and stupidity a few years ago (a lot of people did not realize they were on Usenet instead of on Google), which in turn led to a lot of servers simply filtering out all GG messages after a while (and I have to admit that it DID get much better since they implemented that). Still Google Groups is good for a few other reasons: it originally was an archive/search engine for usenet posts, and still can be used like that.

Other webportals are not as full of features, and actually quite hard to find, but might be easier to post to: recgroups is limited to some large groups from the rec.* and alt.* hierarchies it can post to, otherwise it looks a lot like a normal discussion forum

How to use it

Ok, just as with the other services on the net you will need to use a special program for reading the messages properly. Luckily there is a big chance you have already: Any normal email program does have support for newsgroups nowadays (even if it sometimes posts in weird ways), so if you want you can use Outlook Express, Evolution, Thunderbird, or whatever. Personally I use Claws Mail with it, and it works quite nicely.
Alternatively… uhm… as I said, Google Groups is a way to access it, you might just not get any replies, except from fellow Google users.
Many people will want to use a dedicated newsreader. There are a few options. Personally I had good experiences with Pan Newsreader (that stood for Pimp Ass Newsreader, until they decided they needed to be sophisticated…). But there anre enough other ones… On my Android phone I use Groundhog, which is comfortable to use for a phone app.
For the people who’d like to experience the whole thing in a more nostalgic way there also is a plethora of newsreaders for the terminal.

Any Special places to go to?

Well, this is a roleplaying blog, so you can guess there will be something like that. rec.games.frp.* is the hierarchy for roleplaying games, and at least rec.games.frp.dnd is still fairly active, but the others should also yield some responses if you ask questions. Personally I like rec.games.frp.misc, because I don’t play only D&D.
Alt.fan.pratchett is a very active newsgroup for fans of Terry Pratchett that I sometimes enjoy reading.
Otherwise you would have to check what you are interested in. In most cases there is bound to be a group at least close to it. You might just want to check out beforehand if you like the people there. Also watch out for the bad topics: My forays into soc.history were rather unsuccessful as this one now is an echo chamber for holocaust deniers and trolls, soc.anthropology has the same with the aquatic ape hypothesis, talk.origins is a trollfest, and rec.arts.doctorwho loathes the new series with a passion.
Just keep on looking though, and you might find some people worth talking with.

Some Tips and Tricks

Normal newsgroups in the big hierarchies are not the only thing there is. NNTP servers can carry groups that are outside of the normal hierarchies as well, and of course that allowed people to create a whole lot of different alternative hierarchies. The regional hierarchies are an example of that, in many cases they are complete forums like normal Usenet, just in other languages. So if you speak other languagesit might be good to check if there might not be something in them as well. de.* (German) is still very active, and so is fr.* (French) and pl.* (Polish).

Special Services

Some special servers provide some interesting special services and are often mirrored in a lot of other places. You might want to connect to these servers separately as not all servers carry them.

Gmane is a news server that allows access to mailing lists by way of a gateway. It depends on what sort of portal it is, but it often allows posting on these lists as well.

Gwene is a sister project to Gmane (available on the same server) which allows to read RSS/Atom feeds as if they were posts in a newsgroup. Sometimes quite nice, especially on slower computers e.g. gwene.games.frp.rpgba which posts the newsfeed from the RPGBA page.

Olduse is an historical exhibit. It’s curator posts messages to this server like they were posted exactly 30 years ago (when the Usenet was still fresh and young, even before the first proper growing spurts). Not really so great for discussions (those would be posted in another 30 years), but interesting for the historical perspective. Right now it’s still in a time when not every server automatically connected to every other server on the net, and to send messages people had to find a path to the server they wanted to connect to.

Lspace is a server that carries only Terry Pratchett related newsgroups. It’s more of a nice oddity than anything else, because the only active group on it is also carried by pretty much every other server, but still…

One response to “[Tools] How To Use Usenet: A Biased Introduction

  1. Nieuwsgroepen March 8, 2013 at 10:45 am

    Usenet has so much more to offer then Torrents.
    It’s faster, contains much more stuff and is also very usefull for asking questions.

    Like

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