What is Usenet?
by Harley Hahn (© 2002)

Usenet is a worldwide system of discussion groups in which millions of people participate. There are tens of thousands of different Usenet groups, and anyone on the Internet may participate for free.
Usenet was originally designed to carry local news between two universities in North Carolina. For this reason, Usenet groups are often referred to as newsgroups, even though, today, they are used as public forums for discussions. Similarly, Usenet itself is sometimes referred to as "the News" or "Netnews".
Within each newsgroup, people send messages, called articles, for other people to read. Once an article is sent to a group, anyone in the world may read it.

Newsgroup Names and Hierarchies

Each Usenet group has a unique name. The name consists of two or more parts, separated by periods. For example, here are the names of several groups:
alt.celebrities
biz.marketplace.international
k12.news
news.newusers.questions
rec.parks.theme
sci.chem
soc.women
talk.environment
Much of the time, you can guess the purpose of a Usenet group just by looking at its name. For example, news.newusers.questions is for new users to ask questions about Usenet. The group talk.environment is for people to debate topics devoted to the environment.
Usenet groups are organized into hierarchies. When you look at the name of a group, the first part of the name is the hierarchy. For example, the news hierarchy contains groups in which people discuss Usenet itself. The talk hierarchy is for debate.
There are hundreds of different hierarchies, but only thirteen are of general interest. These are shown in the following table.

The Thirteen Most Important Usenet
Hierachies
alt Wide variety of miscellaneous topics
bionet Biology
bit Miscellaneous topics
biz Business, marketing, advertising
comp Computers
humanities  Literature, fine arts
k12 Kindergarten through high school
misc Miscellaneous topics
news Usenet itself
rec Recreation, hobbies, arts
sci Science and technology
soc Social and cultural issues
talk Debate, controversial topics

How to Access Usenet

There are two ways to access the Usenet newsgroups. The most common way is to use a program called a newsreader to display articles for you to read. You tell your newsreader which group you want to look at, and it fetches the articles and displays them for you. If you decide to send out an article of your own, you can use your newsreader to compose the message and send it to the appropriate group.
Both popular Web browsers come with a free newsreader. With Internet Explorer, the newsreader is Outlook Express, the same program used to handle email.
With Netscape, the newsreader is also a separate program that comes with the browser. In the newer versions of Netscape, the newsreader does not have a name. If you are using an older version of Netscape, the newsreader is called Collabra.
You might ask, where are all the Usenet articles stored? The answer is, each Internet service provider maintains a Usenet repository for their customers. This repository, called a news server or a news feed, contains all the articles that are currently available. As new articles come in, they are added to the repository. After a certain amount of time — usually several days — old articles are purged to make room for new ones.
Before you can use your newsreader, you must configure it by telling it the name of the computer you will be using as a news server. Your Internet service provider will tell you this name. If you have problems getting started, they should be able to help you configure your newsreader.
Once your newsreader is configured, there is an easy way to read the articles in a particular group. Within your browser, there is a place where you can type the address of a Web site you want to visit. The easy way to look at a Usenet group is to type the "address" of the group. This consists of the word news: followed by the name of the group.
For example, if you want to read the articles in the group in which people debate environmental topics, specify the following Usenet address to your browser:
news:talk.environment
Your browser will recognize this as a Usenet group, and will start your newsreader automatically.
The best way to participate in Usenet is by using a newsreader program. However, such programs are complex and take time to master. There is an alternative that is easier.
There are Web-based services that allow you to read and send Usenet articles for free. With such a service, you only need a regular Web browser. If you find yourself using Usenet a lot, it is better to learn how to use a newsreader. However, for casual use, a Web-based service is fine. Here are several such services: If you have a copy of Harley's Internet Yellow Pages book, look in the "Usenet" section for many other resources that will help you use and understand Usenet.

How to Find the Usenet Groups You Want

There are thousands of Usenet groups, and it is not always easy to find the one you want for a specific topic. If you want to find a group, here are two suggestions. First, start your search by using Harley's online facility: Second, take a look at the Yellow Pages book, where you will find a great many Usenet groups along with Web sites and mailing lists. For a more detailed explanation of Usenet and how to use it, please see Chapter 13 in the book: