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Usenet Tutorial

Newsgroups and Hierarchies

How many different Usenet newsgroups are there? There are two answers to this question:

  • There are between 100,000 and 110,000 different Usenet newsgroups, depending on who is doing the counting and how they are counting.
  • There are only about 9,000 newsgroups you need to care about.

How can this be? I'll explain in a minute, but first we need to talk about hierarchies and newsgroup names.

Usenet was started in 1979 and, for several years, growth (by today's standards) was slow. For example, by the end of 1986, Usenet was carrying an average of 500 articles a day. Today, there are well over 500 articles posted every 3 minutes. Indeed, every day, Usenet generates more than 3 terabytes of new data, that is, 3 million million bytes of new data (much of which consists of binaries, that is, files that are being shared).

For the first few years, Usenet newsgroups were loosely organized into a few general categories. However, it soon became evident that a better system was needed. Such a system was discussed at length and implemented between the summer of 1986 and March of 1987.

The new system established seven categories, called HIERARCHIES (shown below). Each newsgroup was placed in a specific hierarchy, six of which had specific descriptions. A seventh hierarchy called (misc) was used for any groups that did not fit anywhere else.

The seven original Usenet hierarchies

Hierarchy Description
newsUsenet itself
recRecreation, hobbies, arts
sciScience and technology
socSocial and cultural issues
talkDebate, controversial topics

As part of the reorganization of Usenet, a system was adopted for naming newsgroups. This system worked so well it is still use in use today. Each newsgroup name consists of two or more parts, separated by a . (period) character. The first part of the name shows the hierarchy in which the group resides. The following parts describe the topic of the group. For example, within the rec hierarchy, there is a group named rec.humor that is devoted to jokes and humor.

— hint —

Within a newsgroup name, the . (period) character is pronounced "dot". For instance, the name rec.humor is pronounced "rec dot humor".

(Note: In the U.K. and Canada, it is pronounced "rec dot humour".)

Within the seven hierarchies, a new group could be established only by certain procedures: a discussion followed by a referendum in which anyone who was interested could cast a vote. In 1986, a new hierarchy named alt was established to offer more freedom. Within the alt hierarchy, anyone could create a new group without a formal vote, and it wasn't long before a variety of new, and often strange, newsgroups sprung up.

At the same time, other hierarchies were established to serve various regions, schools and organizations. For example, the can hierarchy was created for Canadian newsgroups; nyc for New York City groups; ucb for groups at the University of California at Berkeley; microsoft for Microsoft-related groups; and so on. Today, there are about 650 different Usenet hierarchies in use around the world.

There is no central Usenet authority. Rather, Usenet is controlled at a local level, by the people and organizations who administer the computers that provide the services. Each administrator chooses which newsgroups his or her computer will carry. The mere act of creating a new group in itself does not guarantee that the group will be propagated around the world. In order to become established, a new group must be accepted by a large number of Usenet administrators.

Most Usenet administrators accept all new groups that are established according to the traditional discussion/voting procedure. However, other groups are not accepted as widely, especially where resources (such as disk space) are limited. For this reason, a group in the rec hierarchy, for example, will be carried by many more computer systems around the world than will a group in the alt hierarchy.

For this reason, the original hierarchies (including one other, humanities, that was added in 1995) are called MAINSTREAM HIERARCHIES or the BIG-8 HIERARCHIES. These hierarchies and their newsgroups are administered by a volunteer organization called the Big 8 Management Board. All new groups in the mainstream hierarchies are created using a well-established, traditional procedure and, thus, receive the widest distribution. The eight mainstream hierarchies are shown in the table below.

Throughout the years, hundreds of other hierarchies have been established, most of which have few restrictions on creating new groups. However, only five of these hierarchies (including alt) are widely distributed. These are the ALTERNATIVE HIERARCHIES, shown below along with the mainstream hierarchies.

Mainstream and alternative Usenet hierarchies

Mainstream Alternative

Together, the mainstream and alternative hierarchies comprise the most important part of Usenet, and contain virtually all the newsgroups most people care about. The table below shows these hierarchies along with short descriptions. (Note: The bit hierarchy carries articles from a system of mailing lists that used to be called Bitnet.)

The most important Usenet hierarchies

Hierarchy Description
altWide variety of miscellaneous topics
bitMiscellaneous (from Bitnet mailing lists)
bizBusiness, marketing, advertising
humanitiesLiterature, fine arts
k12Kindergarten through high school
newsUsenet itself
recRecreation, hobbies, arts
sciScience and technology
socSocial and cultural issues
talkDebate, controversial topics

As I mentioned, Usenet has well over 600 different hierarchies. Most of these were established to serve a particular region of the world (such as a city or country) or a particular organization (such as a university or company). We call these REGIONAL and ORGANIZATIONAL HIERARCHIES, and you can see some examples in the table below. (For a full list, take a look at the Internet Resources at the end of this section.)

As you might imagine, the regional and organizational hierarchies are less important than the mainstream and alternative hierarchies and are not carried as widely. For the most part, you can ignore them unless you have an interest in a specific region or organization.

Examples: regional/organizational hierarchies

Hierarchy Description
baSan Francisco Bay area
frFrance, French language
hepnetHigh Energy Physics Network
japanJapan, Japanese language
nycNew York City
oxOxford University
utUniversity of Toronto

Now that you understand the idea of Usenet hierarchies, the system of naming newsgroups should make sense to you. The table below shows some examples of typical newsgroup names. (I have chosen one from each of the mainstream and alternative hierarchies.) Notice that each newsgroup name starts with the name of its hierarchy.

Sample Usenet newsgroups

Newsgroup Description
bionet.biology.deepseaDeep-sea marine biology (moderated)
biz.marketplace.internationalInternational business, import and export
comp.lang.java.helpJava programming, questions and answers
humanities.classicsCulture of ancient Greece and Rome
k12.newsNews for teachers
misc.creativityCreativity in all human endeavors
news.newusers.questionsQuestions & answers for new Usenet users
rec.parks.themeTheme parks
soc.feminismFeminism and women's issues
talk.environmentDebate about the environment

There are literally over 100,000 newsgroups, with more being created all the time. However, for various reasons, a large number of the newsgroups are not functional. We call these BOGUS groups.

The largest number of bogus newsgroups lie within the alt hierarchy, where, over the years, many new groups have been created but not widely propagated. For example, a good number of the alt groups were started as jokes, often with foolish names. Other bogus newsgroups used to be legitimate, but have outgrown their usefulness, and have since been abandoned or replaced. Still other groups have been deserted because of too much spam that choked out the legitimate discussions. (As I mentioned, spam has hurt Usenet significantly.)

So now let us return to the question I posed at the beginning of this section. How many Usenet newsgroups are there?

If you were to collect a list of every possible newsgroup name, from every hierarchy that ever existed, you would find between 100,000 and 110,000 names (depending on how selective you chose to be). Many of these newsgroups would be bogus, and many more would belong to regional and organizational hierarchies that have only a limited distribution.

Suppose, however, that you started with this huge list, selected only the newsgroups that belonged to the thirteen mainstream and alternative hierarchies, and then eliminated the large number of bogus groups. How many groups would you have left?

The answer is, you would be left with about 9,000 legitimate groups that enjoy a global circulation. I know this because I maintain just such a master list. (I will talk about it later.)

In other words, although there may be over 100,000 different Usenet newsgroups, realistically, there are only about 9,000 groups you need to care about. However, don't feel deprived. These 9,000 newsgroups encompass a huge variety of topics. I can assure you that no matter what you are interested in, people are talking about it on Usenet.

Full List of All the Hierarchies

Master list of Usenet hierarchies

Organizing the Mainstream Hierarchies

Official list of mainstream newsgroups (page down to see the list)
The Big-8 management board

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