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Usenet Tutorial

Finding What You Want on Usenet

People often ask me for advice about how to use the Internet to find information. If I think what they need will be on a Web page, I tell them to use a search engine, such as Google or Yahoo or Bing. However, much of the time, I find myself telling people that the best way to get what they want is to send a question to the appropriate Usenet newsgroup and wait for someone to post an answer. This is especially true when you are looking for advice. Millions of people use Usenet, and many of them will be glad to help you.

The trick is, how do you find the right newsgroup? For example, say your baby has colic. Which newsgroup is the one to send a request for ideas and help? Suppose you want to buy a camera. Where do the photography buffs hang out? What if you want to talk about your favorite music group or writer or television show. Which group is the best one to read?

Sometimes you can guess what a group is for just by looking at its name, for example, talk.environment (debate about the environment) or rec.humor (jokes). However, there are a huge number of newsgroups, and it is not practical to look through the entire list. Moreover, many of the names are obscure, and they wouldn't make sense to you anyhow.

There is no easy answer to the question of how to find the newsgroup you want, but I can give you some good ideas. The best place to start is my master list, more formally, Harley Hahn's Master List of Usenet Newsgroups.

This list contains the names of all the non-bogus groups in the thirteen important hierarchies, about 9,000 groups in all. This includes all eight mainstream hierarchies, comp, humanities, misc, news, rec, sci, soc and talk, as well as the five most important alternative hierarchies, alt, bionet, bit, biz and k12.

For each newsgroup, I have written a short one-line description and placed the group in a category, so it is easy to search for what you want. Conversely, if you see the name of a newsgroup somewhere and you are not sure what it means, you can use my master list to look up the description. This is the same list I use when I need to find a newsgroup quickly, so I am sure you will find it helpful. Indeed, this is the only up-to-date, annotated and categorized list of Usenet groups on the Internet.

Harley Hahn's Master List of Usenet Newsgroups


The next place to look is in my book Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages. This book contains thousands of items, organized into 193 different categories, and a lot of these items have Usenet newsgroups as well as Web sites. In many cases, the quickest way to find the newsgroup you want is to look up a related topic in the book.

The last print version of this book was published in 2003 and, unfortunately, it is now out of print. (If you can find a copy, however, it is definitely worth having.) In 2003, I created an online version of the book, which I updated for two more years. As a convenience, you access the online version of the book for free, which is an excellent way to find the Usenet groups that are most relevant to your particular needs. Indeed, when you use the online Yellow Pages, once you find a newsgroup you want to explore, you can access it with just a single click.

Harley Hahn's Internet Yellow Pages

The free online version
Information about the book

Another way to find a group is to search for it on the Web. One place to try is Google Groups. This is a Web site that grew out of a much older Web site called Deja News, which was started in 1995 by Steve Madere in Austin, Texas.

Deja News was a Usenet archive that stored every Usenet article permanently (except binaries, of course, which would be much too large). From 1995 to 1999, it was one of the most valuable resources on the Internet. Unfortunately, the company that ran Deja News could not make money. The Web site changed drastically and the archive became unavailable.

Fortunately, all the Usenet data wasn't lost. In February of 2001, it was acquired by Google which put it back online. Users could now search the Usenet archives all the way back to 1995, which was recast as part of a new service called Google Groups.

Unfortunately, Google didn't see fit to maintain the purity of the archive. They merged the Usenet group interface with a proprietary system of their own discussion groups. So, today, although you can search the full Usenet archive, it is not nearly as easy as it used to be and the results can be incomplete and confusing. Still, at times is is worth trying, so here is a link to help you.

Searching the Google Groups Usenet Archive

Google Usenet search

Finally, there are some Usenet search engines that will look through the huge amount of Usenet content to help you find what you want. The results are returned as "NZB files". This is a topic on its own, so we will deal with it separately.

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