Saddled with a name that does nothing to help the novice understand what they are, and one that just confuses people, newsgroups are perhaps the most underused feature of the Internet. Yet, for many people, once they learn how to use them, newsgroups can be one of the most valuable resources available online.
What's a Newsgroup?
For those of you who don't know what a newsgroup is, it's an electronic discussion group or forum, similar in concept to the conferences or echoes that many of us used to use on electronic Bulletin Board Systems of the past. The name "newsgroup" unfortunately was created long ago, and no longer reflects the reality of what a newsgroup is today.
As Wikipedia puts it, "A newsgroup is a repository usually within the Usenet system, for messages posted from many users at different locations. The term is somewhat confusing, because it is usually a discussion group. Newsgroups are technically distinct from, but functionally similar to, discussion forums on the World Wide Web. Newsreader software is used to read newsgroups." (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newsgroup.)
A typical newsgroup is hosted on many news servers all over the world. Most newsgroups are carried on many different servers, and a posting to a particular newsgroup on any one server is quickly replicated to all the other servers, so it can be easily accessed regardless of what server you use.
In the broad sense, all newsgroups are part of Usenet, and like the World Wide Web, Usenet is a component of the Internet. However the Web and Usenet are each accessed differently.
It's All About the Software
If you want to use a Web site, you use a browser (a piece of software, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox) which uses a protocol (a set of standards or rules) called "http" to access a Web site (which is hosted on a Web server).
Similarly, if you want to use a newsgroup, you use a newsreader (a piece of software such as Outlook Express), which uses a protocol called "nntp" (Network News Transfer Protocol) to access a news server.
Most ISPs provide a news server at no charge to their customers (and if they don't, there are others available, either for free or at a low cost; a Google search can find you several choices). Anyone who uses Windows already has a newsreader available: Outlook Express for Windows XP users, and Windows Mail for Windows Vista users. If you don't like the newsreader you already have, many other products can be downloaded from the Web. Some are freeware and some are shareware.
Why Use Newsgroups
I'm not sure how many newsgroups there are all told, but the number is well over 100,000, and more are created every day. Each is about a particular subject. The range of subjects is staggering. Almost no matter what your interests are, you can probably find many newsgroups frequented by others with similar interests.
For example, I play chess. A search for the word "chess" on my ISP's news server finds 26 newsgroups with "chess" as part of their name. Interested in movies? I found 398 with "movies" in their name and another 98 with "film." Many of these are dedicated to the films of a particular actor or director. Are you a fan of some actor or musician? Try a search for "fan." My search turned up over 3,000 fan newsgroups.
But so what? Why should you care if there's a newsgroup about some subject that you're interested in? Because others who share your interest may be able to provide information that's useful or helpful to you. Want to know how to do something in Windows Vista? Ask your question in the newsgroup microsoft.public.windows.vista.general. You'll find many of the leading Vista experts in the world there, all willing to help you with your problem for free.
Or perhaps you're planning a trip to Paris, and would like a recommendation for a moderately -priced hotel or restaurant there. Ask your question in rec.travel.europe, and you'll likely get the help you need.
Perhaps you're a sushi lover, and will soon be traveling to a city you've never in before. The question "Can anybody recommend a good sushi bar in xxxxx," posted in alt.food.sushi will almost certainly get you several recommendations.
Getting answers to questions you have is only one of the things you can do in newsgroups, though. Some people just like to correspond with others who have similar interests, and the whole point of newsgroups is that it brings together folks with similar interests in one place.
Some newsgroups act as a place to share files: both music files and picture files are commonly distributed this way. Such newsgroups usually have the word "binaries" as part of their names.
So a newsgroup is primarily a place where you can discuss a topic that interests you, almost no matter how strange or unusual (and be aware, that the topics of many newsgroups are strange and unusual) you might have thought it, with others with a similar interest.
How Do You Use Newsgroups
You access newsgroups with newsreader software. As I said earlier, if you're a Windows user, you already have newsreader software installed, even if you've never actually visited any newsgroups before. Windows XP's newsreader is called Outlook Express (it lets you work with both e-mail and news) and Windows Vista's is called Windows Mail (which also does both e-mail and news). Many other good shareware and freeware choices exist, which many people prefer over those that comes with Windows. My recommendation is that you start out with what you already have, for two reasons:
1. It's easiest.
2. Newsreaders vary in features and usability, and until you've hung around in and used newsgroups for a while, you really don't know what features are important to you.
I recommend that you get started by going to the Web site "Setting up Outlook Express Newsreader" and following the instructions. Although the instructions are written for Outlook Express, if you're a Vista user using Windows Mail, you'll find that the process is almost the same.
To set up your newsgroup reader, you'll need to contact your ISP to get the specifics of the name of the news server. After you have configured Outlook Express or Windows Mail to work with the news server, you can choose the newsgroups you are interested in. The software downloads a list for you to search or scroll through, and you can choose to subscribe to the ones that look interesting.
Avoid Newsgroup Overload
However, be careful! Don't overdo it at first. Some newsgroups are very popular and receive hundreds of messages a day. If you subscribe to a few of those, and you won't have any time left in your life for anything else. Start with a handful of groups, not everything that you think might interest you. You can always add more later (and of course, you can also delete those you no longer want).
Now you're ready to read your newsgroups and send messages to them. First of all, note that a newsgroup message looks almost exactly like an e-mail message. That's one of the reasons why you can use Outlook Express and Windows Mail to work with newsgroups.
Newsgroup messages may look like e-mail, but they are very different in two important respects.
1. When you send an e-mail message to one, two, or ten people, you know exactly who you are sending the message to. On the other hand a newsgroup message can be read by any number of people all over the world. Not only don't you know who will read your message, you don't even know how many readers it will have.
2. Newsgroup messages are archived forever on Googlegroups. Don't write a message that you may regret at some time in the future.
You can read messages in a couple of ways. Many people download the current headers (just the subject lines of the messages, not the messages themselves), and then mark those messages with subjects they're interested in and download only those messages. Other people read all the messages in the newsgroups they subscribe to. My practice is the latter.
When you send a message to a newsgroup, you're sending it to all the people who subscribe to that newsgroup, all over the world. If your message is a technical question, you can often get excellent advice from some of the most competent people in the fieldmany times in only a few minutes or hours.
But caution is needed here too. Not all the people who will answer your question are experts. Many of them are "wannabe" experts, and others simply don't have any idea what they're talking about. Be careful from whom you take technical advice.
How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and separate the real experts from the wannabees? It's actually considerably easier than it seems. Hang around a newsgroup for a while before asking any questions of your own. Read the replies to other people's question, and the replies to those replies. If you know even a little bit about a subject, it soon becomes very apparent who the real experts are and who are those who can't be trusted.
When you do post messages, here are some points of "netiquette" to keep in mind:
1. Stay on topic. Don't post message s unrelated to the stated topic of the newsgroup, and seek out the newsgroup that's the best one for your message.
2. Don't post messages newsgroup messages in HTML. Use plain ASCII text only. Besides your choice of fonts, colors, etc, possibly being annoying to others, HTML makes messages bigger, and some people (particularly in Europe) pay for their internet access by the minute; they don't appreciate having to download messages any longer than necessary. Folks are interested in content, not style.
3. Similarly, don't post attachments in newsgroups. When someone asks, "How do I ...?" don't reply, "Use the attached file." If you want to send someone a file, either send it by private e-mail, or post it to one of the several newsgroups with "binary" in its name and reference that posting in your message to the original newsgroup. Or put it on your Web site, if you have one, and send a link to the Web site.
4. When you reply to someone's message, be sure to quote the message you're replying to, using the quote feature of your newsreader. Most people who read newsgroups don't save already read messages, and a message without a quote ends up almost completely unintelligible. Sometimes you see a message without a quote saying only "I agree" in a thread where people have expressed many different opinions. Nobody knows who the writer is agreeing with.
5. By the same token, don't over-quote. You don't need to repost the entire message you're replying to. Trim the quoted text to leave only enough to put your reply into context. Remember those people in Europe who are paying by the minute.
6. If you ask a technical question, be sure to include all the relevant data to help other to help you. A question like "I tried to xxxx and it didn't work. What should I do?" is almost impossible to answer. Tell the newsgroup exactly what happens when you try, not just that you didn't get the result you were expecting. If you get an error message, quote it verbatim.
For information on how to make a good newsgroup posting, read http://www.dts-l.com/goodpost.htm and http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html
7.When you reply to a message, use the "Reply group" button in your newsreader, not "Reply." Reply Group sends the reply to the newsgroup, and Reply back to the individual as personal e-mail. Many newsgroup participants don't want to get personal e-mail from strangers in a newsgroup and will ignore your reply if you do this. "Reply" should be used only if someone asks for a personal e-mail reply, and even then, only if you want to.
8. Especially if you are asking a question, but for any newsgroup postings, use standard punctuation, spelling, spacing, and grammar in your message. If you make it easier for people to read and understand your question, you are much more likely to get the help you need than if your message is of the "f u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb n gd pay" variety. When I see such a message, my eyes just glaze over; I ignore it and just go on to the next one.
9. Similarly avoid posting in all caps, which is very hard to read, and makes the recipient feel like he's being shouted at.
Disadvantages of Newsgroups
One unfortunate fact of life in newsgroups is spam. Spam is unsolicited commercial e-mail, and by extension, any unsolicited, unwanted, off-topic messages, usually offering something for sale, espousing some off-topic political cause, etc. Sometimes it's an ad, sometimes it promotes a Web sex site, and sometimes it's a get-rich-quick scheme or chain letter.
Fortunately you can hide from a lot of spam by the use of the filtering or "killfile" facility of your newsreader. For example, I filter out all messages with the words "make money," "get rich," "lose weight," "babes" "hot," and so forth.
Another spam-related consideration is that some spammers harvest e-mail addresses from newsgroups and use them to build e-mail mailing lists. The way around this is not to use your real return address in your newsgroup messages, but to modify it, then include instructions in your signature as to how to fix it. For example, if your real address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you could use bob@XXXgmail.com as your return address, and include the instructions "Remove Xs to send me private e-mail." That's called "munging" your address. The automatic e-mail harvesting software the spammers use won't be able to make the correction. Alternatively, if you never want to get replies by e-mail (I'm someone who doesn't), don't use your real return address in any form.
Then there are trolls. A "troll" is someone who posts a message without any attempt to provide accurate information or be helpful in any way. His intent is to start an argument, and disrupt the newsgroup. It's usually very easy to spot the repeated trolls, and fortunately, using the filter/killfile feature of your newsreader works very well to hide their messages.
So like almost anything else, newsgroups have their good and bad points. But with some care in how you use them, you can turn them into one of the most valuable resources at your disposal. I recommend them highly.