Once upon a time, before the World Wide Web had brought white-collar productivity to a standstill, there was a thing called Usenet. You may think it's gone -- but it wanders the Earth still.
What is this thing?
Usenet is probably the world's largest ongoing conversation. A worldwide network of electronic bulletin boards -- forums where people can post text messages, called articles, posts or postings, for others to read and reply to -- it includes more than 30,000 such "newsgroups," covering every imaginable area of interest, along with many that couldn't be imagined (e.g., alt.cows.moo.moo.moo).
How does it work?
Unlike the Internet itself, Usenet (created in 1979) doesn't function in anything close to real time. Instead, it works on a "store-and-forward" basis: If somebody in Russia contributes a posting to the rec.travel.air newsgroup about Aeroflot's food, it may take a day or two to show up at my Internet provider in Virginia, as that posting is copied from one "news server" to another. (It might not make it there at all.)
Usenet is not a permanent medium either. All these posts raining down on your provider's news server can add up to several gigabytes of data a day. So on most news servers, postings are deleted after a week or so. How long articles are kept, like most aspects of Usenet, is up to the "news administrator" at your Internet provider, who chooses what groups to carry and what sites to accept new postings from.
Why should I bother with Usenet?
The Web is fun enough, but you can't easily contribute to it on a daily basis. For all the blather about the Web's interactivity, it's often as inactive as TV -- instead of switching channels on your remote, you click to different sites in your bookmarks list. Usenet, by contrast, lets you talk back. You can share opinions and information and meet some surprisingly intelligent, reasoned people.
Even if you choose not to post anything (known as "lurking"), it can still be entertaining to read discussions. Oddly enough, the less-informed discussions are often more fun to watch -- if you enjoy watching cat fights on The McLaughlin Group or The Jerry Springer Show (admit it!), then you'll probably enjoy following, say, Honda vs. Toyota arguments in rec.autos.driving.
Why should I not bother with it?
People are often dumb, and it's usually the dumb ones who don't think before posting -- Usenet features some of the least-enlightened debate you'll find anywhere outside, well, The McLaughlin Group or The Jerry Springer Show. If you'd rather not witness how bigoted, ill-tempered and uninformed your fellow alleged humans can be, avoid Usenet.
Second, many newsgroups are infected with an epidemic of unsolicited ads -- off-topic, usually insultingly stupid pitches for get-rich-quick schemes or pornographic sites. Not all providers try very hard to filter out this "spam," which can make sifting through the junk a minor ordeal.
Finally, Usenet can be a major timesuck. Try to keep up with more than four or five high-traffic groups, and you'll find yourself wasting three hours a day. (Bad idea.)
How and where do I start?
Assuming your Internet software is relatively new and configured correctly (your provider's startup kit should have done that for you), just fire up your Web browser. In most versions of Netscape Navigator, select "News" from the "Window" menu; in Internet Explorer, click and hold on the "Mail" icon, then select "Read News" to start up IE's companion program, Internet Mail & News or Outlook Express, depending on what version you're using.
Either one of those steps fires up a "newsreader." The first time you use it, you'll have to wait a few minutes while it fetches a lists of every newsgroup on your provider's news server. When that's done, double-click a group's name to read it. You'll see a listing of message headers, just like in e-mail; where more than one person has contributed a posting under the same subject, those postings should be listed together in a "thread." To read a message, double-click on it; if you want to respond -- either by posting an article to the group or by e-mailing the author directly -- click on "reply," just like e-mail.
So far, so good. But you've got a list of probably 20,000-plus newsgroups on your screen! You can either scroll through that list and look for interesting newsgroup titles, or -- better idea -- you can use your newsreader's "search" function. For instance, Internet Mail & News/Outlook Express feature a little "Display newsgroups containing:" form; type in a word, such as "music," "dining" or "antiques," to show groups with that in their name.
Another option, especially if you're looking for discussions on more obscure topics, is DejaNews (http://www.dejanews.com), a humongous Web site that lets you search through archived Usenet postings.
Newsgroups come in a loose hierarchical order, so that, for instance, a "dc" hierarchy exists for the groups covering District of Columbia-area topics -- among others, dc.general, dc.dining, dc.driving, dc.biking and, of course, dc.redskins. Most newsgroups fall into eight major clusters, named for the prefixes in their names:
-- alt -- short for "alternative," the least-organized part of Usenet, owing to the relative ease with which a group can be created in this hierarchy.
-- comp -- computing-related topics
-- misc -- "miscellaneous," a catchall hierarchy for things that don't fit elsewhere.
-- news -- discussions of Usenet and the Internet itself.
-- rec -- recreational topics; ie., sports, music, movies, TV and car talk.
-- soc -- social issues, such as dating and marriage.
-- sci -- discussions of scientific topics
-- talk -- all the debates that you don't want to get into with your significant other's parents (say, talk.politics.drugs).
If you decide a newsgroup is interesting enough to read regularly, "subscribing" to it will cause your newsreader to look for new postings there each time you start it up. Do not post the instant you subscribe. Instead, take your time to get a feel for how the group works, which regulars have a clue and which questions get asked and answered every week.
One aspect of your newsreader you'll find exceedingly useful is its charmingly named "killfile" -- a set of filters you can set to skip articles matching certain criteria, such as subject lines or authors. Start by trashing anything with "$$$" or "!!!" in the subject header, and much of the ads go away. Filter out the militantly clueless newsgroup regulars and your high blood pressure goes away too.
If your newsreader doesn't offer this capability -- older versions of Netscape Navigator don't, for instance -- you should download one that does. Preferably one that's free. In that category, the best pick for Mac users is Multi-Threaded NewsWatcher (http://www.santafe.edu/(tilde)smfr/mtnw/); for Windows, Microsoft's Outlook Express (http://www.microsoft.com/ie/ie40/oe/) offers basic filtering in a relatively simple package.
Rob Pegoraro can be reached at rob(at)twp.com