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Newsgroup Discussions

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Newsgroup:online, hierarchically-organised, distributed discussion groups, sorted by subject.


Like many services on the Internet, newsgroups have their origins in an academic environment. In 1979, two graduate students at Duke University connected several UNIX computers together to exchange information with others in the UNIX community. Simultaneously, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina wrote the first version of the software used to distribute news. It was originally called Janet (Joint Academic Network). Janet is so old, it was part of this Researcher's high school computing syllabus.

This network was renamed Usenet and became a voluntary and cooperative message exchange service. It eventually evolved into the electronic discussion groups used today. Although some services charge fees for the newsgroup access, Usenet continues to reflect its origins as an academic project designed to distribute information freely to anyone who wants it.

Usenet newsgroups are either transmitted through the (usually) fee-based UUCP1 or through NNTP2, a more common and free method of transport. The message distribution works in one of these ways:

  • The message is held on a system until a connected site requests it.

  • The servers maintain direct connections remain between sites at all times, sending news out to other node sites on the Internet as soon as it is received. This is increasingly the norm.

  • The messages can be queued up for transfer and periodically sent by one server to another. This is distinct from one server asking another server for messages.

Each system administrator decides which newsgroups will be carried on the system. Since newsgroups take up valuable hard drive space and transmission bandwidth, administrators may choose not to carry some hierarchies at all. The Internet carries many kinds of resources, of which Usenet is only one. Usenet is also carried on networks that are not part of the Internet - for example, some company Intranets.

A newsgroup is made of several parts.


A physical or logical address for a computer that stores the newsgroup. It also manages users and security, by only allowing registered users to post messages. Not all servers require users to be registered in order to use them. Some servers are open, but these are rapidly disappearing due to abuse by spammers. Newsgroups use NNTP servers. NNTP servers host the messages and exchange the messages with other NNTP servers. Access to a newsgroup server is required to read and post messages. Not all Internet providers offer this as standard.

As this is not necessary for full understanding, it will not be discussed further here.


Consisting of a name, address and organised by type, for example:

  • Name: Star Trek Voyager

  • Address: alt.startrek.voyager

This is an alternative newsgroup in general and a Star Trek Voyager newsgroup specifically.

The main types of newsgroup are:

  • alt. - Any conceivable topic, as in alt.abraham-lincoln, or alt.aarvark
  • biz. - Business products, services, reviews, etc, as in biz.books, biz.newsgroups
  • comp. - Hardware, software, consumer info, etc, as in
  • humanities. - Fine art, literature, philosophy, etc, as in humanities.classics
  • misc. - Employment, health, and much more, as in misc.handicap
  • news. - Info about Usenet News, as in
  • rec. - Games, hobbies, sports, etc, as in rec.scuba or rec.aviation.misc
  • sci. - Applied science, social science, etc, as in sci.astronomy
  • soc. - Social issues, culture, etc, as in soc.religion
  • talk. - Current issues and debates, etc, as in talk.meow

There are eight main types of news group, called the 'Big8', which are: comp, humanities, misc, news, rec, sci, soc, and talk. There are hundreds more, but the big eight are the main ones that every newsgroup server carries.


A topic, or subject to which all other replies are referenced.

A message contains the originator's ID, username, and/or email address. Messages are often queries, pleas for help, discussion starting-points or deliberate attempts to provoke, see: Flames.


Threads are created by replying to a message or to a reply.

Referencing usually involves use of 'Re:', as in 'Re: LCARS Helm Interface'. This is to help users know what you are replying to. Replies actually reference the message ID of the message(s) they are in response to. The 'Subject:' header can be changed within a thread of messages. It is not unusual to see many layered replies to message with several 'Re:' prefixes.

Replies tend to drift away from the original message context with time and often users are encouraged to start new threads by the moderator(s).


A special kind of user, similar to an administrator.

Moderator(s) monitor the newsgroup and assist users, ban or limit access to repeat rule-breakers and maintain the newsgroup, by setting up an archive process for old messages. Most newsgroups are not moderated. The main reasons being that newsgroups are a method of freely exchanging ideas and news, and moderation is very difficult.


Flames are abusive messages to individuals or groups, usually as a result of controversial, or non-conformist points of view. A flame usually ridicules individuals, insults, and/or questions individual's parentage.

Flames are meant to be jovial and sent between friends. However some are insulting and offensive, sometimes deliberately so. Frequent use of flames can lead to banning.

Setting Up a Newsgroup

Setting up a newsgroup is not as difficult as it may sound. All that is needed is a server willing to allow a new group to be established. The admin of that server will probably set up all the technical sub-domains, IP addresses and other necessary components. The difficult part is getting the newsgroup to be 'carried' by other servers. They won't bother unless it's of interest to them, ie a university-specific newsgroup hosted on a university server won't be carried by any other server - there's no point. A newly created rec, as in, may be popular enough to be carried by other servers, and thus (effectively) become accessible anywhere.

There are some rules about certain types of group. It would be next to impossible to set up a new 'news.' group for instance. The 'alt.' hierarchy has laxer rules, which makes it easier to set up a new group, while the 'free.' hierarchy has next to no rules at all (which is the whole point of this hierarchy).

Newsgroup Readers

To access newsgroups, one needs a newsgroup reader program. There are plenty to choose from, Outlook Express, Netscape, Forte Agent, Gravity, Pan, etc. AOL users have one built in, although it doesn't support nesting, ie all messages in any given thread are all listed in order of posting, not in the order of messages they are replying to.

Configuring the reader is relatively simple - it only needs to know the server you'll be using, any password required, your name (or nickname) and email address. It's no more complex to set up than a standard email program.

If you don't want to use a program, or can't get one, there are web-based interfaces such as the one maintained by

1UUCP does not necessarily have a fee associated with it, but usually does.2NNTP requires an underlying network, such as a TCP/IP network, to function. Not all TCP/IP networks are free.

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