Usenet, like so much else on the Internet, is one of those things that would be so wonderful, rich and fabulously useful if only it wasn't so darn big.
What Usenet is is a bunch of categories called newsgroups (thousands of them, and it's growing all the time), each focusing on a different subject. Television shows are popular, as are sports, books, and (be aware) every sexual fetish executed in the last millennium. Most groups simply act as discussion forums, but others, like the binaries groups, are there primarily to provide free images and software for downloading.
Having said that, if you've got a question, the people hanging around the newsgroups are the ones to ask. You'll usually find one or two people prepared to bluff their way through an answer, and although it may not be the right answer, it's an excellent starting place. And Usenet has an uncanny ability to disperse news almost before it happens. If Australia's Great Barrier Reef was stolen by aliens, Usenet would have a line to someone on board their spaceship.
As with real life, you're going to have some newsgroups that are friendly and others that tear possessively over their little patch of cyberspace like a junk yard dog with a hunk of filling from the bucket seat of a Trans Am. Keep your cool and don't take it personally. They'd never have the guts to be such nebishes in real life. And unlike chat no-one knows you're there unless you specifically post a message or follow up on a thread.
It takes some time to get a handle on Usenet, mostly because of its size. The best way to find a group you'd like to explore further is to pop into DejaNews and poke around. DejaNews has Usenet set up in a much more browsable format, and you can search by specific questions rather than just categories.
Once you're in DejaNews you may just want to use some of their features. You can have your own email account and subscribe to all the groups you want. Or you might want to move onto something a little closer to home.
So it's like this: the Usenet is broken down into newsgroups which correspond to different catagories of interest. The prefix of the newsgroup - the hierarchy - gives you your first clue of what the group's about (see below for a list of some of them). After that come further descriptions of the groups, divided by dots. Different groups do it different ways, and it's a good idea to just pick off the ones that sound appealling then dump them if they turn out to be dull (and many of them turn out to be not only dull but empty and abandoned).
After that the mechanisms of all newsgroups are the same. A message posted to a newsgroup will be listed for anyone in the group to see, and will not be deleted from the group until a pre-determined time set by the manager of that group - usually about four days. Any message can be responded to either by email (which won't be visible to the group) or as a posting. A posting can be seen by everybody in the group and forms a section of the thread that will continue on and on until everyone's bored of it and it's petered out.
You can cross post (send the same message to more than one newsgroup) by separating each group name by a comma. As with any bit of the Usenet, however, make sure the posting is absolutely relevant, otherwise it's like showing up at a party with a pair of woman's underpants on your head.
Usually that's about it. Some newsgroups may be moderated so that nothing inappropriate or offensive appears on it - this is done by having all incoming postings checked by a moderator for that group. The best thing to do if you have any questions about the working of a particular group is to check in at one of the FAQ clearing houses, either here or here.
What with there being over 25,000 newsgroups, this is by no means a comprehensive list. It will, however, give you a place to start:
alt. - 'Alternative'. This is ironic, as some of the very first newsgroups were 'alt.' ones, but alternative to what exactly? Still the most popular, if not exactly as wild and crazy as the name would suggest.
aus. - Australia-based.
ba. - Of interest to those living in the San Francisco Bay Area.
bionet. - Topics relating to the biological sciences.
bit. - In association with the bitnet LISTSERV mailing lists.
biz. - More popular to post to than to actually read from, this is the place to send a business posting if you don't want to get flamed. And if you don't mind that no one's reading it. However, it can also relate to actual business discussions. Look carefully at what comes after the hierarchy to get a feel for it.
comp. - Computer related discussions.
de. - Of interest to those in Germany.
k12. - For the kiddies.
microsoft. - Microsoft product support.
misc. General all-rounder that didn't seem to quite fit in anywhere else (you'd think that would have been alternative, wouldn't you?).
news. Discussions relating to the Usenet itself (the medium is the message).
rec. As with the web suffix, related to leisure and recreational activities.
sci. All science.
soc. Culture, religion, society.
talk. Controversial discussion topics.
uk. British topics.
Popular News Readers
Almost any decent emailer will provide you with a newsreader. Outlook Express (which comes with Internet Explorer) and Netscape Collabra (which is tucked into Messenger) both have perfectly adequate ones. You can of course pick up something else, but either of those two should be plenty to help you get the hang of things and suss the set-up.
And here is the set-up:
When you open up the news function in your emailer, it may or may not already be configured. In Outlook Express, go into your Tools menu and open up Accounts. Select Add News and follow the prompts to enter in your email address, your identity and your news server. In Collabra you'll find all of this in the Groups Server inside the Preferences menu.
Everything beyond this will be prompted automatically. Presumably you already know your email address and your identity, and you can get your news server information from your ISP.
That's about it. Mind your netiquette, be friendly and try not to talk out of anywhere besides your mouth.
Alternative News Readers
The following is a list of a few alternative stand-alone news readers. You probably don't need anything besides Netscape Collabra (which comes with the Netscape browser) or Outlook Express (which comes with Microsoft Internet Explorer) - there's nothing fancy you're going to want to do with Usenet. But toys are toys.
Agent - A popular PC-only program that can auto decode binaries (something other than text).
Gravity - Another PC-only program with slightly more impressive search capabilities.
Hogwasher - Mac-only online/offline reader which, like agent, has imaging capabilities.
MT-Newswatcher - More Mac-only, this time with speech recognition.
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