Chapter 4: Usenet
Over the years, Usenet has been called an "Internet bulletin board," an "Internet news service," and many other things, but my particular definition of it is this: Usenet is an Internet service where messages to the world are posted. E-mail messages may give you the ear of a specific person or group, and forums and bulletin boards may open you to an even wider audience, but when you post to Usenet, you post your messages to the whole world.
Usenet isn't an organization per se, nor is it in any one place. Lots of machines carry the messages, receiving them and sending them on down the line. In the end, your Usenet feed comes from your Internet service provider.
Throughout this chapter you'll find references to mailing lists
and Web sites; an example of just how interconnected genealogy
resources on the Internet can be. Stay tuned. In later chapters, you'll
learn everything you need to know about mail lists and Web sites to
make your research efforts that much easier.
Like so many things concerning the online world, Usenet has its own Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) file. It is updated about once a month, and thereafter posted to the newsgroups news. announce. newusers, news.admin.misc, and news.answers, as well as the Web site http://www.faqs.org/faqs/ (see Figure 4-1). Much of what those sites say is contained in this chapter, but reading them won't hurt!
Complicated, but Useful
The first thing to understand about Usenet is that it's hard to understand. Don't be discouraged about that. It has been said that many Usenet flame wars arise because the users themselves don't comprehend the nature of the network. And these flames, by necessity, come from people who are actually using Usenet. Imagine, then, how hard it is for those unfamiliar with Usenet to understand it! On the other hand, it should be comforting to the novice that so many people are successfully using Usenet without fully understanding it.
One reason for the confusion is that Usenet is a part of the Internet, and for some people it's the only part they use. Yet it isn't the whole Internet, any more than Boston constitutes all of Massachusetts.
Usenet's messages are sorted into thousands of "newsgroups," which are a bit like magazines (being that you subscribe to them), in some ways like late-night dorm discussions, and in other ways like symposia. A newsgroup is supposed to be a set of messages restricted to a certain subject, but abuses abound. Usenet's flavor depends on the newsgroups you subscribe to. Some newsgroups are wild; some very dull; most in-between.
A "moderated" newsgroup has a referee, who decides what messages get to go on that newsgroup. An "unmoderated" one (the most popular kind) isn't edited in any way, except that you'll get flamed (insulted) if you post a message off the proper topic.
There are eight major categories of newsgroups:
- COMP for computer-science-related topics
HUMANITIES for the discussion of philosophy and the classics
MISC for miscellaneous items
NEWS for topics about Usenet itself
REC for recreation, hobbies, and interests
SCI for science not related to computers
SOC for social interaction and hobbies. Most genealogy topics are in SOC
TALK for general conversation
Tom Czarnik, who is a Usenet guru from way back, says, "Let's make a distinction between the Internet and Usenet. The Internet has come to mean the sum of the regional nets, while Usenet is a system for the exchange of newsgroups." Despite this clear separation, you'll often hear of "pictures sent over the Internet" or "messages on the Internet," even though they're talking about Usenet.
No person or group has control of Usenet as a whole. No one person authorizes who gets news feeds, which articles are propagated where, who can post articles, or anything else. These things are handled one newsgroup at a time. You won't find a Usenet Incorporated or even a Usenet User's Group. This means that, although the freedoms of expression and association are almost absolute, Usenet is not a democracy. It's anarchy, to put it frankly, something with little or no control placed on it except that exerted by the social pressures of those participating.
Therefore, sometimes Usenet is not fair-in part because it's hard to get everyone to agree to what is fair, and in part, because it's hard to stop people from proving themselves foolish....