3.1 The Global Watering Hole
Big Dummy's Guide to the Internet

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     Imagine a conversation carried out over a period of hours and days,
as if people were leaving messages and responses on a bulletin board.  Or
imagine the electronic equivalent of a radio talk show where everybody
can put their two cents in and no one is ever on hold.
     Unlike e-mail, which is usually "one-to-one,"  Usenet is "many-to-
many." Usenet is the international meeting place, where people gather to
meet their friends, discuss the day's events, keep up with computer
trends or talk about whatever's on their mind.  Jumping into a Usenet
discussion can be a liberating experience.  Nobody knows what you look or
sound like, how old you are, what your background is.  You're judged
solely on your words, your ability to make a point.
     To many people, Usenet IS the Net. In fact, it is often confused
with Internet.  But it is a totally separate system. All Internet sites
CAN carry Usenet, but so do many non-Internet sites, from sophisticated
Unix machines to old XT clones and Apple IIs.
     Technically, Usenet messages are shipped around the world, from
host system to host system, using one of several specific Net
protocols.  Your host system stores all of its Usenet messages in one
place, which everybody with an account on the system can access. That
way, no matter how many people actually read a given message, each
host system has to store only one copy of it. Many host systems "talk"
with several others regularly in case one or another of their links goes
down for some reason.  When two host systems connect, they basically
compare notes on which Usenet messages they already have.  Any that one
is missing the other then transmits, and vice-versa.  Because they are
computers, they don't mind running through thousands, even millions, of
these comparisons every day.
     Yes, millions.  For Usenet is huge.  Every day, Usenet users
pump upwards of 40 million characters a day into the system -- roughly
the equivalent of volumes A-G of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Obviously,
nobody could possibly keep up with this immense flow of messages.  Let's
look at how to find conferences and discussions of interest to you.
     The basic building block of Usenet is the newsgroup, which is a
collection of messages with a related theme (on other networks, these
would be called conferences, forums, bboards or special-interest
groups).  There are now more than 5,000 of these newsgroups, in several
diferent languages, covering everything from art to zoology, from
science fiction to South Africa.
     Some public-access systems, typically the ones that work through
menus, try to make it easier by dividing Usenet into several broad
categories.  Choose one of those and you're given a list of newsgroups in
that category.  Then select the newsgroup you're interested in and start
     Other systems let you compile your own "reading list" so that you
only see messages in conferences you want.  In both cases, conferences
are arranged in a particular hierarchy devised in the early 1980s. 
Newsgroup names start with one of a series of broad topic names.  For
example, newsgroups beginning with "comp." are about particular computer-
related topics.  These broad topics are followed by a series of more
focused topics (so that "comp.unix" groups are limited to discussion
about Unix).  The main hierarchies are:
             bionet          Research biology
             bit.listserv    Conferences originating as Bitnet mailing lists
             biz             Business
             comp            Computers and related subjects
             misc            Discussions that don't fit anywhere else
             news            News about Usenet itself
             rec             Hobbies, games and recreation
             sci             Science other than research biology
             soc             "Social" groups, often ethnically related
             talk            Politics and related topics
             alt             Controversial or unusual topics; not
                             carried by all sites
     In addition, many host systems carry newsgroups for a particular
city, state or region.  For example, ne.housing is a newsgroup where
New Englanders look for apartments.  A growing number also carry K12
newsgroups, which are aimed at elementary and secondary teachers and
students.  And a number of sites carry clari newsgroups, which is
actually a commercial service consisting of wire-service stories and
a unique online computer news service (more on this in chapter 10).