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A Newbie's Guide to USENET
Shery Ma Belle Arrieta

USENET is a world wide distributed discussion system that is organized like the classified ads found at the back of newspapers. Within USENET you will read articles that are organized under categories. Each article is created by an individual or company that has something to say. While USENET is a world wide discussion forum, it was not created to be an advertisement medium.

USENET is a lot like the Internet: It is not exclusively owned by one person or group. Rather, it is a collection of computers all over the world sharing information electronically. When you post an article on USENET, it circulates around the world. After a time it 'expires' and is then removed from circulation. While it is circulating, anyone can read your article and respond to it. Responses may take the form of a follow-up article or an e-mail sent to you. Articles usually contain only text but may also contain programs, pictures, documents, or any other type of computer file.

The people in USENET are able to exchange articles when they are with one or more universally recognized labels called "newsgroups" (or "groups") for short. As of September 1998, USENET is made up of about 40,000 different categories of articles. They range over every imaginable topic - sports, employment opportunities, computer software, TV shows, hobbies, international news, trade information, politics, personals, and much more. As diverse as the topics are, USENET also encompasses government agencies, high schools, businesses of all sizes, home computers and a lot more.

To be able to participate in USENET newsgroups, you should have a screen-oriented news interface called a newsreader. A newsreader is somewhat similar to an e-mail client. There are a number of newsreaders available such as FreeAgent and Microsoft News. You should also ask your ISP for the details of your specific setup. Although newsreaders may differ, there are still some standard features are common to most newsreaders that provide the capability to read, reply to, discard, post and process articles based on user-definable patterns.

Some newsreaders also provide the capability of blocking (or killing) the newsgroup postings by topic or poster (the person doing the posting). This feature is very helpful when dealing with undesirable article topics or certain individuals that the reader finds offensive in some way.

Newsgroup Categories

Seven broad classifications of newsgroups are generally circulating around the entire USENET. Each of these broad categories is further organized into groups and subgroups according to topics. The seven major categories are the following:  


These groups discuss topics in computer science, software sources, information on hardware and software systems, and other topics of interest to both computer professionals and hobbyists. Included in this category are groups like comp.protocols.tcp-ip, which deals with Internet protocols, and comp.infosystems.wais, which discusses the Wide Area Information Server.


These groups address hard-to-classify topics. Here is where groups that feature themes on multiple categories. The newsgroup (fitness), misc.job.offered (job-hunting), (law), and misc.invest.real-estate (investments) belong in this category.


These groups are discussions about news network, group maintenance, and accompanying software. New users can get helpful hints from the group news.newusers.questions.


This category includes groups discussing arts, hobbies, and recreational activities such as sports. The group discusses all aspects of stage work while the group talks about all aspects of golf.


The focus of these groups are discussions that relate to research in or applications of the established sciences.


These groups are concerned with social issues and socializing. Some discussions in these groups relate to world cultures. The soc.culture.brazil discusses the people of Brazil, while soc.women discusses issues relating to women.


Here is the category where on-going debates and open-ended discussions on many inflammatory topics such as politics (talk.politics.drugs) or controversial topics (talk.abortion) could be found.

Aside from the seven official categories, USENET may distribute many other Internet newsgroups that may be of local or regional interest. Here are some of the nontraditional groups: 


This category comprises of alternative newsgroups that focus on a wide variety of topics.


Topics found in this category are generally aimed for biologists.


The Bitnet LISTSERV mailing lists are redistributed through these newsgroups.


These newsgroups are concerned with business and computer products or services.


These newsgroups are obtained from commercial news services and other official sources. A site must pay a license fee in order to receive this category.


The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers distributes these newsgroups to any site that wants to carry them.


This is another alternative or miscellaneous category which consists of Internet discussion lists.

Usenet Rules

You can read more about USENET and the rules governing its usage in a number of sites on the Internet. But below are just some of the most important rules that will help you to participate in USENET more effectively and efficiently and make your participation worth the effort to read, post and maintain.

  • Never forget that the person on the other side is human.

On the Net you don't talk face-to-face with others, so you easily forget that you are talking to a person not a robot. In cases like these, choose the words that you will use. Never scream, curse or abuse others because it would just make others think you're less of a person than you are. Remember the Golden Rule: Do not do unto others what you do not want others do unto you.

  • Don't blame the system administrators for their users' behavior.

If ever you find it necessary to write a system administrator concerning his or her site, be polite. Be courteous and civil, it would do you a whole lot good than letting your steamed feelings turn to a boiling one. Besides, it might not be his or her fault.

  • Never assume that a person is speaking for their organization.

Most people who post to Usenet either post using the computers at their office or schools. Unless the person says so, don't assume that the articles he posts are from his organization's viewpoint. A good way for these people is to put disclaimers at the bottom of their posts.

  • Watch your words.

Whatever you post in a newsgroup, it's read by more than a million others. Your boss, your friend's boss, your boyfriend's cousin's best friend or your dad's beer buddy might be in the newsgroup you're in. So think twice before posting personal information about you or other people you know.

  • Be brief.

If you can say it in 10 or fewer words, then say it. Being succinct will give you post a greater impact and more people will read it.

  • Your posts reflect who you are.

You are known by other people in Usenet by what you write and how well you write. So make sure that each posting you make will not embarrass you later. Check for pellings and well-structured and thought of ideas.

  • Be careful with humor and sarcasm.

You think what you've written was funny but once read by others, some of them might find it offensive or not funny at all. The absence of voice inflections and emotions on the Net pose such limitations. So you may want to make sure that you are trying to be funny whenever that is the case. A way to do this is by using smileys or emoticons (e.g. :-), ;-), etc.).

  • Put descriptive subject headers.

The subject line of an article enables a person with a limited amount of time to decide whether or not to read your article so as much as possible, be descriptive.

  • Think about your audience.

Think about the people you are trying to reach when you post an article. Post your messages or questions in the most appropriate audience, not the widest. Also, be familiar with the group you are posting to before you post. Do not post to groups you do not read, or to those you've only read a few articles from. Chances are, you may not be familiar with the on-going conventions and themes of the group. Try to listen first (or "lurk") and then join once you have something pertinent to contribute.

  • Rotate messages with questionable content.

There are newsgroups which have messages in them that some people find offensive. Unless requested, these messages should be encrypted to make sure that the messages are not read. One way to encrypt messages is to use the standard encryption method of rotating each letter by thirteen characters (an "a" becomes and "n"). On Usenet, this method is known as "rot13" and should be put in the subject line. However, to make things easier and less tedious, most software used to read Usenet articles have ways of encrypting and decrypting messages. You can use this method.

  • Avoid joining spelling flames.

Spelling flames are a usual occurrence in Usenet. It starts out with when someone posts an article correcting the spelling and/or grammar of a particular article. It gets to be like a fire: the immediate result is everyone will be correcting spellings and grammar like an English teacher and this is more likely to go on for a few weeks. Aside from being an unproductive thing to do, spelling flames tend to cause people who used to be friends to be angry with each other. Spelling flames could be avoided by remembering that people make mistakes, and that a lot of Net users use English as a second language so they are vulnerable to some spelling and grammatical errors. There are also people who are dyslexic to they have difficulty noticing their mistakes. However, if a comment should be made on the quality of another person's posting, it can be done by sending the comments directly to the person's e-mail address and not to the Usenet address.

  • Don't post a follow-up.

Usually when someone asks a question in a newsgroup, many people send out identical answers. When this happens, dozens of identical answers pour through the net. It is best to send replies to questions that tend to generate numerous identical response to the e-mail address of the person who asked the question. Likewise, a person who posts a question in a newsgroup should mention that replies be sent to his personal address instead of to the Usenet and that once he gets responses, he will post a summary of all the responses for the people in the newsgroup to see.

  • Read follow-ups and don't repeat what has already been said.

Before submitting your follow-up or reply to a message, first read the rest of the postings in the newsgroup to see if someone has already said what you want to say. Don't repeat when someone has already beat you to it.

  • Summarize the article you are following up.

When responding or following up someone's article, summarize the parts of the article you are responding to. This will help the other people in your newsgroup to appreciate your comments rather than trying to remember what the original article said. Include appropriate quotes from the original article but do not include the entire article. Aside from using up a lot of bandwidth, doing so will most likely irritate the others who have already read the article. If you are responding to an entire article, summarize only the major points you are discussing.

  • Be careful about copyrights and licenses.

Once something is posted on Usenet, it is probably in the public domain unless you own the appropriate rights and you post it with a valid copyright notice. When you post a material in a newsgroup, you should be aware of certain rules and not violate those. Posting movie reviews, song lyrics, or anything else published under a copyright constitutes a violation of the copyright laws.

  • Cite your references.

Always state where your facts came from if you use them to support a cause. Do not take someone else's ideas and take them as your own.

  • Don't use Usenet as a resource for homework assignments.

Usenet is not a resource for homework or class assignments. Most new users view discussions in newsgroups as a resource for getting information they can use for school reports and term papers. If you post questionnaires, you're automatically branded as a newbie and you're most likely to get a very tiny number of responses.

  • Don't overdo signatures.

Keep your signatures short. Never make your signature longer than your posts. Your signature should help people locate you in case they want to contact you in the future. It is not used to narrate your life story. Your signature should at least contain the following: your return address, your web site (if you have one), and phone number (if you have a business).

Shery Ma Belle Arrieta is a freelance writer.
She publishes three ezines and online magazines:
Sites, Biz and Zines!
WIRED! Philippines
Positive Quotes
She provides content for, an
online company that specializes on search engine ranking.
She also provides web design and copywriting/editing services
through the Write Page Web Design and Copyediting Services
Email Shery at


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Updated 07/06/04

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