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What is Usenet? NOT.

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Archive-name: what-is-usenet/not

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In article <> spaf@cs.purdue.EDU (Gene Spafford) writes:
>Archive-name: what-is-usenet/part1
>Last-change: 2 Dec 91 by (Chip Salzenberg)
>The first thing to understand about Usenet is that it is widely
>misunderstood.  Every day on Usenet, the "blind men and the elephant"
>phenomenon is evident, in spades.  In my opinion, more flame wars
>arise because of a lack of understanding of the nature of Usenet than
>from any other source.  And consider that such flame wars arise, of
>necessity, among people who are on Usenet.  Imagine, then, how poorly
>understood Usenet must be by those outside!

Imagine, indeed, how poorly understood Usenet must be by those who
have the determined will to explain what it is by what it is not?
    "Usenet is not a bicycle.  Usenet is not a fish."  

Any essay on the purpored "nature of usenet" that doesn't get revised
every few months quickly becomes a quaint historical document, which
at best yields a prescriptivist grammar for how the net "should be"
and at worst tries to shape how the Usenet "really is". 

The first thing to understand about Usenet is that it is big.  Really
big.  Netnews (and netnews-like things) have percolated into many more
places than are even known about by people who track such things.
There is no grand unified list of everything that's out there, no way
to know beforehand who is going to read what you post, and no history
books to guide you that would let you know even a small piece of any
of the in jokes that pop up in most newsgroups.  Distrust any grand
sweeping statements about "Usenet", because you can always find a
counterexample.  (Distrust this message, too :-).

>Any essay on the nature of Usenet cannot ignore the erroneous
>impressions held by many Usenet users.  Therefore, this article will
>treat falsehoods first.  Keep reading for truth.  (Beauty, alas, is
>not relevant to Usenet.)

Any essay on the nature of Usenet that doesn't change every so often
to reflect its ever changing nature is erroneous.  Usenet is not a
matter of "truth", "beauty", "falsehood", "right", or "wrong", except
insofar as it is a conduit for people to talk about these and many
other things.


> 1. Usenet is not an organization.

Usenet is organized.  There are a number of people who contribute to
its continued organization -- people who post lists of things, people
who collect "frequently asked questions" postings, people who give out
or sell newsfeeds, people who keep archives of groups, people who put
those archives into WAIS servers.  This organization is accompanied by
a certain amount of disorganization -- news software that doesn't
always work just right, discussions that wander from place to place,
parts of the net that resist easy classification.  Order and disorder
are part of the same whole.

In the short run, the person or group who runs the system that you
read news from and the sites which that system exchanges news with
control who gets a feed, which articles are propogated to what places
and how quickly, and who can post articles.  In the long run, there
are a number of alternatives for Usenet access, including companies
which can sell you feeds for a fee, and user groups which provide
feeds for their members; while you are on your own right now as you
type this in, over the long haul there are many choices you have on
how to deal with the net.

> 2. Usenet is not a democracy.

Usenet has some very "democratic" sorts of traditions.  Traffic is
ultimately generated by readers, and people who read news ultimately
control what will and will not be discussed on the net.  While the
details of any individual person's news reading system may limit or
constrain what is easy or convenient for them to do right now, in the
long haul the decisions on what is or is not happening rests with the

On the other hand, there have been (and always will be) people who
have been on the net longer than you or I have been, and who have a
strong sense of tradition and the way things are normally done.  There
are certain things which are simply "not done".  Any sort of decision
that involves counting the number of people yes or no on a particular
vote has to cope with the entrenched interests who aren't about to
change their habits, their posting software, or the formatting of
their headers just to satisfy a new idea.

> 3. Usenet is not fair.

Usenet is fair, cocktail party, town meeting, notes of a secret cabal,
chatter in the hallway at a conference, friday night fish fry,
post-coital gossip, conversations overhead on an airplane, and a bunch
of other things.

> 4. Usenet is not a right.

Usenet is a right, a left, a jab, and a sharp uppercut to the jaw.
The postman hits!  You have new mail.

> 5. Usenet is not a public utility.

Usenet is carried in large part over circuits provided by public
utilities, including the public switched phone network and lines
leased from public carriers.  In some countries the national
networking authority has some amount of monopoly power over the
provision of these services, and thus the flow of information is
controlled in some manner by the whims and desires (and pricing
structure) of the public utility.

Most Usenet sites are operated by organizations which are not public
utilities, not in the ordinary sense.  You rarely get your newsfeed
from National Telecom, it's more likely to be National U. or Private
Networking Inc.

> 6. Usenet is not an academic network.

Usenet is a network with many parts to it.  Some parts are academic,
some parts aren't.  Usenet is clearly not a commercial network like
Sprintnet or Tymenet, and it's not an academic network like BITNET.
But parts of BITNET are parts of Usenet, though some of the traffic on
usenet violates the BITNET acceptable use guidelines, even though the
people who are actually on BITNET sites reading these groups don't
necessarily mind that they are violating the guidelines.

Whew.  Usenet is a lot of networks, and none of them.  You name
another network, and it's not Usenet.

> 7. Usenet is not an advertising medium.

A man walks into a crowded theater and shouts, "ANYBODY WANT TO BUY A
CAR?"  The crowd stands up and shouts back, "WRONG THEATER!"

Ever since the first dinette set for sale in New Jersey was advertised
around the world, people have been using Usenet for personal and for
corporate gain.  If you're careful about it and don't make people mad,
Usenet can be an effective means of letting the world know about
things which you find valuable.  But take care...

- Marketing hype will be flamed immediately.  If you need to post a
  press release, edit it first.
- Speak nice of your competitors.  If your product is better than
  theirs, don't say theirs is "brain damaged", "broken", or "worthless".
  After all someone else might have the same opinion of your product.
- Dance around the issue.  Post relevant information (like price, availability
  and features) but make sure you don't send everything out.  If someone
  wants the hard sell let them request it from you by e-mail.
- Don't be an idiot.  If you sell toasters for a living, don't spout off
  in net.breadcrumbs about an international conspiracy to poison pigeons
  orchestrated by the secret Usenet Cabal; toaster-buyers will get word
  of your reputation for idiocy and avoid your toasters even if they are
  the best in the market.  
- You can't avoid representing your company when you post under the
  banner of the company's name.  No matter how many disclaimers you
  put on, no matter how laid back the audience, it still happens.
  To maintain a separate net.identity, post from a different site.

> 8. Usenet is not the Internet.

It would be very difficult to sustain the level of traffic that's
flowing on Usenet today if it weren't for people sending news feeds
over dedicated circuits with TCP/IP on the Internet.  That's not to
say that if a sudden disease wiped out all IBM RTs and RS6000s that
form the NSFnet backbone that some people wouldn't be inconvenienced
or cut off from the net entirely.  (Based on the reliability of the
backbone, perhaps the "sudden disease" has already hit?)

There's a certain symbiosis between netnews and Internet connections;
the cost of maintaining a newsfeed with NNTP is so much less than
doing the same thing with dialup UUCP that sites which depend enough
on the information flowing through news are some of the most eager to
get on the Internet.

The Usenet is not the Internet.  Certain governments have laws which
prevent other countries from getting onto the Internet, but that
doesn't stop netnews from flowing in and out.  Chances are pretty good
that a site which has a usenet feed you can send mail to from the
Internet, but even that's not guaranteed in some odd cases (news feeds
sent on CD-ROM, for instance).

> 9. Usenet is not a UUCP network.

UUCP carried the first netnews traffic, and a considerable number of
sites get their newsfeed using UUCP.  But it's also fed using NNTP,
pressed onto CD-ROMs, faxed to China, and printed out on paper to be
tacked up on bulletin boards and pasted on refrigerators.

>10. Usenet is not a United States network.

A recent analysis of the top 1000 Usenet sites showed about 66% US
sites, 15% unknown, 10% Germany, 7% Canada, 2-3% each the UK, Japan,
Sweden, and Australia, and the rest mostly scattered around Europe.
You can read netnews on all seven continents, including Antarctica.

The state of California is the center of the net, with about 15% of
the mapped top sites there.  Other states and provinces with
widespread news connectivity include Massachusetts, Texas, Ontario,
Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Oregon.

If you're looking for a somewhat less US-centered view of the world,
try reading regional newsgroups from various different states or
groups from various far-away places (which depending on where you are
at could be Japanese, German, Canadian, or Australian).  There are a
lot of people out there who are different from you.

>11. Usenet is not a UNIX network.

Well...ok, if you don't have a UNIX machine, you can read news.  In
fact, there are substantial sets of newsgroups (bit.*) which are
transported and gatewayed primarily through IBM VM systems, and a set
of newsgroups (vmsnet.*) which has major traffic through DEC VMS
systems.  Reasonable news relay software runs on Macs (uAccess), Amiga
(a C news port), MS-DOS (Waffle), and no doubt quite a few more.  I'm
typing on a DOS machine right now.

There is a certain culture about the net that has grown up on Unix
machines, which occasioally runs into fierce clashes with teh culture
that has grown up on IBM machines (LISTSERV), Commodore 64's (BIFF IS
A K00L D00D), and MS-DOS Fidonet systems.  If you are not running on a
Unix machine or if you don't have one handy there are things about the
net which are going to be puzzling or maddening, much as if you are
reading a BITNET list and you don't have a CMS system handy.

>12. Usenet is not an ASCII network.

There are reasonably standard ways to type Japanese, Russian, Swedish,
Finnish, Icelandic, and Vietnamese that use the ASCII character set to
encode your national character set.  The fundamental assumption of
most netnews software is that you're dealing with something that looks
a lot like US ASCII, but if you're willing to work within those bounds
and be clever it's quite possible to use ASCII to discuss things in
any language.

>13. Usenet is not software.

Usenet software has gotten much better over time to cope with the ever
increasing aggregate flow of netnews and (in some cases) the extreme
volume that newsgroups generate.  If you were reading news now with
the same news software that was running 10 years ago, you'd never be
able to keep up.  Your system would choke and die and spend all of its
time either processing incoming news or expiring old news.  Without
software and constant improvements to same, Usenet would not be here.

There is no "standard" Usenet software, but there are standards for
what Usenet articles look like, and what sites are expected to do with
them.  It's possible to write a fairly simple minded news system
directly from the standards documents and be reasonably sure that it
will work with other systems, though thorough testing is necessary if
it's going to be used in the real world.


		"Usenet is like Tetris for people who still remember
		 how to read."		J.Heller

Usenet is in part about people.  There are people who are "on the
net", who read rec.humor.funny every so often, who know the same jokes
you do, who tell you stories about funny or stupid things they've
seen.  Usenet is the set of people who know what Usenet is.

Usenet is a bunch of bits, lots of bits, millions of bits each day
full of nonsense, argument, reasonable technical discussion, scholarly
analysis, and naughty pictures.

Usenet (or netnews) is about newsgroups (or groups).  Not bboards, not
LISTSERV, not mailing lists, they're groups.  If someone calls them
something else they're not looking at things from a Usenet
perspective.  That's not to say that they're "incorrect" -- who is to
say what is the right way of viewing the world? -- just that it's not
the Net Way.  In particular, if they read Usenet news all mixed in
with their important every day mail (like reminders of who to go to
lunch with Thursday) they're not seeing netnews the way most people
see netnews.  Some newsgroups are also (or "really") Fidonet echoes
(alt.bbs.allsysop), BITNET LISTSERV groups (bit.listserv.pacs-l), or
even both at once! (misc.handicap).  So be prepared for some violent
culture clashes if someone refers to you favorite as a

Newsgroups have names.  These names are both very arbitrary and very
meaningful.  People will fight for months or years about what to name
a newsgroup.  If a newsgroup doesn't have a name (even a dumb one like
misc.misc) it's not a newsgroup.  In particular newsgroup names have
dots in them, and people abbreviate them by taking the first letters
of the names (so alt.folklore.urban is afu, and soc.culture.china is


There is nothing vague about Usenet.  (Vague, vague, it's filling up
thousands of dollars worth of disk drives and you want to call it
vague?  Sheesh!)  It may be hard to pin down what is and isn't part of
usenet at the fringes, but netnews has tended to grow amoeba-like to
encompass more or less anything in its path, so you can be pretty sure
that if it isn't Usenet now it will be once it's been in contact with
Usenet for long enough.

There are a lot of systems that are part of Usenet.  Chances are that
you don't have any clue where all your articles will end up going or
what news reading software will be used to look at them.  Any message
of any appreciable size or with any substantial personal opinion in it
is probably in violation of some network use policy or local ordinance
in some state or municipality.

		1.  Keep the processors up and running, and make sure there's
		    enough disk space for netnews.  
	    	2.  Keep the network up and running so that the
		    newsfeed comes in.  
		3.  Install new newsreaders, get more feeds of more
		    groups, test out the latest filtering code.
		4.  Plan for getting more disks	so you can keep more
		    news and index it all.  
		5.  Read news (if there's time).

Some people are control freaks.  They want to present their opinion of
how things are, who runs what, what is OK and not OK to do, which
things are "good" and which are "bad".  You will run across them every
so often.  They serve a useful purpose; there's a lot of chaos
inherent in a largely self-governing system, and people with a strong
sense of purpose and order can make things a lot easier.  Just don't
believe everything they say.  In particular, don't believe them when
they say "don't believe everything they say", because if they post the
same answers month after month some other people are bound to believe

If you run a news system you can be a petty tyrant.  You can decide
what groups to carry, who to kick off your system, how to expire old
news so that you keep 60 days worth of misc.petunias but expire almost immediately.  In the long run you will probably
be happiest if you make these decisions relatively even-handedly since
that's the posture least likely to get people to notice that you
actually do have control.

Your right to exercise control over netnews usually ends at your
neighbor's spool directory.  Pleading, cajoling, appealing to good
nature, or paying your news feed will generally yield a better
response than flames on the net.


		"I've already explained this once, but repetition is
		the very soul of the net."		(from alt.config)

One of the ways to exert control over the workings of the net is to
take the time to put together a relatively accurate set of answers to
some frequently asked questions and post it every month.  If you do
this right, the article will be stored for months on sites around the
world, and you'll be able to tell people "idiot, don't ask this
question until you've read the FAQ, especially answer #42".

The periodic postings include several lists of newsgroups, along with
comments as to what the contents of the groups are supposed to be.
Anyone who has the time and energy can put together a list like this,
and if they post it for several months running they will get some
measure of net.recognition for themselves as being the "official"
keeper of the "official" list.  But don't delude yourself into
thinking that anything on the net is official in any real way; the
lists serve to perpetuate common myths about who's talking about what
where, but that's no guarantee that things will actually work out that


In the olden days, when the net was young, and you could still read it
at 300 baud on a dumb terminal without a news reader and get work done
during the rest of the day...

In the olden days, news was sent out over UUCP and long-distance
dialup lines.  A few people managed to sneak the horrendous phone
bills past their management, and they held a lot of power over which
newsgroups could be carried where.  Those people called themselves
"the backbone cabal".

Things have changed.  Nowadays, internet sites have plenty of
bandwidth, and it's generally disk space that's the limiting factor,
and the patience of news adminstrators to deal with odd newsgroups
appearing.  New groups appearing and disappearing in the mainstream
news hierarchies are fairly well controlled, and newsgroup votes tend
to be accepted by most system managers.  

There are many systems around the US which now sell a reliable
newsfeed for a few bucks a month.  These folks will generally gladly
get you any group you want to read (to the best of their ability)
because, after all, you're paying for it.  


		  "If there are enough people who want to talk about
		  Joey and the Shralpers coming to you from East
		  Podunk, Ohio, and they vote and it passes, well,
		  dammit, they get a  newsgroup."

It takes about two months, playing by the rules, to create a new
newsgroup.  Pick a name, write a charter, circulate it for opinions,
and if after a month you don't have a raging flame-war in news.groups
call the vote.  A month after you call the vote plow through your mail
box and count the results, if it meets the standards you're in.  This
is all explained with a substantially greater amount of wind in a
document reverently called The Guidelines.

In order for your newsgroup to be propogated widely, it must show
promise.  The name has to be good and consistent with other newsgroup
names; the charter should provide enough substance that people will
want to talk about those topics; and you have to figure out a way to
make it through a month of sniping by the news.groupies before you
call the question.

Chances are, some one is already talking about some of the stuff
you're interested in in one of the 2000-odd newsgroups and equally
many mailing lists there are out on the net.  The purpose of all this 
vote-gathering is to get the word out to them that there's some new
niche appearing to discuss things and if they want to get involved
here's the way to do it.  If your proposed niche collides with someone
else's happy mail list or if it runs up too close to a hot newsgroup
argument be prepared for an unhappy vote-counting time.


Take a walk in the park, go rent a good movie, take a nice long bath
by candlelight, or call up a relative you haven't talked to for a long
time.  Spend some time away from the net.  You deserve it.

Edward Vielmetti, vice president for research, MSEN Inc.
       MSEN, Inc. 628 Brooks Ann Arbor MI 48103 +1 313 998 4562
   "Gigabits are not needed where rice is lacking!" Bob Sutterfield

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