by April 1, 1999 0 comments

You are trying to configure the latest palmtop that your
friend got for you from abroad. No one else you know has a similar model. And calling up
the companies help desk abroad is going to be terribly expensive. So what do you do?

Search the newsgroups–an online discussion group or a
virtual community of people with similar interests. More likely than not, someone
somewhere would have faced the same problem and might have posted a solution. If not, find
a newsgroup that discusses a similar topic and post your question. Chances are that you
would get your answer pretty soon.

Origin of newsgoups

Usenet News (User Network News), as newsgroups are
officially known, was born in 1979 when two graduate students–Tom Truscott and Jim
Ellis–thought of connecting machines for the purpose of information exchange among
Unix users. They set up a small network of three machines in North Carolina. Today, there
are over 20,000 different newsgroups organized around every topic imaginable. Humor,
movies, culture, news, computers, creativity, books, music, science, research,
environment, business announcements, animals…you name it and there’s at least
one newsgroup covering it.

Common categories of newsgroups

alt For
alternative. Anybody can start a group under alt. This is perhaps the largest and the most
varied in terms of the subjects covered. alt.humor is a newsgroup where you can read and
post jokes. “alt.movies.indian” is where you can find people’s opinions and
comments on Indian movies and so on.
biz This is about
business. For example, “biz.comp.hardware
is the place to advertise for selling computer hardware.
comp This group is
related to computers . “comp.edu.languages” is a group of people interested in
different computer languages.
news This is related
to Usenet and all sorts of announcements, advice regarding newsgroups can be posted and
received from here.
soc This stands for
“social”. “soc.culture.indian” is the place to talk about Indian
culture.
sci This is related
to science. “sci.research” is the group where you can find discussions about
various researches going on in the field of science.
rec This is for
recreation and you can talk of music or your pets or anything recreational. For example,
“rec.music.indian.classical” is, as the name suggests, for taking and being
heard about Indian classical music.
misc Anything which
doesn’t fit anywhere fits in this group. For example, in
“misc.books.technical” you can read and write about all sorts of technical
books.

In order to make them easily recognizable, newsgroups
follow a standard naming convention. The name of a newsgroup starts with a category type,
followed by a dot and a subject, which can be followed by any number of subcategories,
each separated by a dot. For example, “news.announce.newusers” is a group in the
category “news” featuring announcements for new users, while
“alt.movies.indian” is a subgroup of the movies newsgroup dealing with Indian
movies. This falls under the category “alternate”(see the box “Common
Categories of Newsgroups”).

Newsgroups can be divided into two
categories–discussion groups and electronic journals. Discussion groups allow
multi-directional postings and anybody can join in any time. Most of the newsgroups listed
above are discussion groups. Electronic journals allow one-way communication only and only
the person or the organization that starts the newsgroup can post messages to it. No
individual postings are allowed. The “americast” hierarchy is an example of
e-journals.

Newsgroups
or mailing lists?
Newsgroups differ from
mailing lists in number of ways.

  • You receive all the messages posted to a mailing
    list. But in case of a newsgroup, the subscriber can choose his topic of interest, and
    thus the messages to browse, without receiving each post.
  • Mailing lists messages exist in your
    mailboxe, newsgroup
    posts get sent to your news server, you can then enter a group, and the newsreader
    downloads just the message headers in the news folder. The messages themselves, however,
    are not on your machine. As you access a particular message, the newsreader gets it from
    the server at that moment. When you finish reading a message, it’s not stored on your
    machine, unless you save it specifically.
  • Unlike mailing lists, in a newsgroup, if you use a
    “threaded” newsreader, then the messages in it show up in a logical
    order–replies to a particular post show up under that post, in a thread.
  • You can post a message to either the newsgroup, reply to the
    author of a message or to both simultaneously. But in a mailing list, you can only post
    messages to the entire group.

Another way of classifying newsgroups is according to the
type of control–as moderated or unmoderated newsgroups. In moderated newsgroups there
is a moderator who goes through all the messages posted and decides whether they are
eligible to be forwarded to the group or not. Obviously, this becomes impossible for large
groups with heavy volume of messages. Unmoderated newsgroups are open to all and anybody
can join and post whatever they want, and no moderator checks the messages here. The
“whatever they want” is not strictly true as members of newsgroups invariably
set up informal rules of decency and topics that can be posted. The “alt”
hierarchy is a typical example of this type. Some newsgroups are “by invitation
only”. That is, only the invited people (by the moderator) can join in.

Newsgroups
through Internet Explorer
  1. Open Outlook Express and select Go>News.
  2. The “Internet Connection Wizard” appears and asks
    for a name by which you would like to be known while posting to a newsgroup.
  3. Type a name and in the next dialog box type an e-mail
    address where you would like to receive replies from the newsgroup members.
  4. In the next dialog box type in the name of your news server
    like, “news.vsnl.net.in” if VSNL is your Internet provider.
  5. After this, it’ll ask for a friendly name for the news
    server, by which it’ll appear in your Outlook.
  6. The last dialog box asks for your connection type giving you
    a choice between a phone line, a LAN and a manual connection.

That is it. You’ll now see the friendly name of your
news server added to the bottom of your Outlook Express’s folder tree.

Now to subscribe to a newsgroup, right click the news
server folder and select “newsgroups”. This will tell you that you’re not
subscribed to any newsgroup and will ask whether you’d like to subscribe to one.
Click on OK to start the downloading process.

Once the list is downloaded, click on any newsgroup and the
“subscribe” button to subscribe to it.

To post a message to a newsgroup, select the newsgroup from
your news folder. Select the header of the message to which you want to reply to, open the
Compose menu and select from: reply to author, reply to newsgroup or reply to newsgroup
and author. You can now send your message just like an ordinary mail.

Servers called “news servers” host newsgroups and
keep a record of the messages posted on them. NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) is the
protocol used by the servers and the news clients. News servers are also known as NNTP
servers, for example, “news.vsnl. net.in” is VSNL’s news server. This is
the place from where you can download the list of newsgroups. Subscribe to a few and soon
you’ll be flooded with postings from all corners of the globe. So be careful and
don’t just go on selecting every other newsgroup for subscription.

By now, it should be clear that newsgroups are about
opinions than about news as in newspaper. To access a newsgroups, that is to read all
messages posted to the group and to post messages yourselves, you need a software called
newsreader. The latest versions of major browsers, such as IE and Netscape, have built-in
newsreaders.

Newsgroups
through Netscape Navigator
Netscape Navigator 4.05

  1. Newsgroups are called discussion groups in the Netscape
    Navigator. Select Communicator>Collabra Discussion Groups.
  2. In the "Netscape Message Center" window click on
    "subscribe" in the toolbar.
  3. Click on the "Add Server" button and type in the
    news server like, "news.vsnl.net.in" if VSNL is your Internet provider.
  4. This will start downloading a list of newsgroups from your
    news server.
  5. Once the list is downloaded, you can click on any newsgroup
    then click the "subscribe" button.

Netscape Navigator 4.5

  1. Select Communicator>Newsgroups.
  2. Right click the News folder that appears in your folder
    tree.
  3. Click on the Subscribe to newsgroups option.
  4. Click on Add Server button in the window that appears and
    select News Server from the Add Server dialog box and click on Continue button.
  5. Enter the news server name, that is,
    "news.vsnl.net.in" and click OK.
  6. This will start downloading a list of newsgroups. Click on
    "subscribe" button to subscribe to any newsgroup you want.

To post a message to a newsgroup, double click a group from
the list in your news folder and select the mail you want to reply to. Click on the Reply
menu and select from: reply to sender, reply to group, or reply to sender and group. And
send the message as an ordinary mail.

You can use search engines, such as infoseek.com and yahoo.com,
too to subscribe to newsgroups—click on any newsgroup listed in it. dejanews.com is also good for the purpose. It’s
set up like a Web search engine, except that it searches exclusively for newsgroups and
their contents. Here you can also search for a message or a keyword across the various
newsgroups. For India-related newsgroups use khoj.com
and indiatime.com.f

You can also use specialized newsreader software like
"NewsWatcher" for the Mac or "NewsFerret" for Windows. (Both these are
available on this month’s PCQ CD).

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