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What Netnews Is (and Is Not)

Netnews (also known as Usenet) is a world-wide distributed discussion system. It consists of a set of "newsgroups" with names that are classified hierarchically by subject. "Articles" or "messages" are "posted" to these newsgroups by people on computers with the appropriate software. These articles are then broadcast to other interconnected computer systems via a wide variety of networks. Some newsgroups are "moderated"; in these newsgroups, the articles are first sent to a moderator for approval before appearing in the newsgroup. Netnews is available on a wide variety of computer systems and networks, but the bulk of modern Netnews traffic is transported over the Internet.

1. Why is Netnews so hard to define

The first thing to understand about Netnews is that it is widely misunderstood. Every day on Netnews, the "blind men and the elephant" phenomenon is evident, in spades. More flame wars arise because of a lack of understanding of the nature of Netnews than from any other source. And consider that such flame wars arise, of necessity, among people who are on Netnews. Imagine, then, how poorly understood Netnews must be by those outside!

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

2. What Netnews Is Not

  1. Netnews is not an organization

    No person or group has authority over Netnews as a whole. No one controls who gets a news feed, which articles are propagated where, who can post articles, or anything else. There is no "Netnews Incorporated," nor is there a "Netnews User's Group." You're on your own.

    Granted, there are various activities organized by means of Netnews newsgroups. The newsgroup creation process is one such activity. But it would be a mistake to equate Netnews with the organized activities it makes possible. If they were to stop tomorrow, Netnews would go on without them.

  2. Netnews is not a democracy

    Since there is no person or group in charge of Netnews as a whole (i.e. there is no Netnews "government") it follows that Netnews cannot be a democracy, autocracy, or any other kind of "-acy."

  3. Netnews is not fair

    After all, who shall decide what's fair? For that matter, if someone is behaving unfairly, who's going to stop him? Neither you nor I, that's certain.

  4. Netnews is not a right

    Some people misunderstand their local right of "freedom of speech" to mean that they have a legal right to use others' computers to say what they wish in whatever way they wish, and the owners of said computers have no right to stop them.

    Those people are wrong. Freedom of speech also means freedom not to speak. If I choose not to use my computer to aid your speech, that is my right. Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.

  5. Netnews is not a public utility

    Some Netnews sites are publicly funded or subsidized. Most of them, by plain count, are not. There is no government monopoly on Netnews, and little or no government control.

  6. Netnews is not an academic network

    It is no surprise that many Netnews sites are universities, research labs or other academic institutions. Netnews originated with a link between two universities, and the exchange of ideas and information is what such institutions are all about. But the passage of years has changed Netnews's character. Today, by plain count, most Netnews sites are commercial entities.

  7. Netnews is not an advertising medium

    Because of Netnews's roots in academia, and because Netnews depends so heavily on cooperation (sometimes among competitors), custom dictates that advertising be kept to a minimum. It is tolerated if it is infrequent, informative, and low-hype.

    The "comp.newprod" newsgroup is NOT an exception to this rule: product announcements are screened by a moderator in an attempt to keep the hype-to-information ratio in check.

  8. Netnews is not the Internet

    The Internet is a wide-ranging network, parts of which are subsidized by various governments. It carries many kinds of traffic, of which Netnews is only one. And the Internet is only one of the various networks carrying Netnews traffic.

  9. Netnews is not a United States network

    It is true that Netnews originated in the United States, and the fastest growth in Netnews sites has been there. Nowadays, however, Netnews extends worldwide.

    Keep Netnews's worldwide nature in mind when you post articles. Even those who can read your language may have a culture wildly different from yours. When your words are read, they might not mean what you think they mean.

  10. Netnews is not a Unix network

    Don't assume that everyone is using "rn" on a Unix machine. Among the systems used to read and post to Netnews are Vaxen running VMS, IBM mainframes, Amigas, Macintoshes and MS-DOS PCs.

  11. Netnews is not software

    There are dozens of software packages used at various sites to transport and read Netnews articles. So no one program or package can be called "the Netnews software."

    Software designed to support Netnews traffic can be (and is) used for other kinds of communication, usually without risk of mixing the two. Such private communication networks are typically kept distinct from Netnews by the invention of newsgroup names different from the universally-recognized ones.

Well, enough negativity.

3. What Netnews Is

Netnews is the set of people who exchange articles tagged with one or more universally-recognized labels, called "newsgroups" (or "groups" for short). There is often confusion about the precise set of newsgroups that constitute Netnews; one commonly accepted definition is that it consists of newsgroups listed in the periodic "List of Active Newsgroups" postings which appear regularly in news.lists and other newsgroups.

(Note that the correct term is "newsgroups"; they are not called areas, bases, boards, bboards, conferences, round tables, SIGs, echoes, rooms or usergroups! Nor, as noted above, are they part of the Internet, though they may reach your site over it. Furthermore, the people who run the news systems are called news administrators, not sysops. If you want to be understood, be accurate.)

4. Diversity

If the above definition of Netnews sounds vague, that's because it is. It is almost impossible to generalize over all Netnews sites in any non-trivial way. Netnews encompasses government agencies, large universities, high schools, businesses of all sizes, home computers of all descriptions, etc, etc.

5. Control

Every administrator controls his own site. No one has any control over any site but his own.

Sites are not entirely without influence on their neighbors, however. There is a vague notion of "upstream" and "downstream" related to the direction of high-volume news flow. To the extent that "upstream" sites decide what traffic they will carry for their "downstream" neighbors, those "upstream" sites have some influence on their neighbors' participation in Netnews. But such influence is usually easy to circumvent; and heavy-handed manipulation typically results in a backlash of resentment.

6. Periodic Postings

To help hold Netnews together, various articles (including this one) are periodically posted in newsgroups in the "news" hierarchy. These articles are provided as a public service by various volunteers. They are few but valuable. Learn them well.

Among the periodic postings are lists of active newsgroups, both "standard" (for lack of a better term) and "alternative." These lists, maintained by David Lawrence, reflect his personal view of Netnews, and as such are not "official" in any sense of the word. However, if you're looking for a description of subjects discussed on Netnews, or if you're starting up a new Netnews site, David's lists are an eminently reasonable place to start.

7. Newsgroup Creation

As was observed above in "What Netnews Is Not," Netnews as a whole is not a democracy. However, there is exactly one feature of Netnews that has a form of democracy: newsgroup creation.

A new newsgroup is unlikely to be widely propagated unless its sponsor follows the newsgroup creation guidelines; and the current guidelines require a new newsgroup to pass an open vote.

There are those who consider the newsgroup creation process to be a remarkably powerful form of democracy, since without any coercion, its decisions are almost always carried out. In their view, the democratic aspect of newsgroup creation is the precursor to an organized and democratic Netnews Of The Future.

On the other hand, some consider the democratic aspect of the newsgroup creation process a sham and a fraud, since there is no power of enforcement behind its decisions, and since there appears little likelihood that any such power of enforcement will ever be given it. For them, the appearance of democracy is only a tool used to keep proponents of flawed newsgroup proposals from complaining about their losses.

So, is Netnews on its way to full democracy? Or will property rights and mistrust of central authority win the day? Beats me.

8. If you are unhappy...

Property rights being what they are, there is no higher authority on Netnews than the people who own the machines on which Netnews traffic is carried. If the owner of the machine you use says, "We will not carry alt.whips-and-chains on this machine," and you are not happy with that order, you have no Netnews recourse. What can we outsiders do, after all?

That doesn't mean you are without options. Depending on the nature of your site, you may have some internal political recourse. Or you might find external pressure helpful. Or, with a minimal investment, you can get a feed of your own from somewhere else. Computers capable of taking Netnews feeds are now quite affordable, and there are several free Unix-like operating systems (NetBSD, FreeBSD, 386BSD and Linux from ftp sites all around the world, complete with source code and all the software needed to run a Netnews site).

No matter what, though, appealing to "Netnews" won't help. Even if those who read such an appeal are sympathetic to your cause, they will almost certainly have even less influence at your site than you do.

By the same token, if you don't like what some user at another site is doing, only the administrator and owner of that site have any authority to do anything about it. Persuade them that the user in question is a problem for them, and they might do something -- if they feel like it, that is.

If the user in question is the administrator or owner of the site from which she posts, forget it; you can't win.


Written by IT Services. Latest revision 5 September 2014