Usenet: Sex, hamsters and duct tape

By Вen Li

The collective wants you. Join Usenet, the largest information repository on the Internet.

Every day, thousands of articles are posted on Usenet, short for Users’ Network. Since its inception in 1979-1980 at Duke University, an estimated terabyte (1012 bytes) or the equivalent of one billion pages of information and discussions have been generated in over 500 million posts by millions of people.

Usenet is essentially a global bulletin board. Like e-mail, participants read and post text messages, but it also allows anyone to contribute their experience and expertise by reading and replying to those messages and forming threads. For this reason, many people flock to Usenet solely to find instant-gratification answers to their questions.

Over 50,000 groups exist to cover topics including Rush Limbaugh and sex with hamsters using duct tape (no relation). Experts (and quacks) from around the world are more than willing to offer their advice for free, and there are plenty of people on Usenet who could use any knowledge you have.

To participate in Usenet, you will need a news reader program such as Forte Agent for Windows, Tin for AIX (available with your university account), or Yet Another Newswatcher for Mac. Netscape Messenger and Microsoft Outlook for Macintosh and/or Windows are competent news readers but lack some features. You will also need access to a news server, such as the one provided by the U of C or another Internet service provider.

Once you are online, you will need to choose a few news groups (such as The easiest way to find a group is by browsing the Usenet newsgroup hierarchy which structures news groups by topic (for example, is for discussions regarding Star Trek: Voyager while is for Star Trek).

Most new users should start in a group under one of the Big Eight newsgroups which include "comp" for computer-related discussions (comp.os for example), "rec" for recreational topics (television, games, etc) and "sci" for academic discussions regarding science. The other large hierarchy, "alt," contains discussions on almost everything imaginable although "alt" can be somewhat chaotic since almost none

of the news-groups under it are moderated. In moderated groups such as those under "comp," article submissions are approved by a human being before they reach the actual newsgroup. This helps to reduce the volume of low-quality and redundant posts.

Users can find out about a particular group by lurking. Lurking, reading others’ posts for a while to understand the general flow of ideas in the community, is a good way to acquaint yourself with the group. Another good idea is to read the FAQ (a list of frequently asked questions) from the newsgroup before posting since most of the common questions have already been asked and answered by others.

If you think you’ve come up with a question or a discussion topic not previously addressed, or would like to contribute to a discussion, be sure to read the FAQ for posting guidelines. For instance, discussion groups about current TV shows request spoiler space (a bunch of blank lines) before anything that may give away the plot.

There are a few other things to keep in mind when posting. The subject line should describe what your post or question is about and you should provide as many details as possible in the body of your message. "ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US" as a subject line or contents of the body does not count. If you are requesting a specific file or piece of information, it is customary to put "REQ:" in the subject line of the article. Not all groups allow the posting of binaries, that is, any file that is not text. Those that do are often denoted by ".binaries." in their name and are nor particularly great for extended discussions since messages expire quickly, that is, they are deleted from the server because the attached files tend to be large.

If your news server suffers from a lack of interesting groups or fast expiry, there are alternatives., for example, offers free Usenet and mail service. For older postings, there are searchable archives of discussions such as DejaNews’ Usenet archive.

Have fun but remember that other posters are mostly human. Don’t say things that you wouldn’t in real life. "Flaming" or being a "troll" (read: bastard) will get you plonked (permanently ignored) very quickly.


Leave a comment