Comms Corner 14 - originally published in the November 1996 issue of PCW Plus.

This month, we'll take a look at a part of the Internet that doesn't really get its fair share of the limelight, namely Usenet, sometimes referred to as Internet News or Network News. A recent survey suggested that as little as 15% of Internet users access Usenet, which, if true, means that an awful lot of people are missing out on one of the most enjoyable, useful and rewarding aspects of the Net.

Usenet is the name given to a global collection of networked computers responsible for the onerous task of maintaining news-groups. News-groups is actually a bit of a misnomer, since most of them have very little to do with news in the traditional sense. They are in fact nothing more than time-delayed discussion forums, very similar to the conference areas of bulletin boards. In other words, Usenet is a kind of public e-mail, with your thoughts and dogmas aired in the open for all and sundry to appreciate or deride.

The way it works is as follows. I post an article to a news-group, say, upon which it immediately becomes available to all those who access news-groups using the server I used to post the message. Shortly afterwards, this server will contact one or more other news servers on the Internet and pass the article on. These news servers will, in turn, contact others and, well, I think you get the picture. The upshot is that within a relatively short space of time, all Usenet servers around the world will be displaying my article for interested parties to read and respond to, whether personally via e-mail or publicly in the group.

Usenet is divided into eight broad categories, known as hierarchies. These are defined in the table below:

comp.* computer related topics, such as comp.infosystems.www.authoring.cgi
news.* subjects related to Usenet itself, e.g.
rec.* recreational themes, such as
sci.* scientific discussion, e.g.
soc.* social and cultural discussion, such as soc.culture.albanian. Interestingly, these groups are heavily populated by expatriates.
talk.* heated debate on controversial topics, e.g. talk.euthanasia
misc.* whatever doesn't fit into the above groups, for example
alt.* groups with a lower distribution, often minority interest, e.g.

Strictly speaking, only the first seven hierarchies actually constitute Usenet proper. The alt.* hierarchy and the many minor hierarchies (about which more later) are actually extensions, but the blanket term Usenet is usually applied to the whole caboodle. In addition, the humanities.* hierarchy is now officially one of the Usenet majors, but the associated news-groups have been slow to appear.

Reading the news-group's name from left to right, its purpose becomes more clearly defined. Within the rec.* hierarchy, for example, lies the sub-hierarchy*. Within this category, you'll find many different news-groups pertaining to artists, genres, instruments, and much more besides.

Obviously,* is just one of the many hundreds of news-group sub-hierarchies, which means that there's something for everyone to be found in Usenet, no matter how bizarre the interest or conviction. In fact, no-one really knows precisely how many news- groups there are in existence, because no one server carries them all, more are being created every day, and some groups only achieve restricted or local distribution. The sheer amount of Net traffic generated daily by Usenet postings means that few sites can afford to have a full feed. My provider carries well over 16000 news-groups, but there are said to now be in excess of 30000. A full up-to-date list of all the groups in the major hierarchies is posted to news.groups every month.

Apart from not carrying the full load of Usenet groups, the news server administrator can also reduce his Usenet storage requirements by setting articles to expire after a given period. This can be anything from a couple of days to several weeks or even months, and depends on the administrator of the news server you use and his view of the individual news-group. Non-commercial sites such as universities usually set articles to expire very quickly, simply because they just can't afford the disc space required to store more than a couple of days' worth of postings. With 200 Mb per day being not unusual for a Usenet feed, you can't afford to hang on to the stuff for too long.

Most of the news-groups in the major hierarchies are carried by all news servers; it's in the alt.* hierarchy that administrators wield their knife. Popular targets are groups that are utterly useless (alt.cows.moo.moo.moo), plain weird ( and those that receive exclusively humungous postings ( - commercial software is illegally posted here by the cart-load. Simply run UUDECODE over it and Bob's your uncle.). Sex - always a favourite amongst those who think they know what's best for the rest of us - is rather predictably also good for the censorship of most of the* hierarchy in some quarters.

The other side of the distribution coin is that news server administrators are generally very open to requests to add new groups to their feed, so if you feel your life isn't worth living without, have a word in his shell-like and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised. Mind you, if you can't do without this particular group, you might be right about your life.

Although the above hierarchies are home to the large majority of news-groups, there are actually many more. nl.*, for example, is the hierarchy of Dutch language news-groups, whilst the de.* and fr.* hierarchies accommodate the German and French groups respectively. These language hierarchies are logically subdivided into sub-hierarchies reflecting the standard Usenet structure, e.g. de.comp.*, fr.rec.*, etc.

Language isn't the sole reason for branching off into a national hierarchy, however. Because of the disproportionately large American influence in some groups, national forums have been set up to better cater for specific geographic needs. A good example of this is nl.fiets, where discussion of cycling in The Netherlands takes place. Although the discussion here is in Dutch, the reason the group was actually created is because cycling in this country has an entirely different status than in other countries. For similar reasons, groups like and uk.rec.walking have been voted into existence. In addition to the major and national hierarchies, there are also many others. For example, there are the commercially available groups requiring a subscription (such as the clari.* hierarchy), but these are really only of interest to people living in the USA. Further hierarchies are formed by Internet providers, who often create local groups for discussing issues relevant only to their users, such as demon.local and xs4all.general. Oddly enough, these groups sometimes still find themselves receiving global distribution.

Next month sees us continue our investigation of Usenet.

© 1997. Page last updated 31st December 1997