In spite of the huge popularity of the Web, it's more often than not Usenet that has the moral majority and politicians working themselves into a lather. The sheer ease with which information can be globally disseminated - whether it's idle chit-chat, leaked documents, pictures of nude women or expensive software - is a bit too much for those who would protect us from ourselves. For those with an enquiring mind, however, it's an inexhaustible vein of gold just aching to be mined.
Another great thing about Usenet is that it's perfectly democratic. Each potential new group must be proposed, discussed and ultimately voted for. Absolutely anybody can propose a new group, but if it doesn't garner enough votes, it is rejected and must then wait a number of months before it can be proposed again. If the proposal proves popular, on the other hand, the group is created and the posting can begin.
The exception to the above rule is the alt.* hierarchy. Here, anarchy reigns supreme and anyone may create a group without going through any kind of voting procedure. However, if you don't even bother to propose your brainchild to ascertain whether anyone but yourself is remotely interested in the subject at hand, the chances are that you'll wind someone up enough to cancel it within hours of its creation (and quite possibly flame you). Yes, news- groups can be cancelled as easily as they are created, although this itself is a highly controversial practice, as the Church of Scientology discovered last year when they tried to annihilate the news-group devoted to discussing their organisation's dubious practices.
Of course, no-one wants to sift through 100 Mb of waffle every day, so news-reader software allows one to subscribe to groups of particular interest and ignore the rest. Advanced news-readers will even filter the messages within a group, for example retrieving only articles with the words Amstrad PCW in the subject line. A good news-reader will dial into your provider, retrieve the subject headers of any newly posted articles and then log out again. This gives you the opportunity to tag articles of possible interest off-line and then go back on-line to retrieve all the matching bodies in one fell swoop. Then it's back off-line to read them at your leisure, saving pounds on your phone bill in the process.
Sadly, and here's the usual rub, there's no off-line news-reader software available for the PCW. The intrepid PCWer must thus access Usenet in the same way he accesses the Web, i.e. by dialling into his provider and running a program at that end. This will almost certainly be a user-hostile Unix program, very powerful yet not for the faint-hearted. Popular Unix news-readers are NN, TRN and TIN. TIN has its critics, but I would recommend this program on the grounds that it is the easiest of the bunch to use. Download the documentation, read through the basics and then dial back in for a trial run. Once you've got the hang of it, it's great fun and potentially extremely useful, too.
Whether you use Usenet for your work or just to post the occasional query about a computer configuration problem, you have the world's greatest research resource at your disposal. For some, this alone is worth the monthly expense of an Internet subscription.
Before you start posting messages to a news-group, you should be aware of the following golden rules:
Usenet can also be consulted via the World Wide Web. Have a look at DejaNews, a gigantic archive of postings that allows you to search on keyword, author and date. Another useful resource on the Web is the Usenet Info Center Launch Pad. This site contains comprehensive documentation about Usenet.
Lastly, if you can't wait for the monthly posting of a group's FAQ file, you can obtain it by FTP from rtfm.mit.edu. Log in as anonymous and go to the directory /pub/usenet. Here you'll find a subdirectory for each news-group, in which the latest copy of the FAQ can be found, along with other postings of general interest.