Questions about Usenet Newsgroups?

Questions about Usenet Newsgroups?

Newsgroups are how the Usenet is organized.  They are comparable to discussion groups on the Internet.  Currently, there are over 110,000 newgroups on the Usenet, though it is commonly believed that only about 20,000 are active.  Newsgroups are each dedicated to a specific topic.  Let’s look at a generic example to help explain:

A user in Colorado has a question on Topic B and posts this question on the newsgroup dedicated to Topic B.  A user in Russia posts what he believes to be the answer to the Coloradoan’s question.  Another user in India argues that his answer is more correct.

Because of examples like this, you can see how Usenet newsgroups can be very handy for research.  Others with the same question as the Coloradoan can later find the same discussion and do not have to re-post the question.

So, how are newsgroups organized?  Newsgroups are organized in a hierarchal fashion.  There are 8 major hierarchies used (known as the “Big 8”):

Comp.* – Discussion of computer-related topics
News.* – Discussion of Usenet itself
Sci.* – scientific subjects
Rec.* – recreational activities (i.e. games and hobbies)
Soc.* – social issues
Talk.* – discussion of controversial issues such as politics and religion
Humanities.* – literature, philosophy, etc.
Misc.* – anything which doesn’t fit in any of these hierarchies


When these hierarchies were originally created, discussions concerning recipes, drugs and sex were not allowed in any of the hierarchies.  This brought about the creation of the alt.* (abbreviation of “alternative”) Usenet hierarchy.  Because this was not part of the Big 8, the rules for creation of a newsgroup under alt.* were lax and this hierarchy grew rapidly.

Usenet newsgroups were originally created to distribute text files, but because of the way the Usenet operates, it has proven to be rather effective at distributing binary files, once a few problems were overcome.  First, binary data needed to be converted to text characters (through Uuencode, Base64, and yEnc) so they would survive transmission.  Next, most newsgroup hosts limited the size of individual posts to newsgroups.  To contend with this, binary files are broken apart into smaller files by Newsreaders.  A Newsreader at the receiving end then reassembles the smaller files into the original binary file.  These binary files are mostly posted under alt.binaries.*.

This breaking apart of binary files has brought about the importance of completion rates and retention rates.  Completion rates are the percentage of a file that is recovered by a Newsreader.  If a one of the pieces is missing, it may be impossible to reassemble the binary file.  The top Usenet providers offer completion rates of 99.9% or higher.  Retention rates are how long a newsgroup server keeps a file before they are deleted.  A retention rate “war” has come about between the top Usenet providers.

As you can see, newsgroups are a way of organizing the vast amounts of information that resides on the Usenet.  The hierarchal system can be equated to the Dewey Decimal system used in a physical library.  With the number of newsgroups available, there is sure to be one of interest to everyone.

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