Internet citizenship

This isn't life in the fast lane, it's life in the oncoming traffic.

Terry Pratchett,

Discussions on the Internet: News groups

Mailing lists are one of the ways that groups of people can talk to one another on-line. Other examples include Usenet discussion groups, Web based discussions, real time chat (IRC), muds, and video and audio conferencing.

Usenet discussion groups (news groups) are similar to mailing lists. However, for some reason, many Usenet discussion groups tend to have a rough and tumble atmosphere about them. 'Flaming' (attacking people in a vitriolic manner) is much more common in discussion groups.

This is one of two major difference between mailing lists and discussion groups. The other important difference is that you read mailing lists with all your other e-mail. To keep up with a news group, you have to make a habit of opening the group to read it. Usually, you need to use a special program to read discussion groups. This means that less people read discussion groups.

Like mailing lists, the sense of community in any one particular group is developed by the regular participants of that group. By their behavior, they demonstrate what is acceptable behavior in the group and what is unacceptable.

Anyone can join these groups - there is no fee. Anyone can post anything that they want. This is both the beauty and the tragedy of the system.

What is Usenet news?

Usenet news, (often referred to as news groups), is one of the most addictive features of the Internet.

Usenet works like a worldwide graffiti board. Anyone in the world can contribute. One person comes along and writes a message. Another person writes a reply. Later, a third person joins in by adding a further message. Over a period of time, a conversation takes place, with the original writers returning to add to the graffiti again and again.

In Australia, you can participate in over 10,000 of these electronic 'graffiti boards' (news groups). They range from the specific (David Letterman's 'top ten' lists) to the scientific (the particular species of fish used in biology experiments), from the profane (Satanism) to the insane (post-modem angst) and from the capricious (carnivorous 'devil bunny' rabbits) to the capacious (soap operas).

Some of these 10,000+ news groups have less than one message a month added to them. Others, like the news group to discuss Operation Desert Storm, contain nothing at all. In contrast to that, the most popular news groups have over one hundred new messages added every day. My guess is that most would average about 15 new messages every day. That's a lot of words being typed by a lot of people from all around the world.

Isn't that just chaotic?

It only takes one command to create a news group, so the scope for creating chaos is huge. Therefore, some guidelines are used to try to preserve some sense of order within the system. The messages are divided into rough hierarchies of interest. Like a tree structure, each high level hierarchy is split into many smaller hierarchies, and so on. Lets look at the most important nine of the top hierarchies and I'll see if I can make it a bit clearer.

The main hierarchies that you will mostly come across are:

Everything that is concerned with Usenet and the news groups
eg news:news.newusers.questions - questions from new users of Usenet news groups.
Everything about computers, that isn't concerned with Usenet.
eg - a marketplace for people selling games which run on the IBM pc computer system.
Everything scientific that isn't concerned with computers.
eg news:sci.math.num-analysis - a group for mathematicians working on numerical analysis.
Everything to do with the social sciences, as opposed to science.
eg news:soc.culture.bolivia - discussion of the culture of Bolivia (very popular with ex-pats). There are soc.culture... groups for almost every country in the world, where you can keep up with local news and ask travel questions.
Everything to do with the humanities, as opposed to social science.
eg news:humanities.classics - a place to discuss the study of ancient societies.
Everything to do with recreational hobbies unless already covered above.
eg news:rec.pets.cats - for talking about your cat.
Everything that is open to debate. This is supposed to exclude the stuff already covered in the social sciences and the physical sciences, but there is a lot of overlap.
eg news:talk.politics.guns - a place to shoot your mouth off.
Everything that doesn't come under one of the groups above. I think that this hierarchy has pretty much been abandoned.

Together, these eight hierarchies form what is referred to as the 'big eight'. There is a set of rules for adding new groups to these hierarchies and anyone who reads Usenet news can vote for or against any new group that is proposed.

Some people do not like rules or structures, so they created some alternative structures. These are know as:

A 'hierarchy' (its a very flat pyramid) where any user can create any group, as she sees fit.
eg - for people who love Lemurs.
Another 'hierarchy', this time for people who thought that the alt hierarchy was too restrictive. True anarchy.
eg - Your guess is as good as mine.

And because the nine hierarchies above are all worldwide, we have created our own regional and local hierarchies.

A hierarchy for discussing issues of importance to Australia.
eg news:aus.bicycle - for discussion of cycling in Australia.
A hierarchy for discussing issues of importance to New Zealand. (There are also specific hierarchies for most other countries in the world - however, most of them aren't distributed outside that country.)
eg news:nz.politics.announce - announcements about New Zealand politics.
A hierarchy for issues that matter to people at RMIT.
eg news:rmit.clubs.muslims - a place for the members of the Muslim student club to hang out on-line.

How can I cope with all this info, and remember all the groups? There is too much to keep up with. If you try to read all the messages, you will die.

If you are
you will
the messages.

(When I first wrote this, the 'humanities' and 'free' hierarchies didn't exist. If anyone can come up with a something similar, I would appreciate it. It should cover at least the following groups: aus, alt, news, comp, soc, humanities, sci, rec, talk and misc.)

For the curious, here are some of the more obscure top-level hierarchies that you might come across:

Australian amateur networking association;
San Francisco bay area (the 'Bay' is such a big Internet hub, some things leak out);
Hierarchy for biology researchers, especially the Human Genome project;
BITNET network of mailing lists. The most popular mailing lists are duplicated as these groups;
Business groups. Please note that all messages in these groups are copyright;
Bastard operators from Hell. A place where computer operators can tell one another jokes;
Messages to do with Borland software;
Fidonet, the network of bulletin boards;
A programming system not quite, but almost entirely unlike UNIX;
The US government groups.
International professional association for engineers;
Just what it says - used for administration purposes;
Designed for kids up to year 12 (not 12 years old);
For free Linux software;
For Microsoft software, which is not free;
For Novell software, which RMIT uses to run its network;
Does anyone know what this is for, or about?
For VMS mainframe computers.

Drawing on the knowledge of experts - FAQs.

Over time, these Internet communities build up a body of shared knowledge. For example, there are a group of people on the Internet who are particularly interested in urban myths (news:alt.folklore.urban)- tall tales that sound plausible, but generally aren't. Between them, the people in this group probably know more about urban myths than anyone else in the world. And they get sick of answering the same questions over and over.

So they have written a Frequently Asked Questions document about urban myths. It gives generally agreed upon answers to all the questions that keep popping up in the group. It is the distilled wisdom of the group. You can access this wisdom, just by reading it. And there are thousands of FAQs on all sorts of topics from pet care to electronic engineering. Yours, for free, on the Internet.