What is Usenet?

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Gene Spafford

Dec 6, 1991, 9:13:29 PM12/6/91
Archive-name: what-is-usenet/part1
Original from: ch...@count.tct.com (Chip Salzenberg)
Last-change: 2 Dec 91 by ch...@count.tct.com (Chip Salzenberg)

The first thing to understand about Usenet is that it is widely
misunderstood. Every day on Usenet, the "blind men and the elephant"
phenomenon is evident, in spades. In my opinion, more flame wars
arise because of a lack of understanding of the nature of Usenet than
from any other source. And consider that such flame wars arise, of
necessity, among people who are on Usenet. Imagine, then, how poorly
understood Usenet must be by those outside!

Any essay on the nature of Usenet cannot ignore the erroneous
impressions held by many Usenet users. Therefore, this article will
treat falsehoods first. Keep reading for truth. (Beauty, alas, is
not relevant to Usenet.)

1. Usenet is not an organization.

No person or group has authority over Usenet as a whole. No one
controls who gets a news feed, which articles are propagated
where, who can post articles, or anything else. There is no
"Usenet Incorporated," nor is there a "Usenet User's Group."
You're on your own.

Granted, there are various activities organized by means of Usenet
newsgroups. The newsgroup creation process is is one such
activity. But it would be a mistake to equate Usenet with the
organized activities it makes possible. If they were to stop
tomorrow, Usenet would go on without them.

2. Usenet is not a democracy.

Since there is no person or group in charge of Usenet as a whole
-- i.e. there is no Usenet "government" -- it follows that Usenet
cannot be a democracy, autocracy, or any other kind of "-acy."
(But see "The Camel's Nose?" below.)

3. Usenet is not fair.

After all, who shall decide what's fair? For that matter, if
someone is behaving unfairly, who's going to stop him? Neither
you nor I, that's certain.

4. Usenet is not a right.

Some people misunderstand their local right of "freedom of speech"
to mean that they have a legal right to use others' computers to
say what they wish in whatever way they wish, and the owners of
said computers have no right to stop them.

Those people are wrong. Freedom of speech also means freedom not
to speak. If I choose not to use my computer to aid your speech,
that is my right. Freedom of the press belongs to those who own

5. Usenet is not a public utility.

Some Usenet sites are publicly funded or subsidized. Most of
them, by plain count, are not. There is no government monopoly
on Usenet, and little or no government control.

6. Usenet is not an academic network.

It is no surprise that many Usenet sites are universities,
research labs or other academic institutions. Usenet originated
with a link between two universities, and the exchange of ideas
and information is what such institutions are all about. But the
passage of years has changed Usenet's character. Today, by plain
count, most Usenet sites are commercial entities.

7. Usenet is not an advertising medium.

Because of Usenet's roots in academia, and because Usenet depends
so heavily on cooperation (sometimes among competitors), custom
dictates that advertising be kept to a minimum. It is tolerated
if it is infrequent, informative, and low-hype.

The "comp.newprod" newsgroup is NOT an exception to this rule:
product announcements are screened by a moderator in an attempt to
keep the hype-to-information ratio in check.

If you must engage in flackery for your company, use the "biz"
hierarchy, which is is explicitly "advertising-allowed", and which
(like all of Usenet) is carried only by those sites that want it.

8. Usenet is not the Internet.

The Internet is a wide-ranging network, parts of which are
subsidized by various governments. It carries many kinds of
traffic, of which Usenet is only one. And the Internet is only
one of the various networks carrying Usenet traffic.

9. Usenet is not a UUCP network.

UUCP is a protocol (actually a "protocol suite," but that's a
technical quibble) for sending data over point-to-point
connections, typically using dialup modems. Sites use UUCP to
carry many kinds of traffic, of which Usenet is only one. And
UUCP is only one of the various transports carrying Usenet

10. Usenet is not a United States network.

It is true that Usenet originated in the United States, and the
fastest growth in Usenet sites has been there. Nowadays, however,
Usenet extends worldwide.

The heaviest concentrations of Usenet sites outside the U.S. seem
to be in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.

Keep Usenet's worldwide nature in mind when you post articles.
Even those who can read your language may have a culture wildly
different from yours. When your words are read, they might not
mean what you think they mean.

11. Usenet is not a UNIX network.

Don't assume that everyone is using "rn" on a UNIX machine. Among
the systems used to read and post to Usenet are Vaxen running VMS,
IBM mainframes, Amigas, and MS-DOS PCs.

12. Usenet is not an ASCII network.

Those IBM mainframes used to participate in Usenet use (shudder)
EBCDIC. Other sites use special character sets for non-English
postings. Ignore non-ASCII sites if you like, but they exist.

13. Usenet is not software.

There are dozens of software packages used at various sites to
transport and read Usenet articles. So no one program or package
can be called "the Usenet software."

Software designed to support Usenet traffic can be (and is) used
for other kinds of communication, usually without risk of mixing
the two. Such private communication networks are typically kept
distinct from Usenet by the invention of newsgroup names different
from the universally-recognized ones.

Well, enough negativity.

Usenet is the set of people who exchange articles tagged with one or
more universally-recognized labels, called "newsgroups" (or "groups"
for short).

(Note that the term "newsgroup" is correct, while "area," "base,"
"board," "bboard," "conference," "round table," "SIG," etc. are
incorrect. If you want to be understood, be accurate.)

If the above definition of Usenet sounds vague, that's because it is.

It is almost impossible to generalize over all Usenet sites in any
non-trivial way. Usenet encompasses government agencies, large
universities, high schools, businesses of all sizes, home computers of
all descriptions, etc, etc.

(In response to the above paragraphs, it has been written that there
is nothing vague about a network that carries megabytes of traffic per
day. I agree. But at the fringes of Usenet, traffic is not so heavy.
In the shadowy world of news-mail gateways and mailing lists, the line
between Usenet and not-Usenet becomes very hard to draw.)

Every administrator controls his own site. No one has any real
control over any site but his own.

The administrator gets her power from the owner of the system she
administers. As long as her job performance pleases the owner, she
can do whatever she pleases, up to and including cutting off Usenet
entirely. Them's the breaks.

Sites are not entirely without influence on their neighbors, however.
There is a vague notion of "upstream" and "downstream" related to the
direction of high-volume news flow. To the extent that "upstream"
sites decide what traffic they will carry for their "downstream"
neighbors, those "upstream" sites have some influence on their
neighbors' participation in Usenet. But such influence is usually
easy to circumvent; and heavy-handed manipulation typically results in
a backlash of resentment.

To help hold Usenet together, various articles (including this one)
are periodically posted in newsgroups in the "news" hierarchy. These
articles are provided as a public service by various volunteers.
They are few but valuable. Learn them well.

Among the periodic postings are lists of active newsgroups, both
"standard" (for lack of a better term) and "alternative." These
lists, maintained by Gene Spafford, reflect his personal view of
Usenet, and as such are not "official" in any sense of the word.
However, if you're looking for a description of subjects discussed on
Usenet, or if you're starting up a new Usenet site, Gene's lists are
an eminently reasonable place to start.

In the old days, when UUCP over long-distance dialup lines was the
dominant means of article transmission, a few well-connected sites had
real influence in determining which newsgroups would be carried where.
Those sites called themselves "the backbone."

But things have changed. Nowadays, even the smallest Internet site
has connectivity the likes of which the backbone admin of yesteryear
could only dream. In addition, in the U.S., the advent of cheaper
long-distance calls and high-speed modems has made long-distance
Usenet feeds thinkable for smaller companies.

There is only one pre-eminent site for UUCP transport of Usenet in the
U.S., namely UUNET. But UUNET isn't a player in the propagation wars,
because it never refuses any traffic. UUNET charges by the minute,
after all; and besides, to refuse based on content might jeopardize
its legal status as an enhanced service provider.

All of the above applies to the U.S. In Europe, different cost
structures favored the creation of strictly controlled hierarchical
organizations with central registries. This is all very unlike the
traditional mode of U.S. sites (pick a name, get the software, get a
feed, you're on). Europe's "benign monopolies," long uncontested, now
face competition from looser organizations patterned after the U.S.

The document that describes the current procedure for creating a new
newsgroup is entitled "How To Create A New Newsgroup." Its common
name, however, is "the guidelines."

If you follow the guidelines, it is probable that your group will be
created and will be widely propagated.

HOWEVER: Because of the nature of Usenet, there is no way for any user
to enforce the results of a newsgroup vote (or any other decision, for
that matter). Therefore, for your new newsgroup to be propagated
widely, you must not only follow the letter of the guidelines; you
must also follow its spirit. And you must not allow even a whiff of
shady dealings or dirty tricks to mar the vote. In other words, don't
tick off system administrators; they will get their revenge.

So, you may ask: How is a new user supposed to know anything about the
"spirit" of the guidelines? Obviously, he can't. This fact leads
inexorably to the following recommendation:

>> If you are a new user, don't try to create a new newsgroup. <<

If you have a good newsgroup idea, then read the "news.groups"
newsgroup for a while (six months, at least) to find out how things
work. If you're too impatient to wait six months, then you really
need to learn; read "news.groups" for a year instead. If you just
can't wait, find a Usenet old hand to run the vote for you.

Readers may think this advice unnecessarily strict. Ignore it at your
peril. It is embarrassing to speak before learning. It is foolish to
jump into a society you don't understand with your mouth open. And it
is futile to try to force your will on people who can tune you out
with the press of a key.

As was observed above in "What Usenet Is Not," Usenet as a whole is
not a democracy. However, there is exactly one feature of Usenet that
has a form of democracy: newsgroup creation.

A new newsgroup is unlikely to be widely propagated unless its sponsor
follows the newsgroup creation guidelines; and the current guidelines
require a new newsgroup to pass an open vote.

There are those who consider the newsgroup creation process to be a
remarkably powerful form of democracy, since without any coercion, its
decisions are almost always carried out. In their view, the
democratic aspect of newsgroup creation is the precursor to an
organized and democratic Usenet Of The Future.

On the other hand, some consider the democratic aspect of the
newsgroup creation process a sham and a fraud, since there is no power
of enforcement behind its decisions, and since there appears little
likelihood that any such power of enforcement will ever be given it.
For them, the appearance of democracy is only a tool used to keep
proponents of flawed newsgroup proposals from complaining about their

So, is Usenet on its way to full democracy? Or will property rights
and mistrust of central authority win the day? Beats me.

Property rights being what they are, there is no higher authority on
Usenet than the people who own the machines on which Usenet traffic is
carried. If the owner of the machine you use says, "We will not carry
alt.sex on this machine," and you are not happy with that order, you
have no Usenet recourse. What can we outsiders do, after all?

That doesn't mean you are without options. Depending on the nature of
your site, you may have some internal political recourse. Or you
might find external pressure helpful. Or, with a minimal investment,
you can get a feed of your own from somewhere else. Computers capable
of taking Usenet feeds are down in the $500 range now, and
UNIX-capable boxes are going for under $2000, and there are at least
two UNIX lookalikes in the $100 price range.

No matter what, though, appealing to "Usenet" won't help. Even if
those who read such an appeal are sympathetic to your cause, they will
almost certainly have even less influence at your site than you do.

By the same token, if you don't like what some user at another site is
doing, only the administrator and owner of that site have any
authority to do anything about it. Persuade them that the user in
question is a problem for them, and they might do something -- if they
feel like it, that is.

If the user in question is the administrator or owner of the site from
which she posts, forget it; you can't win. If you can, arrange for
your newsreading software to ignore articles from her; and chalk one
up to experience.

Those who have never tried electronic communication may not be aware
of what a "social skill" really is. One social skill that must be
learned, is that other people have points of view that are not only
different, but *threatening*, to your own. In turn, your opinions may
be threatening to others. There is nothing wrong with this. Your
beliefs need not be hidden behind a facade, as happens with
face-to-face conversation. Not everybody in the world is a bosom
buddy, but you can still have a meaningful conversation with them.
The person who cannot do this lacks in social skills.

-- Nick Szabo

Anarchy means having to put up with things that really piss you off.

-- Unknown
Gene Spafford
NSF/Purdue/U of Florida Software Engineering Research Center,
Dept. of Computer Sciences, Purdue University, W. Lafayette IN 47907-1398
Internet: sp...@cs.purdue.edu phone: (317) 494-7825

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