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Usenet Can Still Be Useful

Usenet Can Still Be Useful
By Reid Goldsborough

The Internet’s defining characteristic is its interactivity, and one of the oldest tools for this purpose is Usenet. America Online recently decided to drop Usenet from its services. This has led other online companies to question the viability of Usenet as a useful tool for individuals and businesses. It has also generated howls of protest from some.

Created in 1979 by two Duke University graduate students, Usenet is still the world’s largest gabfest, with nearly 100,000 separate discussion groups covering the humanities, the sciences, business, politics, computers and other areas. Though they’re formally called “newsgroups,” most Usenet groups deliver far more opinion, debate, rumor, advice, camaraderie, humor, flirting and spam than hard news.

Despite the fact that Americans and English speakers are generally disproportionately represented, participation is worldwide, leading some to suggest that Usenet can help people better understand one another and bridge differences between countries and cultures.

Discussion on Usenet is text based, and other online communication and community-building technologies have come along with more graphical pizzazz. Blogs, short for Web logs, and Web-based discussion groups get much more attention these days. Many people who began using the Internet after the mid-1990s don’t even know about Usenet.

Usenet can still be a valuable resource, both for discussing what’s on your mind and for gauging what’s on the minds of others. “There’s lots of good content in the newsgroups, and I know of no other place on the Net where you can get immediate answers in such a cooperative and knowledgeable environment,” says an anonymous post. The nameless author is participating in a discussion at CNET a technology news and information site, following an article CNET ran about AOL’s decision to drop Usenet.

“AOL doesn’t get it, and never has,” agreed Nathan Boyle in the same discussion. Boyle, a financial services consultant from Bowling Green, Ohio, has his own blog in addition to participating in Web-based discussion groups. But he still appreciates Usenet for its research and archival benefits. “It’s an amazing resource,” he says.

Blogs are typically sounding boards for individuals, under the complete control of the author. Web-based discussion groups are controlled by the Web site or company that runs them. With Usenet, “anybody can speak his mind,” Boyle says.

Boyle’s sentiments were echoed in the same discussion by Jeff Barringer.

“Usenet is the ultimate leveler when it comes to free speech,” says Barringer, president and CEO of Inc., a Web-based community for pet lovers that Barringer operates out of Walburg, Texas.

The freedom of speech epitomized by Usenet, however, isn’t always accompanied by the responsible use of it. Usenet has a sordid underbelly, much like the Internet in general. You’ll find newsgroups with names such as, flame posts reeking of the most venal racial or ethnic hatred and spam ads for illegal “Make Money Fast” pyramid schemes, quack healthcare remedies and other come-ons.

Fortunately, filtering software in programs such as Norton Internet Security and McAfee Internet Security Suite can prevent you, family members or coworkers from being exposed to much of this junk. The best way to approach Usenet is with your eyes open, avoiding (as in the larger world) the seedier places and people.

Barringer is one of many business or professional people who use Usenet for marketing and research. By participating in Usenet discussions, he attracts people to his own service, he says. He also finds background material useful for his business through his Usenet involvement.

The premier tool to mine Usenet for informational nuggets is Google Groups, a free service of Google, the popular Web search engine. Google Groups provides advanced search tools to help you find out, for instance, what people are saying about your organization, your competition or yourself.

Despite AOL’s move, many Internet service providers (ISP) continue to offer access to Usenet through Usenet programs, or “newsreaders,” such as Forte Agent, or through e-mail programs that offer newsreading capabilities, such as Microsoft Outlook Express.

If you’re an AOL subscriber, or if your ISP doesn’t offer Usenet access, you have a number of options for obtaining access. You can participate in Usenet discussions through Google Groups, though it’s primarily a search and archiving service. Participating in Usenet this way is less convenient than through a local newsreader that you run from your own computer.

If your ISP doesn’t provide Usenet, you’ll need a local news feed. Two popular options are Giganews and News.Indivi-dual.NET. 

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at [email protected] or <>.

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