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Week 3: USENET / Newsgroups

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B. [as A walks in] I finally beat you here for once!

A. Hello [getting comfortable]. What's on the menu today?

B. Well, we're moving out of history and into something a little more hands on.

A. You're kidding.

B. Nope. Today we actually start looking at some social software. Ready?

A. I thought you'd never ask.

B. We're going to start with one of the most straightforward bits of social software. Despite the popularity it used to enjoy (and in many ciricles, still does), I'll wager that you've never used it before.

A. So what is it?


A. Well, you win your bet.

B. Sometimes called "newsgroups."

A. Well of course I've seen those. You mean like Yahoo Groups or Google Groups or any other web-based bulletin board?

B. Sort of. I'll return to Google Groups in a minute. But back in the day, before webservers and CGI had matured enough to support the same functionality, there were newsgroups.

A. Well if they weren't on the web, how did people get to them? I guess you couldn't use your web browser.

B. Do you remember the days before webmail? People used special "mail clients" like Eudora or Outlook Express to read and write their email (bonus points for anyone who remembers Pine or Elm !). Email was all these programs could do. Well, (once we evolved past the command line tools) there were these programs called newsreaders that all spoke NNTP and did nothing but help you read and write messages to newsgroups.

A. So how were newsgroups different from web-based bulletin boards today?

B. At their core (and from the general user's perspective) they were really similar - an online threaded discussion.

A. So how were they different?

B. There were (and still are!) a few big differences. One is their organization. USENET is broken up into several categories, sort of like the web is split up into .com, .org, .net, .mil, .gov, etc. Some of the categories are comp (computer), rec (recreation), and alt (alternative). On USENET this classification comes at the beginning, not at the end of the name, though -- like in -- so that can be a little confusing at first. But you get the idea if you just read backwards - is a place for 'fans' of 'xfiles' which is on 'tv' to talk to each other. [waxing nostalgic] Quite the thriving community back in its day...

A. Come back to 2004, Dave.

B. [startled] Thanks! Another way in which they were different from current web boards was in their universality. Today, when people's pets can practically run discussion sites, there are hundreds of places where you can discuss the X-Files. But back in the day, was it.

A. So... I thought this was finally going to be hands on today?

B. Right. Several years ago a company obtained SIGNIFICANT archives of all the discussion on USENET and wrote a web interface for it.

A. Significant how?

B. In it's age and comprehensiveness. They called the site "Deja News." This was part of the convergence trend that makes people confuse the Internet with the Web. There was a time when every service needed its own program -- email client, newsreader, ftp client, web browser, etc. For some reason, the web browser is the direction in which everything started to converge: web accessible archives of USENET, FTP functionality built straight into your browser, web-enabled email services that let you read mail in your browser, etc. So when you wake up one day and realize you haven't fired up a program other than your browser in two weeks, it makes you wonder one of two things. Either (1) what's the difference between the Internet and the Web again? or (2) why do people insist on calling this thing a Web browser?

A. [making a siren-like sound] Danger Will Robinson! Topic drift! Topic drift! Come back to class!

B. Thanks again. That's two I owe you today. Anyway, once Deja News became really popular they got themselves acquired - by none other than Google. Although they're beginning to add some additional functions now, for a very long time Google Groups was just a web interface into the newsgroups of USENET (together with Google's splendid search, of course). Spend some time this week reading the 20 Year Usenet Timeline at Google for more details.

A. Hey! That's more history! Where is the hands on?!?

B. Ok, ok. The hands on part comes in the assignment this week.

Assignment: Newsgroup Newbie

  1. Surf over to Google Groups
  2. Google search the archive for TV shows, movies, hobbies, authors, cars, people, or anything else of interest to you.
  3. Spend a minimum of two (2) hours exploring the archive. (Be sure to time yourself - you'll be reporting how much time you spent).
  4. In what you believe to be an interesting and active group, post some messages / questions / comments. Spend at least three (3) more hours participating in the discussion and looking around. (Track your time again.)
  5. On your blog, post a new short piece of writing describing:
    • your overall impressions of the whole newsgroup archive,
    • the URL of one discussion you participated in,
    • a brief summary of the discussion you participated in, and
    • the number of hours you spent in the archive.

Again, if you don't remember when this assignment is due, check the Syllabus .

A. You always say that.

B. Yea, get used to it. Also, if you want to see some extremely fascinating visualizations of USENET, find a Windows machine and use Internet Explorer to visit Marc Smith's NETSCAN project. It's absolutely amazing. Very, very cool stuff. See you next week!

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2008, May 20). Week 3: USENET / Newsgroups. Retrieved January 07, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License
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