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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | Computer Basics

Newsgroups Cast a Wide Net for Many Specific Interests

September 07, 1998|KIM KOMANDO

With so much hubbub over the World Wide Web, it's easy to forget that there are other resources on the Internet. One of the oldest and most popular of these is the "Usenet." To understand the Usenet, you need to be familiar with some basic terminology.

The Usenet is a collection of newsgroups--online discussion forums where you can exchange messages (called posts) on specific topics. Through newsgroups, you can trade information, ideas and opinions with users worldwide.

Today, there are about 30,000 newsgroups on the Usenet, so no matter what your hobbies, you'll probably find something of interest.

I've used newsgroups to get opinions on products and companies. Most recently, I tapped into antique and radio newsgroups to find a 1930s radio.

Dejanews (http://www.dejanews.com) is a search engine dedicated to newsgroups. You can get a feel for what you'll find in a newsgroup by typing a few search phrases in the field provided.

A word of caution: Because the Internet is unregulated, you are likely to run into newsgroups that cater to topics you find offensive. Although some Internet service providers block such newsgroups, others prefer not to be cast in the role of content police and opt to carry them all.

Fortunately, these newsgroups make up only a small percentage of the total Usenet.

Finally, keep in mind that, like the Web, information you find in a newsgroup is not always accurate.

To participate in newsgroups you'll need newsreader software, which allows you to view the messages in various newsgroups and post your own messages.

You can then "subscribe" to a particular newsgroup by telling the newsreader you want to automatically check messages from that newsgroup when you launch the software. You're not really subscribing in the same way that you'd subscribe to, say, an Internet mailing list. The subscription arrangement is just between you and your newsreader, and you have to open your newsreader to download new posts.

When you post a message to a Usenet newsgroup, another person will post a response, a third person will post another response, and so on. That series of messages is called a thread. Keeping an eye on all these messages is called following a thread.

Hardcore Usenet users can be very temperamental. If you post a message to a newsgroup that doesn't relate to the stated topic of that newsgroup--and especially if you post spam (a commercial message)--you're likely to get flamed.

A flame is a vicious personal lashing posted to the newsgroup or sent directly to your e-mail address. Getting flamed is no fun, and unless you enjoy engaging in such an exchange, your best bet is just to ignore any barbs.

The last term of our little newsgroup dictionary is "news server." Your news server is the computer at your ISP that handles the interaction between you and the rest of the Usenet. To set up your newsreader, you need to know the name of your ISP's news server. It's usually something like "news.yourISP.com." This information is probably included in the documentation you received from your ISP when you signed up.

So now you're ready to surf the Usenet, but you don't think you have a newsreader. Well, I bet you do. If you already use Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator, you have everything you need.

With Internet Explorer 4.0, newsgroups are handled by Outlook Express, which comes with the package. If you're looking at a Web page in Internet Explorer, just click on the mail button in the toolbar and select "read news." If you've never used Outlook Express as a newsreader, the program will ask for your name, e-mail address and the name of your ISP's mail server.

After you supply this information, Outlook Express will give you an opportunity to view the names of all the newsgroups carried on your ISP's news server. Give it time. There could be tens of thousands. From here, you can elect to subscribe to various newgroups. When you're done subscribing, the program displays a list of the newsgroups you selected. Double-click on one and the fun begins.

Netscape Communicator's newsreader is called Collabra. If you're looking at a Web page, you'd select Collabra Discussion Groups from the Communicator menu. Once Collabra loads, you select Preferences from the Edit menu and then click on Groups Server under Mail and Groups. In the Groups Server field, type the name of your ISP's news server, then click OK.

Back in the main Collabra program, click on the Subscribe button in the toolbar. This forces Collabra to start downloading newsgroup names from the news server. Unlike Outlook Express, Collabra groups newsgroups that start with the same word. That way, the program doesn't waste time downloading the names of all 30,000-plus newsgroups. Instead, it only downloads about 1,800 names. If you want Collabra to download the newsgroup names from a particular grouping, just click on the grouping.

From this point on, Collabra is somewhat similar to Outlook Express. When you find a newsgroup in the list that interests you, just select it, then click on the subscribe button.

Once you've mastered the newsreader supplied with your Web browser, you might be interested in looking for a more robust program. There are plenty of shareware newsreader packages available on the Internet. Some of the more popular shareware newsreaders for Windows are Free Agent, Gravity and TIFNY. Macintosh users should check out Newswatcher, MT-Newswatcher or Nuntius.

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Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at komando@komando.com. Her national talk radio program can be heard on Saturdays from 7 to 9 a.m. on 97.1 KLSX-FM.

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