Usenet for Insane Newbies

Tales From The Bitstream

Jeff Schult and Nicole Chardenet

Any wimp can Web surf. But it takes someone who measures their stream of consciousness in megabytes to handle the repartee of alt.personals.spanking.the.monkey on Usenet. We wonder why people engaged in this sort of behavior would need their own personals group, but perhaps that's a question better left to Ask Isadora.

Nicole: Usenet used to be what the Internet was all about. The collection of back-and-forth messages was here long before Netscape's Hottest Web sites had been invented. Today it's ballooned to more than 15,000 sites and is for those who prefer their news unfiltered by the liberal-biased media or Nazi talk show hosts, or who are just alien abductees who want to know whether others wake up in the middle of the night covered with slime and an extraterrestrial's phone number in their pajama pocket.

Jeff: Usenet is simply the most anarchic, colorful and unruly manifestation of the Internet, and it astonishes us that many folks we run into who have made their way online in the past couple of years don't venture there. The World Wide Web may be the future of the 'Net, but the Usenet community remains its soul, wacked-out as it is. We'd direct you to an extremely entertaining site on the web which details some of the legends of Usenet, but it's been hacked. Of course.

Nicole: There are no gatekeepers here, as there are in traditional media. Which means you can call President Clinton a yak-molesting Commie bisexual horse thief, and get away with it. Try that at The New York Times.

Jeff: And persistent idiots are made rather unwelcome. Usenet proponents will defend to the death anyone's right to say anything they want -- as long as it's on-topic and doesn't abuse the fragile strucure of the community. The Law of the Jungle may appear to rule, but Usenet, paradoxically, is the staunchest bastion of "Netiquette" anywhere. Not so's you can tell, though, when they turn on a Scientologist who's been cancelling posts critical to the Church and rend flesh.

The important thing to remember, for newbies, is that Usenet is about people, far more of them of all kinds than anyone except perhaps Hootie and the Blowfish will see in person.

Nicole: It's the ultimate BBS. (Remember those?) The newsgroup names, with names as sublime as comp.dcom.lans.ethernet to, are arranged into subgroups called hierarchies. The first few letters of each tells you what kind of group it is. Anything beginning with comp., for computer issues and technical questions, is only for terminal technogeeks. The rec. newsgroups cover sports, games, and other recreational interests like Star Trek, nudism, and poetry.

The soc. section covers social interests and pursuits as well as over a hundred different ethnic culture groups from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. There are regional hierarchies like ne. for New Englanders. And probably the most popular hierarchy is the alt. group, which covers, well, alternative topics. Here you'll find such groups as alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die, alt.language.urdu.poetry,, alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork, and the environmentalist spoof

Jeff: The argument is frequently advanced by newsgroup fanatics, especially in the groups devoted to journalism, that Usenet will make journalism obsolete. Who needs steenking reporters and editors to filter the news when we can get the real scoop from eyewitnesses?

And sometimes they are right. Information about major events -- breaking news -- frequently flows much more quickly and reliably over the Internet than it does through news organization. When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed, information going out on Usenet and disseminated on InternetRelay Chat gave a far more complete picture of the disaster than did early, sketchy news reports.

Nicole: However, news here can be about as reliable as anything you read in the World Weekly News. Two years ago, a nutball named John Winston was spamming (Internet-ese for posting your fruitcake opinions to all 15,000+ newsgroups at once) Usenet to spread dire warnings about UFO visitations and massive government cover-ups. Naturally, his rambling, ill-spelled musings were filled with a glaring absence of any actual facts, evidence, or documentation whatsoever.

Jeff: Most people on Usenet don't mess with quite such weighty issues, and its larger purpose can be obscured --it's a great, handy way to meet people with like interests. If you're a Libertarian Space Hooker for Jesus, there's a Usenet group for you, or you can start one. If you want a quick, on-the-fly answer to a piece of trivia, or aren't afraid someone else's viewpoint will damage your cherished belief system, this is a great place to start.

Nicole: Of course, Jeff utilizes this vast resource to find people who chronicle in great detail their past lives as a high priestess or temple dancer in Atlantis (apparently Atlantis never had such mundane occupations as plumbers or grill cooks or personal lines insurance adjusters), so not everyone on Usenet is there to purvey or consume useful information.

And athough I can't prove it, I suspect his favorite newsgroup is At least that would explain the message I found in his shirt pocket last week that said, "For a good time called Mzyrpgb on Alpha Centauri ..."

Jeff, who admits to reading wacko newsgroups, and Nicole, who won't admit to posting in them, can be reached at jeffbot at this domain.


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