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Lost in Cyberspace

Exploring the Internet's dark continent

This article was originally published on August 17, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

One of the largest areas of the Internet is also one of the least known by much of the general public. But the ongoing efforts of the Web site ( to integrate the Usenet newsgroups into the browser environment may help to change that.

The Usenet has been around far longer than the World Wide Web. The Web didn't exist until invented as a text-based research tool in 1990 by Englishman Tim Berners-Lee. And it wasn't until the advent of the first graphical-based browser, Mosaic, in 1993 that the Web began to gain the popularity it has today.

The Usenet, on the other hand, began back in 1979 with three online discussions, or newsgroups, where Unix programmers and systems administrators could ask each other questions over the Internet (which had been developed a decade earlier). A newsgroup is an ongoing collection of messages (each of which is similar to e-mail) that users can read and/or respond to at their own leisure.

The newsgroups are built around various topics, such as Star Trek, motorcycles or French cuisine. And within each newsgroup, the messages are organized by "thread," so you can follow a conversation to its conclusion rather than jumping from conversation to conversation were you to read messages chronologically.

Once the Internet was opened to the public by Congress in the early 1990s, the Usenet really began to explode. Within a few years it had grown from several hundred newsgroups to the tens of thousands. (And, yes, there are thousands of newsgroups devoted to what Monty Python used to discreetly refer to as "the naughty bits.")

However, finding the Usenet requires access to a news server – something not every Internet service provider offers. It also requires specialized software – a program known as a news reader – in order to browse the various newsgroups, although both Netscape and Microsoft have included a built-in news reader as part of their browser suites for some time now.) Oftentimes, the end user (that's you and I) must also configure the news reader by hand in order to connect to their ISP's news reader.

All of which combined to ensure that far more people are browsing about the Web than are trading family recipes or hints for a better game of bowling via the newsgroups., though, has done a nice job of incorporating many newsgroups into its Web site. By organizing newsgroups by topic and including a search engine, they've made it easy for even complete computer neophytes to find the online communities they're seeking.

By registering (and being sure to accept the "cookies" the servers will send to your browser) on the site, you can use the same way a power user would use their news reader. You can subscribe and unsubscribe to newsgroups, post to the newsgroups or reply privately to another poster, follow a conversation thread, and the server will remember which messages you've already read and which are still new to you.

There are only a couple of real drawbacks to using as your news reader. The first is the speed. A direct connection to a news server will always be faster than scrolling through and waiting for each page to refresh. The second is security: includes access to just about every newsgroup, including those dedicated to the naughty bits. If you don't want your children getting access to such materials, be aware of what's available from (If you use blocking software, you might check to see how it works with

But offers other benefits a news reader can't. It has its own "communities" on its site – themed pages where you can access conversation newsgroups, chat rooms, FAQs (frequently asked questions – shorthand for reference papers), and Web pages dedicated to the theme at hand.

To be sure, many of the communities are rather barren. But it's free to set up your own, and there are a lot of options available for those who take advantage. From glancing at the editing options available for a theme page, it would seem to be one of the best resources available for integrating newsgroups and Web resources into a single online spot for your hobby or interest.