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The unknown 'Net

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 3, 2002
(Issue 2018, The Invisible Web)

Elsewhere in this issue are articles that will walk you through using a search engine, or finding a Web site with great information but a tiny advertising budget.

But there is much more to the Internet than just the World Wide Web. In fact, the Web is one of the more recent areas of the 'Net, having only been developed 12 years ago.

Before you had the Web, you still had the 'Net – but it was mostly a line-command environment.

What could you do on the Internet then? Well, if you were lucky enough to have access – meaning you had a university, military or government computer account – you could send and eceive e-mail, telnet to any computer you had an account on and work remotely, use ftp to retrieve files (shareware, images, fonts, etc.), or participate in one of (then) hundreds of Usenet newsgroups.

An online bulletin board

The Usenet was probably the first public, interactive portion of the Internet. In a Usenet newsgroup, you can read others' messages, and then respond to them if you like or post a new message – which others then could read and respond to.

It was this public, message-oriented nature that, when applied outside the Internet, gave the computer Bulletin Board System its name. A BBS was someone's computer set up to receive incoming phone calls via its modem, and let users read and post messages, send and receive e-mail, and upload and download software and files.

While the millions of BBSs that flourished in the late '80s and early '90s are mostly gone now, replaced by vastly more accessible Web sites, the Usenet not only survives, but thrives.

Whereas in the mid-80s there were some 400 newsgroups on the Usenet, today there are closing in on 100,000.

Why so many?

Anyone can start a newsgroup – but there is no way to kill one!

So there are thousands, probably tens of thousands of newsgroups that rarely if ever have a message posted. Digital ghost towns, they exist in name only – showing up in news reader lists, but with 0 entries.

And as each newsgroup is organized around a single interest – playing canasta, perhaps, or Atari computer games – and there are as many interests as there are human beings – well, it's easy to see how the list grew so quickly and continues to grow.

Reading the news

Until just a few years ago, you needed a separate piece of software to troll the Usenet – or a Unix shell account.

Today, all three major browsers include news readers – Netscape 4.x and up, Opera 5.x and newer, and Internet Explorer 5.x and newer (that's just for Windows; Mac users can use Netscape 4.x and newer, as Opera and IE on the Mac don't have news readers included).

When you get to the Usenet, you'll find that it is semi-organized into domains – akin to the .com and .net domains you're used to from the Web. The older, dare we say traditional, Usenet domains are .rec (for recreation), .news, .alt (alternative), .soc (for social) and .comp (computers).

Many, if not most, news servers also carry non-Usenet feeds, like FidoNet – which was a BBS-based alternative to the Usenet developed when the Internet was still off-limits to most of us. The FidoNet feed is under its own domain name of .fido; you may also find .fr for the French Usenet, and .es for Spanish. And it's changing all the time – if you set up your news reader to look for new groups on startup, odds are you'll be given a new list of groups each time you log in.

But unlike the Web, where you need to know the name of the site you want, in the Usenet, you can browse around, looking for newsgroups. Of course, with as many groups as there are, you may be there for awhile – which is why most news readers provide a search tool – so if you're looking for someplace to learn more about backgammon, you can quickly find a group or groups tailored to your interest.

The Usenet meets the Web

One of the more popular Web sites a few years ago was Deja, where you could read newsgroups within your web browser – even if it didn't have a news reader.

While Deja is defunct, it's been taken over by Google – the popular search engine. Simply click on the Groups tab from the Google home page, or go to

Google also has something most news servers don't – a 20-year archive, going back to the earliest days of the Usenet.

However, Google doesn't provide access to any of the binary newsgroups – which are among the most popular. It's in the binary groups that users can share data files – images and music being among the most popular. In Google's defense, though, it's also in the binary groups that the most illegal activity goes on – child pornography, and music, film and software piracy.

Plus, those binary files get pretty darn big.

Besides, even without the binary groups, there are more groups than you could ever hope to keep up with.