Newsgroups are the heart and soul of the Internet. Think of them as the community halls of the global village, far removed from the slick big-city commercial and business interests on the world wide web. They're places where like-minded individuals meet on-line to discuss and swap ideas, ask and answer questions on just about any subject you care to name (and one or two you probably wouldn't…).

A Newsgroup is basically a public noticeboard where you can post e-mail messages, articles or announcements for others to read and respond to. Unlike normal e-mail and the web, which are immediately accessible once you've signed up with an Internet Service Provider (ISP), you have to actively 'subscribe' to Newsgroups, though it's not like a magazine or newspaper subscription and it won't cost you a penny (apart from your normal on-line charges).

If you are wondering if there's a Newsgroup devoted to your particular interests the answer is undoubtedly yes. It's impossible to give a precise figure but there are well over 40,000 of them right now, with hundreds more being created every day. The number of Newsgroups you will have direct access to depends on your ISP. Newsgroups are stored on computers called news servers, which are part of a wider network called Usenet; apart from the problems of finite storage space most ISPs restrict or prohibit Newsgroups devoted to activities they deem antisocial or undesirable (child pornography, bomb-making, software piracy, that kind of thing). Newsgroups may also be 'moderated' that is monitored for abusive or offensive messages, to keep respondents on the subject and prevent blatant advertising. In fact there is a fairly strict code of conduct or 'Netiquette' that most Newsgroup users are happy to adhere to and we'll be looking at that in more detail next week in part two.

In order to access Newsgroups you will need a program called a newsreader. The chances are you already have one on your PC as they are integrated into most popular browsers and e-mail programs, including Internet Explorer, Netscape and those supplied by AOL and CompuServe. Separate newsreader software programs are also available one of the most popular being a shareware program called Free Agent, which can be downloaded from

The first job is to set up your newsreader, you will need a couple of items information, namely your e-mail address and the domain name of your ISP's news server. You should find this included in the sign-up information of you can get it from the ISP's helpline, it will usually be something like ''. In Outlook Express set-up begins when you click the Read News icon on the opening page, just follow the instructions and when it has finished you will be asked if you want to download the list of Newsgroups on the ISP's news server. This can take several minutes depending on the speed of your connection and time of day. You only have to do this once since most newsreaders will automatically update the list when you are on-line.

The newsreader will log off and present you with a list of several thousand newsgroups. Don't bother searching through them all, it will take forever, your newsreader has a search facility that looks for groups containing a keyword. You can then select the ones that interest you by clicking on the subscribe button. Incidentally, you might be wondering what all the prefixes mean. Any Newsgroup beginning with comp. means it is computer related, misc. is miscellaneous, rec. is short for recreational subjects, sci. is used for science-related topics, soc. covers social issues, and so on. By far the largest collection of newsgroups begin with alt. for alternative. The alt. groups are a kind of fringe operation, existing outside of the official Usenet system but that doesn't imply they're any less interesting relevant or useful, though this tends to be where the dubious and doubtful Newsgroups congregate.

Once you have chosen the groups you wish to subscribe to you will have to go back on line (Connect icon on the Outlook Express toolbar), now the newsreader will download all of the 'headers' in your selected groups. Headers are topics or subject headings, (by default OE loads 300 headers you can change it by going to Options on the Tools menu and selecting the Read tab). Depending on the newsgroup you may see anything from a dozen to several hundred postings, those marked with a plus sign indicate the message is part of a 'thread', effectively a running conversation with other Newsgroup users contributing to the topic.

You can read any message simply by clicking on the header, however all the time you are on-line you are clocking up the phone bill. The alternative is to download selected messages -- or the whole newsgroup, if there's not too many of them -- and read them at your leisure, off-line. In Outlook Express the option to mark and download messages can be found on the Tools menu.  

You will probably find that some messages or articles no longer exist or you get an error message. Don't worry, it’s not a fault on your PC, messages are routinely deleted, to make way for new ones and on really busy Newsgroups postings may only be shown for a couple of days.  After reading a few messages you might well decide that you have something to contribute or a question to ask but it is a good idea to read all of the postings in your chosen group. It's worth monitoring a newly subscribed Newsgroups for a while to get a feel of how it works, pick up the jargon and maybe get to know the people using it. Many Newsgroups include a FAQ (frequently asked questions) file about the group and you should read it.   

Next week -- Posting messages and netiquette




An Internet access program, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator


The unique name or address given to a server computer connected to the Internet, i.e.


A network of server computers used to distribute the 'official' Newsgroups on the Internet



The Start menu in Windows 95 was a bit of a mess, when it became too large to fit on the desktop it expanded sideways. It's a bit tidier on Windows 98 and the Start menu is confined to a single scrolling pane, the trouble is that the scrolling speed is quite slow and as it grows it takes longer to get from one end to the other. Fortunately there is a hidden turbocharger feature that will speed it up, just hold down the Ctrl key when you are scrolling and watch those icons fly by…

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