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The Proper Use of Usenet

As a veteran of Usenet, I know a thing or two about closed minds.

Usenet is a collection of discussion groups hosted on "news servers" and connected by the Internet. Every topic under the sun, and some that aren't, can be found in one or another Usenet newsgroup (or ng). These world-wide newsgroups are far older than the World Wide Web, and far more useful for dialogs. Because they are topic-specific, newsgroups focus the attention of those interested in each topic. This typically includes many experts, so the newsgroups can be excellent sources of timely information. They also focus the minds of participants. A Usenet posting is often a distillation of pure reflection, perhaps the closest thing to direct mind-to-mind communication our age possesses. The give and take of sharp, cogent discussions can be a joy.

However, it sometimes happens that a few individuals drown out the dialogs in a newsgroup. This can be done for various reasons, one of which is willful ignorance. In the face of such recalcitrance, Usenet's strengths — wide public accessibility, lack of censorship or control, persistence of messages for months — become weaknesses. I've seen Usenet newsgroups reduced to a state of total flame-war for weeks or months because someone made a ridiculous assertion and then vehemently defended their position against all comers. Some newsgroups never recover, becoming silent wastelands or even disappearing entirely.

There is a lot to know about making good use of Usenet. Most of it is easy to pick up just by reading a newsgroup of interest for a few days before posting anything. We call it "lurking". Also, the Web has plenty of pages devoted to tips about Usenet.

However, just as posts from knowledgeable people can bring out more of the same, in mutually enjoyable discussions, those from the willfully ignorant seem to beg for a response in kind. (Quite often, their posters actually hope for this. Those are trolls.) Dealing effectively with such behavior can be difficult. I recommend one or possibly two replies to ignorant ("clueless") posts, aiming to set the poster straight. If cluelessness persists, simply stop replying. This is the fastest way of ending an unpleasant discussion. Good newsreader software makes this easy. Search out the Web pages I mentioned for the details. Above all, cultivate the habit of delay: after composing a reply (or "followup") to such a message, wait a few minutes at least, and then review it again. This allows a hot retort to cool off and, if you're like me, helps avoid a lot of embarrassment.

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This page was last modified on 21 October 2015.