Sometimes, you really don’t want to send email to a specific person. You may not want to send it to a specific group of people. You want to communicate to anyone who might be able to answer your question.
There are a number of communities that exist only in the Internet as forums — places where you post a message for others to read and to which they can reply. These forums resemble the Bulletin Board Systems of the early days of modeming, before the Internet was opened to the public.
Another major way to post messages is via a large, distributed bulletin-board system called Usenet. Anyone with access to a newsfeed, which is available from most ISP’s, and a compatible program (Outlook Express does Usenet) can read and post to "Usenet news."
First, a little lookback at history. Usenet began 1979. Today’s Usenet travels the Internet using the NNTP protocol (Net News Transport Protocol), which was developed in 1986.
I ran into Usenet in 1986, when a friend merged a Usenet newsfeed into his bulletin board system. I read it for a couple of years, and got really active in 1989 when I started my own news server — a bulletin board program called Waffle, running under DOS, then Windows 3, then 3.1, then DRDOS, then Win3.1 running on DRDOS, and finally under OS/2. My 386sx-16 computer got its news and email feeds via dialup (at 2400bps) from someone who dialed up to someone who actually connected directly to the Internet. Wow, that was living.
In the mid-90’s, a website called Deja News began to accumulate all the news into a huge, searchable archive. When Deja News (later called Deja.com) finally folded, they had obtained a significant archive of individual postings. Google bought Deja.com’s Usenet archives and has made the available for easy searching via Google Groups (http://groups.google.com). Google’s Usenet archive has postings dating back to 1981.
Whatever you call it, the news servers that make up Usenet circulates many thousands of messages across the Internet to carry each individual’s posting to all the other news servers. Like a large forum on a website, Usenet (generally just called "News") has a few different categories for posting of your messages — just a few, 54,284 of them to be exact, or at least that’s the number that news.east.cox.net carried yesterday. Your first step is to download the full list of newsgroups to your newsreader. Your second step is to pick the ones in which you are interested. You "subscribe" to a newsgroup, but that "subscription" is only you telling your program which newsgroups to monitor.
Your ISP may carry all the newsgroups, most of them, some of them, or none of them. If your ISP does not offer newsgroups, there are some third-party news servers that are relatively cheap.
There are also much more complete services, like Giganews News Server Access, which I use, that offer plans with long retention times for posts and large bandwidth allowances (up to unlimited!). If you’ve ever used your ISP’s usenet servers, you know about missing messages or missing a single segment that is part of a 20 part post.
If you need news and don’t have access, check out Giganews. They have a number of different plans.
Is it really "News" like we see on the TV or on Yahoo? My analogy is a bulletin board system, or perhaps a huge, global mailing list (that doesn’t use email).
Almost any subject that you can think of has a Usenet "news group" that is its home. Want to talk about coffee? Try alt.coffee. Want to ask a question about sound cards? Check out comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard.music – but there are about 15 other newsgroups that have the word "sound" also. Historically, the hierarchies were alt, comp, rec, sci, and soc, and the creation of newsgroups was tightly controlled.
With the widespread growth of the Internet in the 1990’s, this control was lost and many other "news" systems, such as the fido bulletin board system, were merged into "News." One of the best places for support for Microsoft FrontPage is the newsgroups whose names start with microsoft.public.frontpage – there are at least nine of them, each with a specific focus.
Every newsreading program has some sort of "killfile" (a term from the original Unix newsreading programs) — a filtering system where you can make sure you never see a post from an individual or containing a given subject. Usenet does have a small amount of spam. News servers handle huge amounts of data each day, and, unlike email servers, there are some very tight bottlenecks in the system.
Any email server can talk to any other email server. On the other hand, news servers only talk to the specific news servers to which they are configured to talk. As a result, Usenet is able to enforce anti-spamming measures against ISP’s that allow spam. Cox.net is one that suffered the "Usenet Death Penalty" a few years ago — no news postings were accepted outbound from Cox’s servers to the rest of the world for about two weeks. As intended, that resulted in a commitment by Cox to stop newsgroup spam from Cox systems.
Today’s Usenet "spam" is almost always a single post by an individual, on the newsgroup’s topic, offering to sell something commercially. The denizens of Usenet react, the ISP hears about it promptly, and the offender is warned or his access is cut off. There is little if any toleration of spam by the readers of Usenet. And, there is little if any toleration of newsgroup spam by ISP’s. Such is the power of the Usenet Death Penalty when every posting is traceable to the ISP who allowed it into the system.