Internet: Help with Newsgroups and Mailing Lists

Have you tried the internet newsgroups? (Sometimes called usegroups, user groups or forums. Mailing lists are similar.).....
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They are the best way to find answers to some sorts of question.

The ordinary Google is, of course, great. It will find many things quickly and easily. However, for some of the things that are available via the internet, you need different tools and skills.

Newsgroups, forums and mailing lists are where people discuss what interests them, be it technical or philosophical. For the moment, I am going to refer to all three as "newsgroups". I'll discuss the differences later.

To see the sort of thing that goes on visit...

Groups Google, Google's Newsgroup Access

Essentially, a newsgroup is a place where you can 'email the world' with a question or idea. Then those who read it have a chance to reply, comment, expand, etc. Consider a hypothetical newsgroup for dog breeders. Recent topics might include "What age to wean?", "How to breed for placid temperament?", "Hip dysplasia". One of the great things about newsgroups is that the discussions are organized in "threads". When the first person posts something like "Hip dysplasia", they start a new thread. If someone wants to contribute a thought or a question, they "reply to" that thread. Subsequently, the original author can post further comments, or a new person can add another comment or question on the issue, or on comments made so far. Great for the person interested in dysplasia... lots of thoughts and ideas. Great for the person not interested: They simply skip over that thread, and see none of the messages. (Which are often called "posts".)

To keep things almost organized, each of the thousands of newsgroups has a basic theme.

You are strongly advised to read a selection other people's postings before making any contributions to any discussions. There are social conventions to be observed, and they vary between newsgroups. You would keep your head down for a bit if starting a new job, wouldn't you?

Groups Google makes it easy to check out things that have been said in the past. Often whatever it is that you want to know about has already been discussed. Furthermore, the most commonly already-discussed topics are frequently the things which bring new people to a group, and for the regulars, it is really tedious to have to re-visit an exhausted topic again just because someone has been too lazy (or ignorant) to check the archives. And even if repecting other people isn't important to you, you'll also get your answer faster if you use the search facilities!

You can raise new questions or contribute answers via Groups Google. Working with newsgroups this way is not unlike doing your email via a web page interface.

If you want to raise something new, use an intelligent subject line for the topic. Things like "Beginner needs help" are not intelligent. It is usually hard to explain everything in the subject line, but just a little care will put you ahead of many posters... and increase the chance of getting answers to your questions.

I discuss an alternate means of working with newsgroups below in the Free Agent section.

Using the ordinary Google requires you to develop several skills. You need to use good search words. You must learn to skim the Google hits, and recognize the wheat amongst the chaff. When working with Groups Google, you need the same skills, but you need to develop them even further. The proportion of "chaff" is even higher. None-the-less, with a little practice and persistence, you can find valuable material. Don't be too "careful" in your newsgroup searching... learn to dismiss things quickly, so that you can cover a lot of ground. Some newsgroups have more disciplined and sensible regular contributors. The number of posts a thread has attracted can also be a sign of it's worth.

There are newsgroups which are outside of the Groups Google index. You usually find out about them through web pages devoted to related topics.

Both within the Groups Google universe and beyond it, you find newsgroups that are "moderated". This means that some human editors intervene to restrict some of the rubbish that can otherwise creep into newsgroups. There are newsgroups which use user IDs and passwords to restrict who can read what is posted, and/ or restrict who can post. (I.e., some allow anyone to read the posts, but don't allow everyone to make posts.) In many groups, you will find that you can read an old thread, but not add to it.

If you decide to participate in newsgroups, it would probably be a good idea to obtain a "throw away" email address, unless all the newsgroups that interest you allow anonymous participation. It is easy for spam senders to write programs to harvest email addresses from newsgroup posts. You don't want your everyday eddress swamped by spam. In a related vein: If you want to publish your email address on a web page, it is wise to create a graphic (e.g. a jpeg) which displays the eddress, rather than publishing it as you would otherwise publish text. (Again- this is to reduce the interception of your eddress by spam senders. You can see an example of eddress-as-jpeg by a visit to the page about how to contact me. Load that, and then use your browser's "View page source".)

Remember something that the publishers of Encyclopedia Britannica once said when trying to persuade us to pay rather a lot for the CD version of their wonderful resource even after the internet gave us access to many other sources of information: "Anyone with a computer who can fog a mirror can publish things on the internet". In other words, just 'cause something's on the internet, it isn't necessarily correct.

Variations on the theme

I haven't distinguished between newsgroups, usegroups, forums and mailing lists.

The first two terms are synonymous, and you could add the variation "user group". They are most exactly what I speak about in most of this page.

Forums are similar, but frequently require a user ID and password, and may have a web based access mechanism which varies from forum to forum. There are services which allow you to start your own forum.

A mailing list is sometimes just a "one way" channel of communication. For example, I am on a mailing list operated by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). They send me a daily email with teasers trying induce me to click through to more extensive stories on the WSJ web site. That sort of mailing list is barely related to newsgroups and forums. However, some of the latter also provide daily or weekly mailings to subscribers giving either all of the posts to the discussion group, or a digest, or just a list of the latest threads.

There are also "mailing lists" which are much more like typical newsgroups. They differ in the way they distribute the discussions. An automatic mechanism arranges for each post to be emailed there and then to all current members of the list. The discussions are not held on a central server for selective fetching of whole threads at times to suit the list participant... although there may be an archive of past posts which can be consulted.

Free Agent

If you decide you enjoy newsgroups, I would recommend trying "FreeAgent". It is a fine, FREE, newsgroup browser. It helps people with Dial Up Networking (DUN) minimize their connect time. It also opens up extra facilities to you, rather as you get more when you use Pegasus, Eudora, or (if you must) Outlook Explorer to do email rather than just accessing your mail via a web page. Be sure to explore thoroughly Free Agent's many configuration and use options. It is easy to use, even 'badly'.... it WILL always 'work'... but the more you study it, the more you find things that make it really easy to use. In particular, look at the 'Default properties for all groups' settings (especially Marking Read and What/ When to Purge) under the Group menu item.)

My general (DUN) procedure with Free Agent....
Log on to my ISP.

Load new headers in all subscribed, or maybe
    just in selected subscribed groups.

Log off.

Click on the header panel, to enable....

Skim through the headers, marking most 'ignore'
    with the 'I' key, and marking some 'marked
    for download' with the 'M' key

Log on to my ISP again.

Download marked message bodies.

Log off.

Click on the message panel, so I can....

Skim through the message bodies with the 'fast scan'
    system based on the space bar, composing replies
    and comments along the way, setting them 'send later'

Log on.

Send accumulated emails and new posts.

Log off.
There are some newsgroups which are just too active to allow you to read everything (if you want any other life). To 'solve' that problem, you select the names of the offending newsgroups. Then do "Online|Sample New Headers". After that, you can do "Online|Get New Headers In Subscribed Groups" without getting all of the older messages in the too active groups.

Further thoughts

When posting a question, please don't ask for the reply to be emailed to you. If the answer to a question isn't worth re-visiting a newsgroup to collect, then perhaps it isn't worth anyone's time to answer it for you? Also, if good answers do arrive, then hopefully there were other readers who wanted the info you sought. They can benefit too, if the answer is posted.

Questions which will benefit very small groups of people, such as 'Can someone in London look up a telephone number for ABC Computers for me' are not too likely to get an answer.... who is going to spend much time on something that benefits almost no one?

If you have a comment to make which is unlikely to be much use to everyone who will download it in hopes of something useful.... please send it to whoever you are addressing by email. The sort of thing I have in mind is the inconsequential, low content-value, or "off thread" (irrelevant) things like 'I liked your sig' or 'I notice you come from Santa Fe, is the weather nice at this time of year?'.

"Divide and conquer": Avoid posting multiple questions in a single thread. E.g. make two posts out of "What's a good way to reduce the size of a pdf file or a jpeg?". And avoid going off at a tangent within a thread. If something someone has said in a thread about making PDFs smaller gives you the urge to talk about a good OCR package, start a new thread to discuss the OCR package. You're taking the trouble to type out some help for people; you want them to see it don't you? Many people read newsgroup posts very selectively, and may not, for example, look beyond the "Compressing PDFs" subject line. Why would they expect to find information about an OCR package within a thread about compressing PDFs?

My Desk Pile: Newsgroups has a less polished assortment of related things. If you haven't found what you wanted here, try there?
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