Newsgroups are discussion groups on Usenet that are accessed with a newsreader.
If you've never seen a Usenet newsgroup, it's probably easiest to understand them by thinking of a forum on the World Wide Web. Though the technical details that go on behind the scenes of a newsgroup are quite distinct from web-based forums, the social and conversational structure of a forum is a good approximation for what goes on in a Usenet newsgroup. Before the web took off, newsgroups were one of the most popular ways to talk with like-minded individuals over the Internet, particularly technically inclined users such as software developers, network administrators, and technology enthusiasts.
There are two basic types of newsgroups: binary and text.
Text newsgroups are pure discussion groups. Though not technically distinct from binary newsgroups – it is technically possible to post binary content to a text discussion group – text newsgroups are dedicated to text-based discussion and are not intended for sharing binary files.
Binary newsgroups first sprang up in the 1980s and were used to distribute media files converted into 8-bit ASCII text. In order to view a media file a Usenet user would first download the text, and then use a decoding application such as uuencode to convert the encoded text back to its original format. While it is no longer necessary to distribute files in this way on Usenet, the use of Usenet to distribute binary files is common. Unfortunately, a lot of copyrighted, objectionable, and illegal content is shared in binary newsgroups. However, some legitimate use of Usenet to distribute downloadable content does exist.
The use of Usenet for discussion has fallen in popularity in favor of web-based forums, blogs, and mailing lists. However, the use of the alt.binaries newsgroups for data transfer is still quite popular.
Frequently Asked Questions
What types of things are discussed in newsgroups?
Newgroups can host all types of discussions. Most newsgroups are dedicated to a specific topic. For example, the newsgroup comp.lang.python is dedicated to conversations about the Python programming language. How much off-topic conversation is tolerated varies from one newsgroup to the next since each newsgroup is managed by an independent moderator.
There are eight carefully controlled and moderated newsgroup heirarchies referred to as “the Big 8“. They include: computers (comp), humanities, miscellaneous (misc), news, recreation and entertainment (rec), science (sci), and talk.
There is another heirarchy of newsgroups referred to as the alternative or alt heirarchy. This group includes newsgroups that do not fit into, or were rejected from, the Big 8. Where the Big 8 is tightly controlled and moderated, the alt heirarchy is generally unmoderated. As a result, content in alt newsgroups runs from thought-provoking (alt.atheism), to administrative (alt.config), to potentially objectionable (alt.sex), to often illegal (alt.binaries).
So what types of things are discussed in newsgroups on Usenet? Virtually every topic and type of content has a home on Usenet.