From The Erbo Files
Sunday, February 12, 2012

Recently, I was asked to answer the question posed in the subject line on Quora, and I figured I'd repost my answer here for reference by readers of this blog who don't get onto Quora much.  The original poster said:

I like the idea of USENET, especially the fact that it's decentralized. So I'd be interested to know if people are still using it for discussion, and if it's worth exploring it.

My reply is:

My first inclination was to dismiss this question with my usual statement about Usenet these days, which is, "Usenet is a sewer." But, upon further reflection, I realized this would be a disservice to both Quora and the fellow who asked me to answer the question. So, I strapped on my pith helmet, shouldered Google Groups, and took a skim through some recent Usenet activity to better judge the current state of things there.

I confined myself to groups from the original "Big Seven" hierarchy, and omitted moderated groups, as they're likely to be of higher quality than most anyway. (My old college roommate used to be moderator of comp.sys.amiga.announce. Haven't heard from him in awhile.)

So here's what I found:

  • comp.os.linux.advocacy - Flame wars galore. OK, this was an "advocacy" group, I should have expected this. Bad example.

  • comp.lang.fortran - One decent discussion, about the best way to use certain extensions for linking to a C routine from FORTRAN (both standardized and compiler-specific), and a whole lot of threads marked as "flagged for abuse."

  • comp.lang.javascript - A mixed bag of technical information and flame wars, with, for some reason, an awful lot of spam about pharmaceuticals.

  • comp.lang.c - Much like the previous group, except the flame wars tended to take the form of overly pedantic discussions, in some cases quoting chapter and verse from the specification. So a bit more technically inclined, perhaps. (At least once, a citation to Stack Overflow was made, indicating that there could be some crossover to Web-based discussions.)

  • comp.protocols.time.ntp - Plenty of technical information here, a lot of it having to do with GPS (since GPS makes a good stable time reference for NTP servers). Little in the way of spam.

  • - Another mixed bag of decent material, spam, and "abuse." One poster complained "does nobody read this group anymore?" and a responder said "yes, but I only check it like once per day, the traffic isn't what it used to be."

  • rec.arts.sf.written - Surprisingly high signal-to-noise ratio here! Not very much flamage or spam at all. It was the kind of discussion I could visualize taking place in a consuite.

  • - Spam galore, as well as a couple of jerks trolling about Whtney Houston's death. Maybe one thread I could see with any worthwhile discussion. I suppose it's hard to come up with new material for a newsgroup about a band that's been disbanded for over three decades, and of which only half the members still survive.

  • - Except for a couple of reposts of bulletins from elsewhere (such as from ARRL), this group was nothing but spam and flame wars. As a ham myself, I am disappointed.

  • - NANAE has been ground zero for discussions about E-mail spam for decades now. As such, the discussions can get pretty heated, but one might find good material here still. Virtually no spam here, and only a few threads flagged for abuse; I expect someone's actively working to keep it that way.

  • sci.physics.relativity - The discussion seemed less heated in general, and more technical. Some of it gets hard for me to follow, it's so specialized. As for the spam, there was little, and even it tended to be on a "higher level" (advertising solutions guides for science textbooks, for instance).

  • talk.bizarre - This group was as WTF as I remember it being from my college days in the late 80's. I guess some things never change...:-)

So, to summarize: Is it still being used for discussion? Undeniably yes. Is it worth exploring? As long as you go in with your expectations set at the right level, probably. It's clearly seen better days, but it refuses to die, despite all the posts about "Imminent Death of Usenet Predicted" over the years. I would advise you to pick your topics carefully (Usenet was a big time sink for me back in college!) and read a lot before posting; your post may not cost "hundreds or even thousands of dollars" to propagate around the world anymore, but the group's regulars will thank you. (Am I tempted, like I was back in college, to set up my own news server and get a feed from somewhere? Not really, but I can see dipping in via Google if I needed to research something.)

Copyright © 2012 Eric J. Bowersox, All Rights Reserved.
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