Diana the Valkyrie


One of the important services offered by any ISP, is Usenet (often called "the Newsgroups". Here's a short explanation of how it works.

The NewsGroups are like huge world-wide Message Boards. The proper name for them is "Usenet" (a network of users). They started off as a way for people to keep up to date in a number of topics. And they grew from there. A full newsfeed now, is about 100 gigabytes per day!

One major step forward (or backward?) was taken when people realised that as well as posting text messages, they could encode binary files (programs, sounds, pictures, video) into text (using a thing called UUENCODE) and post those, so that other people could see the diagram of their network. But, of course, it didn't stop with network diagrams!

Today there are tens of thousands of newsgroups, available from hundreds of thousands of servers, all over the world. On this web site, you can access the news articles as posted, or you can use the thumbnails that I put up, to choose which pictures to view. I carry several hundred newsgroups. A lot of the newsgroups were set up as a joke (alt.alien.vampires.flonk.flonk.flonk) or were mis-spelled, or were set up to be a vanity newsgroup (alt.yournamehere). So, of the umpty-ump thousand that ISPs boast about carrying, a mere 20 or 30 thousand are real. I carry those as "30,000 Newsgroups".

So where do all the pictures come from? I don't know! People take them using digital cameras, people scan them from paper, people capture them from video. And they upload them, sometimes using what looks like a real name, sometimes using what looks like a fake name and address.

If you've taken a great picture at some bodybuilding event, you might want to share it with other people. You can put up a web site with that picture, or you can post it to the relevant newsgroup. So which newsgroup is the right one, or should you post it to several? Or maybe put it up on a web site, then post to the newsgroup to tell people that it's there.

Don't take the scatter-gun approach; posting the same picture to 20 newsgroups is known as "spamming" and isn't liked. You might post it to alt.amazon-women.admirers because those folks like that sort of picture. But many ISP's have a rule, they don't allow binaries (such as pictures) in newsgroups that don't have "binary" in the title. This means that you might not be able to post a binary, and it also means that even if you can post it, some other folks won't be able to receive it. So you might post to alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.female.bodybuilder. But not all ISPs carry that newsgroup, it's not as old and well established as AAWA. Or you might post to both, using "Crossposting", which actually posts it once, but a reference shows up in both. Or there's alt.binaries.fitness.centerfolds, but those folks don't want hardcore bodybuilders, as you might guess from the title of the newsgroup.

One very significant subject here, is that of copyright. If you took the picture yourself, then you have the copyright, and you can post it. By posting it, you're obviously agreeing that the ISPs who offer newsgroup services, can take copies of your picture and offer them to their paying customers, so that's 100,000 copies already. You're also, obviously, agreeing that anyone who accesses the newsgroup can take a copy of your picture and look at it. So, pretty soon, there will be over a million copies of your picture floating around, and you've authorised all of them. You might want to put some stamp on the picture (like "Picture taken by Jane Doe", or your web site address) before you post it. Also, there's no rule about how long a site keeps a posting. If you go to Google you'll find that they keep posts going back for years, and you can search for old stuff there. And that means that anything you say in a public newsgroup, can be read any anyone for as long as the internet exists! Pictures don't usually get stored for as long as that, but that's purely a matter of disk space. I guess, if they wanted to, someone could install ten thousand gigabytes of disk space, and start to archive pictures, too. 100 gb drives cost about $250 in June 2001 so it isn't a financial impossibility.

An important question is, who controls all this? The answer is, no-one. It's a total anarchy. If you want to get a feed of news, you get it from your ISP, and everyone does the same. And that's how ISPs get it, too, sometimes trading feeds with several other ISPs. All over the world, servers are contacting each other and saying "I have message m992ed8619a-49283, do you want a copy?". The system is not reliable, in the sense that if you post 100 pictures on one server, and then look at another, there's a chance that they didn't all arrive. On the other hand, it is reliable in the sense that many ISPs have more than one source of news, and if one is down, they can collect from another.

So, you post your picture to your news server at your ISP. Your ISP does the "I have ..." with one or more other servers, and they do it with one or more, and your picture gradually (it can take days) propagates round the world. And it will stay on the news servers for a while; how long, depends on the system administrator. If you have 100 gigabytes per day arriving at your server, and you have 1,000 gigabytes of space, then you can't keep stuff for more than several days. So the admins "expire" older news articles to make space for the newer ones. Seven days is what many of them hold for binary groups; more for discussion groups.

And no-one controls the content. Here's why - there's 100 gigabytes per day flowing through the news system. If a fraction of that is pictures, then there's a million pictures per day! No-one can hope to look at them all. Censorship isn't practical. You can either offer news services, or not. You can choose to drop newsgroups with ugly-sounding names, which sound like they might be a channel for illegal stuff, but that doesn't deal with the issue of someone posting a distressing picture of a cat being killed to alt.pets.cats.

Fortunately, most people use a bit of sense, and most postings are fairly on-topic. Except spam, of course; I covered that in the November 1999 newsletter

One frequent complaint I get, is that alt.sex.fetish.wrestling has a lot of M/M pictures, and the complainant wants F/M. I expect other web sites get the opposite complaint. The answer, of course, is to split the newsgroup into two, or maybe three subgroups, for FF, FM and MM. Which brings me to the question of, who decides what newsgroups there should be?

You probably guessed. The answer, again, is no-one. If you want to create a new newsgroup, here's how. If you want to create a newsgroup starting with comp, misc, news, rec, soc, sci or talk then there is a big procedure you have to go through, with voting. But if you want to create a newsgroup that starts with alt, then you don't have to ask anyone, you can just go ahead and do it.

But there's no compulsion for the administrators of servers to carry it. They might not even know where they can get it. Or they might not want to carry it. Or maybe they're busy doing more important stuff that they have to do. Remember - it isn't your server, it's theirs. You aren't paying them to carry the newsgroup, and it costs them oney to do it, so why should they?

Maybe you want to make a complaint? Someone posted an especially unpleasant picture? Someone said something that's causing you problems? The problem is, that article is now on 100,000 servers, all round the world. You could try contacting them one at a time, and ask them to remove it, but you probably don't have the time. You could contact the original poster, and ask them not to do it again. That might work, if the poster didn't realise the consequences of what they did. You could contact that poster's ISP and ask them to cancel their contract; that means that they'll have the (very minor) inconvenience of signing up with another ISP, plus you've got them *really* angry now.

Oh, and by the way - it's extremely easy to forge a posting, to post a message that seems to come from Bill.Clinton@Whitehouse.gov but wasn't. So, if someone you like or admire suddenly seems to say something very dumb, you should consider the possibility that it's a forgery. Sometimes people use this as a way of attacking other folks. A good example that I saw recently, was someone asking for some *very* unpleasant stuff, and giving the email address to send it to. It was clear to me, that someone was trying to get a bunch of nastygrams sent to an enemy of theirs, and that the email address involved wasn't the source of the posting. Another recent example, was someone posting a very offensive picture, and the email address that it purported to come from will receive lots of hate mail ... but my guess is, it was posted by someone else, who is just trying to get that hate mail sent to a friend of theirs. See also Troll, below.

Maybe you'd like to start up a new newsgroup? It's easy to do. Very simple. The problem is persuading ISPs to offer it in their list. Each person who looks after a server, decides for themselves which newsgroups to carry. For example, out of maybe 60,000 newsgroups (many of which are joke newsgroups, like alt.alien.vampire.flonk.flonk.flonk), I'm carrying about 30,000. And if you look at those, you'll see that some of them have almost zero postings. I recently looked into creating a newsgroup alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.femdom; I wrote a proposal, started the ball rolling, and then found that the newsgroup already existed, but that pretty much no-one carries it. So I don't even know where to go to get a newsfeed of it, and even if I found it, the chances are that there wouldn't be anything there, because pretty much no-one carries it.

Another phenomenon of Newsgroups (indeed, of any kind of messaging system) is the "flame". This starts when someone says something a bit controversial, two people disagree, a fourth person calls one of those two a rude name, and then it turns into an abuse festival. Sometimes these flames burn on for weeks; the only way to deal with them is to exercise that happy adjunct to freedom of speech that I call "freedom to ignore". I deal with flames on my Message Boards by moving messages that are personal abuse, to the "Abuse and Flames" message board, because that's the correct board for them, and people are free to read them or not as the choose. But there's nothing like that obn the newsgroups, you'll just have to read each message and decide for yourself when a thread of conversation has turned into a slanging match.

Trolling is another thing to watch out for. A "troll" (taken from the language of fishing) is when someone posts something designed to cause a flame to erupt. For example "I think Jane Doe looks like a man" is a frequently seen troll; you can imagine how the flame then develops. Another troll would be a naive question, such as "where could I go to see female bodybuilders". This is more subtle, but it will attract a lot of retorts, attacks on the initial question, other people will say "Well, maybe that's not such a dumb question, because ..." and the flame is on. If the original question doesn't provoke the flame, then the troller can follow it up with more, such as "What's a good gym to go to?". The only way to deal with trolls, is the same as for flames. Exercise your constitutional Right to Ignore.

Most people treat the newsgroups as a pleasant diversion, a way to waste a few minutes or hours. Maybe they enjoy having heated debates about the relative merits of different FBBs, and they're unlikely to be able to do that in their local pub. Some people treat them as a way to do free advertising. Other people treat them as a source of pictures, or as a giant swap-meet. Newsgroups can be fun - just don't get them muddled up with real life!

No article on Usenet would be complete without a word from Emily Postnews