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A newsgroup is an Internet community which is dedicated to the discussion of a particular topic of interest. Contrary to the “news” in the name, newsgroups are rarely about current events, and they cover everything from debates about the origins of humanity to tips on how to trim a cat's toenails. Newsgroups can be an immensely useful resource for information and community dialog, and people of all ages take advantage of the services offered by these communities.
The development of newsgroups predates the Internet, with newsgroups appearing in the 1970s in academic settings. People at universities and colleges wanted to communicate, but they lacked the facilities available to the military, so they developed usenet (short for “user network”), a meshed network of servers and individual computers. People communicated on usenet by posting to newsgroups or reading the content in newsgroups of interest.
In order to access a newgroup, someone needs to obtain a newsreader, a program which can communicate with usenet. Some browsers have built in newsreaders, and many operating systems also come with a default newsreader. Next, someone needs to subscribe to a newsgroup. Public listings of newsgroups are readily available, and people may also be private invited to join a group. The numbers of newsgroups are quite dizzying, and it helps to have recommendations from friends to navigate the system.
Newsgroups are organized in the form of major subjects, separated into subcategories. The location of a newsgroup is given in the form of the subject and relevant subcategories, separated by dots, like this: example.subcategory.lessersubcategory. As of 2009, the subjects were: science, society, talk, humanities, computers, miscellaneous, news, recreation, and alternative. Several of these are abbreviated, with science being written as sci., society as soc., computers as comp., miscellaneous as misc., recreation as rec., and alternative as alt. When talking about an entire subject, people usually add a wildcard after the abbreviation, as in misc.*. The largest subject, by far, is alt.*, which covers a huge assortment of topics. In order to create a newsgroup, people generally need to reach a consensus that a new group is needed, and obtain approval. Otherwise, the new group may be deleted. The exception to this rule is the alt.* category, in which people can freely create new topics.
Many newsgroups have massive archives which are stored on the server. These archives can be an excellent resource, as they may stretch back over decades, and contain all sorts of interesting material. Some of these archives have been abstracted and converted into HTML format so that people can read them in a regular web browser; this is common with resources which people commonly ask for, or resources which users think would be beneficial to the general public. Perusing a newsgroup archive can also be interesting for purely historical interest, to see how ideas have evolved and changed over the course of the newsgroup's existence.