The Internet is a network of computers that stretches around the world, and is working its way into new neighborhoods every day. It's easy to think of the it as being a lot of computers strung together, and forget that the main value of the Net is the information you can get from the other people using it. It may sound a little too obvious, but often the best way to find an answer is just to go ahead and ask the question.
The best place to probe for information is Usenet, the Internet's big bulletin board. Usenet is often just called "news"; Those of you who have called local bulletin board systems will see that Usenet is very similar-- just much bigger. Usenet is a way for people all over the world to ask questions and get answers, discuss topics, argue, joke, whine, and so on. Think of Usenet as being like all the conversations in an office--the serious ones about business, the friendly ones in the break room, the gossip around the water cooler.
Basically, Usenet is just a huge collection of text messages. Most people will read these messages by connecting to a news server, a machine that collects the messages on a disk. When someone posts a new message, the news server will send the new message out to other news servers, who will pass that message along bucket-brigade style until it propagates around the world. People discussing a topic will see the same series of messages, whether they're in New York or New Zealand.
Usenet messages are called posts. Posts on the same subject are called a thread. The posts are organized into newsgroups on a certain topic. There are literally thousands of newsgroups. The newsgroups themselves are organized into hierarchies. Describing the various hierarchies could take several pages, but usually you can tell what a group is about just from looking at the name, for example:
First, you need to get a list of Usenet groups. There are thousands of groups, with new ones being created all the time--no list is complete. You can get a good, comprehensive list by sending mail to this address:
with the message body:
This is a big informational archive at MIT that you can access by mail. (RTFM, by the way, is an acronym for "read the [ahem] manual".) This list of groups is actually a list of directories in their archives, but it'll work for our purposes. By browsing through the list of groups, you can get an idea of the sort of topics being discussed on Usenet, and which group would be most appropriate for your question.
You can send mail to the same address with only the word "help" in the message body to get started accessing the other features of their archive. The most valuable thing that MIT has on hand is a collection of FAQ-lists. FAQ stands for "Frequently Asked Questions". After a few years of reading Usenet posts, people get tired of seeing the same questions over and over again, so someone takes it upon themselves to compile a FAQ-list with the answers to those constant questions. These FAQ-lists can range from mundane to technical to fascinating. You'll probably want to see if the answer to your question is in the FAQ-list before you ask the world of Usenet.
If your answer isn't in the FAQ, or you feel the itch to broadcast your question to the world anyway, there are e-mail addresses that will post your mail message to a Usenet group automatically. Send your message to one of these addresses:
substituting in the name of your group, for example:
The computer at the University of Texas or at Digital will take your mail and broadcast it out to the world of Usenet. Here's an example of what you can get:
One thing that I didn't do that you should--remember to put a line in your message that says "Please respond by e-mail." You don't want someone to post an answer to the group--how could you read it? It shouldn't be any trouble for them to send you the answer by mail.
Keep in mind, too, that the answers you get are from people on the Internet, which is a very diverse set of people. This can be both good and bad. You may get an answer from a genuine scholar who has spent years researching your subject, or a wizard who helped develop the computer you're working on now. You may occasionally get an answer from a total crackpot too, hopefully an entertaining crackpot, so at least it's not a complete waste of time. A mildly skeptical frame of mind will come in handy from time to time.
Still, I've had excellent luck getting my questions answered on Usenet, everything from mail encoding formats to having old coins identified. We think of the Internet as being a bunch of computers, but the combined knowledge--and neighborliness--of the Net inhabitants out there is its best feature.
Back to my net writings.
Back to my home page.
And here is a site with a list of open NNTP servers, in case you have a SLIP or PPP connection and are looking for more "flexibility" in your news reading and posting:
http://dana.ucc.nau.edu/~jwa/open-sites.html You may want to consult my anonymous remailers page, as well.