If you're trying to join the conversation on Usenet and other bulletin boards, use our guide to keep you from getting flamed


Going postal trying to join the conversation on Usenet and other bulletin boards? Here’s a guide to keep you from getting flamed.

While still not as pain-free as Web surfing, looking for Net-based conversation has become easier than ever. Take reading Usenet, for example. Your ISP may have automatically given you a newsreader in its software package. If it didn’t, there are plenty available as freeware at http://www.download.com. But why bother? Both Netscape’s and Microsoft’s browsers also double as Usenet newsreaders, and new sites like Deja News (http://www.dejanews.com) and RemarQ (http://www.RemarQ.com) have sprung up to let users navigate Usenet directly from the Web.

So where do you go for conversation? In the old days, seekers were forced to scroll through thousands of newsgroups with unwieldy titles like rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5. moderated or gaia.fido.cooking in search of the ones that matched their interests. You can still apply a little common sense and do things the old-fashioned way by reading the titles: comp. means computers, the alt. and rec. groups are arts and recreation oriented. And if the group’s name ends with a .moderated, it means that messages are prescreened for appropriateness, which makes conversations less combative but sometimes a little tame as well. Deja News and RemarQ both have search functions that automatically match your interest to the appropriate newsgroups, whether it be author H.P. Lovecraft (alt.horror.cthulhu) or that hot chick from The Waterboy (alt.fan.fairuza-balk).

But a warning to new Usenetters: Because its postings are reaching a worldwide audience, it has become a favorite place for direct e-mail advertisers and other spammers to collect your e-mail address. To keep your e-mail address private, add a “nospam” or other nonsense characters into your return address when posting to Usenet; it’ll help throw the name-vacuuming software off your scent.

If the deep well of Usenet still doesn’t slake your thirst for conversation, remember that some of the older ISPs have their own message boards and discussion areas, especially ones such as The Well (http://www.thewell.com) that got their start as private BBSes. Unsurprisingly, the biggest source of non-Usenet chat and discussion is the network of message boards on AOL. Find them by using the channel-navigation system, or simply start typing in keywords. For example, the keyword trek will lead you straight to AOL’s enormous network of Star Trek message boards, lair of the truly life-challenged. And because AOL’s chats are typically moderated, discussions tend to stay on topic and rarely degenerate into flame wars.

Searching for Web-based discussion groups or message boards is a bit more difficult but not impossible. A few well-chosen words — “movies gossip discussion forums,” for example — typed into a search engine like Alta Vista or Lycos will steer youreliably toward discussion forums on The Reel Site (http://www.thereelsite.com). Searching websites can also lead you into the world of mailing lists — e-mail-based discussion groups aimed at every conceivable demographic, from mystery fans to ferret fanciers. A quick search using your desired subject and “mailing list” or “listserv” should get you to the list’s home page, and an e-mailed request is usually all that’s needed to be invited aboard. And contrary to what Groucho Marx said, you will want to join a club that’ll have you as a member.

A brief glossary of Usenet and discussion group terms:

cross-posting: Sending your message to multiple newsgroups, a frowned-upon practice.

flame: A vitriolic, insulting post, typically aimed at another newsgroup participant. You’d think the greatest concentration of flames would be found in the political discussion groups, but you’d be wrong. The ones devoted to movies and television can get far nastier.

killfile: Your newsreader software may offer this function, which allows the user to flag obnoxious or uninteresting Usenetters and screen and delete their posts without even seeing them.

newbie You. Any new arrival to the group. Expect a period of hazing and taunts when you first arrive in a well-established group, but don’t fret about it. It’s nothing personal, and in the accelerated existence of the Net, you’ll be considered an old-timer in a matter of weeks.

sock puppets: Fake personas created by an insecure Usenetter, most often to parrot opinions of their creator and create the illusion of popularity.

spam filter: Software that attempts to filter out commercial advertisements and other unwanted clutter. Most newer newsreaders are equipped with these, but the technology isn’t perfect, so an occasional “Make $$$ Fast” still slips through.

trolling: Posting a deliberately offensive or outrageous message in order to get a rise out of the group’s inhabitants and provoke as many responses as possible. Example: showing up in alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer and declaring that Sarah Michelle Gellar has a nose like a prizefighter’s.