22nd July 06:05
FAQ: Surviving Usenet: A Guide for the Earnest Newcomer (nail down headache heart job)
Surviving Usenet: A Guide for the Earnest Newcomer
If you've never participated in a Usenet newsgroup, a few pointers will make
your experience more enjoyable and productive. These are suggestions and
pointers, not "rules," but they are the product of nearly two decades of on-line
NEWSGROUP != MAILING LIST != CHAT ROOM
It's important to realize how a newsgroup operates--it is very different from a
"chat room" or from a moderated forum as provided by Web content providers or
online services. Many Usenet newsgroups operate as a kind of benign anarchy, in
that there is no moderator to enforce rules or to guide content. Everyone is
technically free to post anything--but this freedom is a two-edged sword, as
we'll see later.
When someone sends a post (an "article") to a newsgroup, they are placing that
article on public display. Even though a comment may be directed to one
particular person, it is perfectly appropriate--and expected--that others
contribute to the conversation. When you reply publicly to someone's article,
you are said to be "following up;" if you want to respond *privately* to
someone, send that person e-mail, rather than posting a follow-up.
Long-established Usenet convention agrees that e-mail is NOT to be posted
publicly without the express knowledge and consent of the original author.
If you want to be absolutely certain that the person will receive your response
quickly, it is normally acceptable to post *and* mail--but don't do it as a
matter of habit, even if your software gives you the default option to "post AND
mail." Some people do find automatic duplication in e-mail to be annoying, and
will tell you so. If you decide to e-mail along with your post, you should add
"posted and mailed" to your post, so the recipient knows not to respond by
It is common for discussions to continue for many posts. This series of posts,
follow-ups and follow-ups to follow-ups is called a "thread." When you
participate in a thread, you are having a conversation, not unlike a chat with
several people in The Real World. There are some important differences, though,
not the least of which is the fact that the conversation is not happening in
"real time." You may follow up on an article that someone posted several days
ago, even though you are seeing it now for the first time. This time lag occurs
because of the way articles travel ("propagate") over the network; each article
may pass through several independent servers before reaching yours, so delays
are commonplace. It is because of these propagation delays (and occasional
losses) that the convention of QUOTING came to be.
QUOTING AND ATTRIBUTION
When you respond to an article, keep in mind that some people may not have
received the article you are responding to. Your carefully crafted comments
might be meaningless to someone who has not seen the earlier posting. This is
why you should include enough of the previous text to convey context. Most
software used to read newsgroups allows you to accomplish this automatically,
but it is not impossible to do it manually. Quoted text is identified as such
by some character, most commonly a ">" sign.
When you follow up, you should delete nonessential text to conserve space--but
be sure to note where you have deleted. One way of doing this is to use [snip]
or something similar. This will avoid anyone's thinking that you were
selectively quoting and misrepresenting what someone else meant.
The other essential part of quoting is the ATTRIBUTION: identifying who said the
part you are replying to. If your software doesn't do this automatically,
you'll have to insert the attribution manually--but you should *always* do it.
This convention is especially important in deeply nested threads, where there
are many replies to replies of replies to replies of...well, you get the idea.
It is not at all unusual for discussions to get passionate, and you can be
embarrassed by taking someone harshly to task for something they never said,
because your attributions were missing--or incorrect.
If you want your posts to be read, you should avoid long, unbroken blocks of
text; people are likely to skip over them, partly because reading text on a
computer monitor is more difficult than reading the same text in print. Try to
keep your sentences and paragraphs short. End each paragraph by hitting <enter>
twice; this will insert a blank like between paragraphs, so your article will be
easier to read.
TIME TO REFLECT
Since newsgroups don't operate in "real time," you can take time to sort out
your thoughts before posting. If your software allows you to save posts to send
at a later time, you may want to consider allowing them to "cook" for a short
while--maybe even overnight--before sending them to the newsgroup. Many a user
has avoided certain embarrassment by waiting to send an impassioned response,
then thinking better of it an hour later.
It's inevitable. Sooner or later, no matter what opinion you express, someone
will take offense and will not hesitate to tell you so, sometimes in graphic
terms. This brings us to the time-honored Art of Flaming.
You should keep a few things in mind about flaming: first, it's inevitable;
second, it is rarely fatal; and finally, that there are as many ways to defend
yourself as there are ways that people can attack.
You should understand what flaming is NOT: it is NOT simply someone's expression
of a disagreement with you. Flaming tends to be more gratuitous than simple
disagreement--and it is always personal. If you say something that I find
objectionable and I say, "You're completely wrong about that!" then I am simply
disagreeing with you. If I use that disagreement as a springboard to comment on
your ancestry, your intelligence, your body odor and ***ual practices--THAT is a
flame. It is important to understand the difference, because if you complain
that someone is "flaming" you when they are simply disagreeing with you, you
look like a whiner and a weenie.
If you feel a need to learn more about flaming, there are plenty of resources
available on the Net.
This refers to the practice of reading posts without responding to them. On
Usenet, no one knows you are on line; you can safely (and anonymously) read
before posting. "Lurking" for a time can be a good idea, as it gives you some
of the flavor of a newsgroup before you jump in. Many newsgroups have their
"core group" of longtime participants and their own set of expectations and
conventions. It is prudent to be aware of those conventions before posting for
the first time. Some newsgroups tend to be less than cordial towards people who
ask the same question that was discussed at length two days before.
GETTING UP TO SPEED QUICKLY
One of the virtues of Usenet is that most of its content gets archived in
several places, most notably http://deja.com (originally called DejaNews). At
Deja's Power Search section (http://www.deja.com/home_ps.shtml) you can browse
by subject, author, newsgroup and more. If you want to read a week's worth of
activity in a newsgroup, enter the name of the newsgroup in the "Forum" field,
the date range in the Date fields, then click on the Search button.
SURVIVING AN ARGUMENT
Because Usenet is essentially anonymous, some people are quick to argue.
Sometimes the arguments are as important as The Meaning Of Life, while some are
trivial--even petty. If you find yourself embroiled in an argument (or, more
politely, a "debate") in a newsgroup, there are some techniques and approaches
that you will find useful.
1. Distinguishing FACT from SURMISE from OPINION
In any debate or argument, there are matters that must be accepted as being
true. The notion that 2+2 is exactly equal to, um...(hang on a sec, please)...4
is not open to debate. We can reasonably accept the statement, "2+2=4" as being
true. On the other hand, if I said, "BMW motorcycles are better than Harleys"
(and they certainly are), I have expressed an opinion--one that is subject to
Having stated that opinion (a "proposition" in debating terms), it is up to ME
to substantiate it. You might object to my statement about BMWs by saying, "Oh,
yeah? PROVE it!" I cannot *reasonably* respond, "Prove they're not." That is
called "shifting the burden or proof," and it is a debating ploy that you are
likely to see often. If you fall for it, you'll be working with a double
disadvantage: first, by accepting the onus of proving something that *I* should
be proving (since I made the original assertion), and second, by trying to
"prove a negative."
If someone tries to "shift the burden of proof" to you inappropriately and/or
tell you to "prove the negative," all you have to do is to point out to that
person where the burden of proof belongs.
2. Recognizing logical fallacies
Logical fallacies are errors made in reasoning--and you will find many of them
on Usenet. Some are accidental, but others are intentional--devious ploys aimed
at "winning" an argument. You should be aware of some of the more common
varieties--and how to deal with them.
* Appeal to Authority (Argumentum ad Verecundiam)
"Harleys are the best damn motorcycle made. Albert Einstein had one." The
implication of this fallacy (the Latin means "Appeal to Respect") is that since
Einstein, a genius and an authority on physics, believed Harleys to be best,
then the statement must be true. The response is that being an authority in one
subject (physics) does not make one an authority in motorcycles.
* Straw man
This a common tactic of distraction. "Let's say you HAD to get somewhere, and
you had to choose between a BMW and a bicycle. Are you saying you're gonna ride
a bicycle?" A "straw man" is a sort of substitute--but
easier-to-defeat--proposition for the one on the table. You respond by
identifying it for what it is.
* Ad Hominem
This is one of the more misunderstood fallacies. Literally, it means "to the
man," and it refers generally to attacking the person, rather than the argument.
It is different from a simple insult.
"Of *course* you think BMWs are great motorcycles--it's because you're Yuppie
S***!" The fallacy is that my being Y.S. (I'm not) is proof that what I have
said is untrue. The response to this fallacy would NOT be to complain about
being called a rude name, but rather to ask, "What does your characterization of
me have to do with the truth of my original statement?"
An exchange like,
"BMWs are the greatest bikes made!"
Is simply an insult, as there is no effort to refute the assertion.
* Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc
Literally, "After this, therefore because of this," also called the "False Cause
Fallacy." I like the Latin because Mr. Lounsbury, my 9th grade Latin teacher,
would approve. Besides--it *sounds* cool.
"I drank this milkshake made from Pond S*** and my headache went away.
Therefore, the Pond S*** cured my headache." There is nothing to connect one
element (headache going away) with the other (drinking pond s*** milkshake).
* Hasty generalization
"I know three kids who took Ritalin when they didn't have ADD. Therefore,
Ritalin is overprescibed." Taking the statement as being factual (and it may or
may not be), one cannot logically take such a small sample ("three kids") and
extrapolate to the rest of the world.
* Slippery Slope
This is the "For want of a nail..." fallacy. It implies that a progression of
events will continue forever, leading to a dire end.
"Penalties for speeding on the Interstate have escalated in five years from
monetary fines to public service to incarceration. In another ten years,
speeding will get the death penalty."
In order for this slippery slope statement to be true, the person making the
assertion would have to demonstrate that the extrapolation could continue in the
same way and at the same rate as it had over the short term.
A less silly example is this:
"The production of Ritalin has increased seven fold over the last decade.
Therefore, in the next ten years, 50% of all children will be on the drug."
* Suppression of the Agent, Passive Voice
This is a sneaky one--and unlike the other logical fallacies, it is one that you
can use to preserve some "wiggle room" for yourself if you think you might need
it. Using the passive voice ("It has been said that...") is a way to make a
statement that you may not be able to substantiate fully. Compare the passive
voice statement with the active voice: "[So-and-so] says that..." With the
latter statement, you have to have the *name* of the person--and you have to be
able to substantiate that So-and-so DID say what you claimed.
3. Other Pitfalls
Changing the subject
Arguments on Usenet have a tendency to drift--sometimes because of a conscious
effort on the part of one of the combatants. If I feel that I am losing an
argument, I may try to move the topic into an area where I am more confident of
my ability to "win." You should keep in mind what the point of the argument was
in the first place, and not allow your opponent to change the subject without
having answered (or conceded) earlier points. This is often easier said than
done--but it's worth being aware of the tactic.
"You're just upset because you know I'm right!" You'll see this kind of
statement often--and in order for it to be true, the person has to have some
ESP-level insight into the psyche of another. There are certain assertions that
you should believe. Anything about another's personal feeling (emotion) or
belief should be accepted as true; that person is the one true authority on his
or her own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. If you try to argue with me about
whether I feel (or don't feel) a particular way, you are sure to be
wrong--because I will tell you so.
Quoting and attribution
It may seem to be a great deal of work at times, but proper quoting and
attribution is absolutely essential in an argument. The minute you misquote me,
or claim that *I* said something that someone *else* said, I will have you over
a barrel. If you misquote me, I will make an immediate and vigorous case for
your dishonesty, for the way you have LIED about what I said. How you are using
DECEIT to win your argument, because that's all you have left, you RAT!
Get the idea?
Flaming and other desperate measures
Sometimes, you can tell when you are "winning" an argument when your opponent
begins to spew insults and other kinds of flames. In most cases, it's best to
ignore these tactics, as they aren't usually germane to the argument. One
exception to this is the "spelling flame" and its close cousin, the "grammar
"There's no better motercycle that the BMW!"
"That's motOrcycle," you idiot. You're such a lamer!
Can't even spell!"
The spelling flame is generally considered to be a sign that the flamer is
losing the argument, knows it, and is flailing around in desperation. Apart
from the lameness inherent in the spelling flame, there is always the risk that
YOUR spelling might experience a lapse, with mortifying consequences.
Who's your audience? Hello?
Who's watching this Forensic Battle of Titans, anyway? Unless there are people
posting comments, there's no way to know. It's entirely possible that everyone
else has gotten so sick of the topic that they're just skipping the posts.
Occasionally, someone losing an argument will claim to have received
"overwhelming support" for his position in the form of e-mail. A statement like
this, impossible for you to refute directly, is in the same league as the
spelling flame. It is sometimes referred to as support from Manny--Manny E.
Mayles. (Say it out loud...get it?)
4. OTHER THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
Getting a clear win
Many people who gravitate to Usenet newsgroups are competitive by nature. For
people like this, the debate/argument itself is the whole point--and they are
driven to WIN.
Many of the people who fit this description are wrong much of the time--and it
is often a simple matter to demonstrate the fact. You have just encountered
someone like this, and you happen to have a meticulous command of relevant
facts. You recognize logical fallacies and other holes in your opponent's
argument. But that turkey, even though thoroughly blasted by your best forensic
artillery, REFUSES to fall down and concede defeat. Your opponent just keeps
arguing the same stale non-facts over and over again. Is this a MORON, or WHAT?
The problem is one of pride and ego--some of our most jealously guarded
attributes. If you want to enjoy even the slightest possibility of a "win," you
have to make it possible for your opponent to concede, while still salvaging
In order to do this, you should leave some doors open for your opponent to
concede points without sacrificing his or her dignity. There is a common
tendency on Usenet to identify the person's ARGUMENT with some defect in the
PERSON. There *are* some genuinely stupid people on Usenet; but intelligent
people CAN hold silly ideas. If you say, "Since you believe [insert silly
belief], then you MUST be a moron." It is quite possible that you ARE dealing
with a genuinely stupid person, but by personalizing the belief, you force your
opponent into an untenable position: if she concedes the point, then, be
association, she has had to admit she's a moron, as well.
A "better" strategy is to allow your opponent to agree with your points AND
retain her dignity: "You may not be aware of this (it's a common
misconception), but [insert factual info here]." The effect is that your
opponent can safely concede the point, since a lack of data is not generally
seen as a character flaw or of low intelligence.
With all that said, I should add that I don't believe in ALWAYS being "nice."
There are people all over Usenet who INVITE humiliation--hopefully in front of a
large audience. You won't get people like this to concede defeat, of course,
but you may amuse the gallery.
The important thing is to decide as early as possible which kind of person
you're dealing with--and be willing to revise your opinion of that person on a
When to let go
You know you are completely, perfectly, incontrovertibly RIGHT. You have
brought out all your very best arguments. You have argued your case like
William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. The other guy should just admit
you're right, and he's wrong? It's the LEAST he could do!
It's probably not going to happen. Arguments on Usenet tend to drift off into
the ether, with nothing being truly settled. The best you can hope for is the
knowledge that you have done an excellent job of making your arguments, and that
you have deflected the dishonest, sneaky ploys of your opponent. YOU know you
were right, and that's what is important. You may also have convinced some of
the invisible "lurkers," but you'll never know for certain.
You should give some thought to how far you are willing to pursue an
argument--then stick to that limit. If you go *too* far, you run the risk of
appearing to others to be somewhat obsessed, regardless of how solid your
argument is. Take heart: there will be *plenty* of other battles to fight.
Your personal style
Although some people claim Usenet is an "impersonal" medium, nothing could be
LESS accurate; although we represent ourselves only with our words, which appear
as stark text on monitors, people DO draw conclusions about who (and what) we
are from our words.
The way you present yourself on Usenet can work FOR you or AGAINST you--and this
is especially true in arguments. If my personal style is to use frequent
insults (or ridicule, or profanity) as part of my arsenal, there is a risk that
my *style* may become as much of an issue as the *substance* of my posts. If we
are arguing the acceleration of gravity (let's stipulate that it's 32.2
ft/sec/sec) and you disagree with me, I might say,
"It's 32.2 ft/sec/sec, you ignorant asshole!"
....then, even though my statement is as true as it would be sans insult, my
appending the insult *could* diminish my credibility--because people may find it
more difficult to agree with a disagreeable person. My opponent may also be
able to gain support for her otherwise untenable position because I am so nasty,
or because I have used profanity.
Please note: I am NOT expressing disapproval of people who choose to use
epithets, insults or profanity as part of their posting repertoire. Frankly, I
believe there are times when the most eloquent response to someone is,
However your style evolves, it makes sense to be aware that your words are often
viewed through the "filter" of the way people perceive you.
The problem of Spam
It's an epidemic: you make one post to a newsgroup, and the next thing you know,
you are receiving all kinds of e-mail, touting Lower Long Distance Rates, Make
Money Fast, Lose Weight Fast, Watch Horny ***** Coeds Make Money Fast. This is
called "spam," after the classic Monty Python sketch. The spammers use a
variety of programs ("spambots") to harvest e-mail addresses from Usenet
postings, adding them to a database that they will feed to their spamming
Assuming you *don't* want to lower your long distance or ogle Horny ***** Coeds
doing the same, you have several choices in dealing with the problem of spam.
Address munging: The theory is that by altering your address to something like
"yourname@_NOSPAM_isp.com, the spammers won't recognize your address, but
legitimate correspondents will know enough to remove the spamblock.
Unfortunately, neither case is perfectly true. The spambots are often
programmed to remove the obvious blocks so they can deliver their junk to you.
And people wanting to send you e-mail don't always know to remove the spamblock.
Filtering: Most e-mail programs (and many ISPs) can filter mail as it arrives,
using some set of rules to delete mail or pass it on to you. The disadvantages
of this approach are that you may lose legitimate, wanted mail (think "baby" and
"bathwater") and that the spammers are still chewing up valuable Internet
resources with their garbage. Using this approach, the spam still reaches its
destination; it's just not being read.
Ignoring it: The spammers say you should just delete their mail without reading
it, rather than complaining about it. The problem with this approach is that it
does nothing to address the problem of spam--but it does give some sort of tacit
approval to this kind of intrusive, "postage due" marketing. Many people
believe that spam is enough of a problem that it is wrong NOT to take some
action against it.
Asking to be removed: Most spam today has some kind of "remove me" link, also
known as an "opt-out." Think twice before asking to be removed from a spammer's
list; replying with a "remove me" request validates your e-mail address for the
spammer. Even if THAT spammer doesn't send you any more mail, they WILL sell
your active address to some other spammer, and you will get even more unwanted
mail than before.
Turning them in: My favorite! Most ISPs today have "Terms Of Service" (TOS) that
are a contract outlining what is and is not permissible. When a spammer sends
unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE), he is in all likelihood violating the TOS
and will be terminated.
Because spammers are by their nature dishonest, they go to lengths to conceal
their actual e-mail addresses. There is a valuable resource available to deal
effectively with the scourge of spam: http://spamcop.net. Once you've
registered, you can use Julian's service to send spam reports to the appropriate
administrators. Because of the ever-decreasing tolerance to spam, the "kill
rate" on spammers seems to be rising. This essential service is free, but it is
one that is worth your financial support, no matter how small.
Abbreviations and acronyms
There is a certain kind of lingo on the Net, characterized by many acronyms that
are meaningless to the uninitiated. This shorthand is intended to reduce the
typing burden. Here are some of the most common:
AFAIAC As Far As I Am Concerned
AFAIK As Far As I Know
BTW By The Way
DILLIGAF Do I Look Like I Give A...Flip? (Thanks, Ann!)
FAQ Frequently Asked Questions
FWIW For What It's Worth
FYI For Your Information
GD&R Grinning, Ducking and Running (After snide remark)
HAND Have A Nice Day (when it appears with "HTH,"
it is sarcastic)
HTH Hope This Helps
IAC In Any Case
I**** I Am Not A Lawyer (But...)
IIANM If I Am Not Mistaken
IIRC If I Remember Correctly
IME In MY Experience
IMHO In My Humble Opinion (variant of IMO)
IMNSHO In My Not So Humble Opinion (variant of IMO)
IMO In My Opinion
IOW In Other Words
IRL In Real Life
LOL Laughing Out Loud
OTOH On The Other Hand
PMJI Pardon Me (for) Jumping In
ROFL Rolling On Floor, Laughing
ROFLAHMS Rolling On Floor, Laughing And Holding My Side
ROFLSHIPMP (Exercise for the reader)
ROTFLMAO Rolling On The Floor Laughing My Ass Off
RTFM Read The, er, Fine? Funny?
TANSTAAFL There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
(Rgds to RAH)
TIA Thanks In Advance
TRW The Real World
TTYL Talk (Type) To You Later
UCE Unsolicited Commercial Email ("Spam")
VBG Very Big Grin (also "BG" or <G>)
WRT With Respect To
YMMV Your Mileage May Vary
©2000, Joe Parsons