Why use News Groups?
Updated: August 2, 2005
I've been using news group software since the University of Waterloo
went on the Internet in the early 1980's. News groups are my
preferred way to make announcements and carry on discussions, including
answering questions in a course or help desk setting. This page
News groups generally fall into two categories:
Announcement news groups:
Announcement news groups are generally one-way conduits of
important information without discussion. Some examples are:
- from professor to class
- from system administrators to campus
- from department chairs to faculty
- from student union to students
- from personnel office to employees
In the absence of a news server, announcements are often made by
EMail. EMail is handy, since professors don't have to wait until
a lecture to make an announcement. This is especially important
if neither labs nor lectures have mandatory attendance; without a news
group server, the only way to reach everyone may be via EMail.
News groups have some advantages over EMail for making announcements:
- Nobody can claim they didn't get your announcement because their
mailbox was full or because their account wasn't working the day
you sent out the announcement EMail. This is especially
important for newcomers to Algonquin (students or faculty), where
EMail accounts may take weeks to be set up. It is also
important for people who are using unsupported mail servers that
may not always be available.
- Students joining a course late still get to see all the
announcements that you posted; you don't have to go back and EMail
them the ones they missed. New employees get to read the
announcements posted prior to their starting work at Algonquin.
- The announcements can't be accidentally deleted from a mailbox
before being read.
- Users can choose which announcement news groups they read.
You can elect to read the "urgent system announcements" news group
every day, and not read the "general social announcements" news
group until you have some free time. Contrast this to your
mailbox, where you have to read everything that comes into it.
- People making announcements will never get a request such as:
"Please send that announcement again -- I lost it". The
announcements are always available on the news group server.
- Readers can configure the news reading software to show only the
new announcements, not the ones already read. However, all
the announcements are always available if people want to review them.
- The announcements become part of the online, visible history of
the course or topic area. They are not "hidden" in
mailboxes. They are available to anyone interested in taking
the course or reviewing the announcement history. You can
refer anyone to the news group.
- Announcements don't get overlooked in an active or big mailbox
with many messages.
- Only one copy of the announcements get posted to the server,
instead of flooding the mailboxes with dozens or hundreds of mailed
- An incorrect or outdated announcement can be "pulled" the moment
the error is discovered, or the moment the urgent situation
passes. A mailed announcement such as "system will be down on
Monday" is simply annoying junk mail when read on Tuesday.
Outdated announcements can be cancelled; they won't even be seen by
people after being removed from the server.
- The DNews news group server offers a full-text search of all
Algonquin news articles.
Discussion news groups:
In contrast to announce-only news groups, discussion news groups
are multi-way, with many participants. Some examples are:
- course discussions
- general student chat
- help desk
- faculty discussions
- interest groups (e.g. the Linux operating system)
Again, discussion may be attempted using EMail technology such as
one-to-one EMail, a mailing list, or a LISTSERV; however, news groups
offer significant advantages. Many of the advantages are already
mentioned with regard to Announce-only news groups (above).
Other advantages are:
- All the messages articles are threaded and grouped by topic
and/or by date. You can read all of one topic before starting
the next; you can easily ignore entire topics. News reading
software can group together all articles that are responses to
other articles, no matter what Subject is used on each new
article. Some EMail software can only group messages by
identical Subject title; if the Subject changes, EMail incorrectly
treats the follow-on articles as a different discussion thread.
- In a help desk or course news group discussion, one publicly
posted answer to a question is visible to all the readers of the
news group instead of being of use only to the one person who sent
you the question by EMail. (I redirect all course questions
to the course discussion news group and answer them there so that
everyone benefits from the question and the answer, just as if the
question had been posed in a live class setting.)
- Instead of one-to-one EMail, news groups offer the potential of
real discussion. The multiple posters and multiple readers
build a community of learning, and the discussion history is
immediately available to anyone who joins. EMail discussion
is invisible to "outsiders", and new members on the mailing list
only see the new postings; they don't get to see any of the history.
- In a course or help desk news group, people often answer each
other's questions without intervention from system staff or
faculty. Answers may come from people not "officially"
required to be part of the discussion, e.g. a system administrator
might answer a question posed in a course news group, and a faculty
member might answer a question posed in a help desk news
group. Mailing lists are "closed" to this kind of community
Why not use EMail?
Public dicussions conducted by private EMail have some problems:
- Some EMail software cannot automatically thread the messages and
keep each follow-on message grouped with the message to which it
is a response. News software was designed from the start to
thread and group news articles.
- I do not have room to keep the contextual message history for all
the dozens of discussions in which I have an interest in my
mailbox. News servers keep the previous articles
categorized, grouped, and stored for me.
- If a new person joins an EMail discussion list, I have to
re-send and explain all the previous message history that was
missed (unless the EMail list has a public archive).
With news groups, the discussion history is public and available
on the server to anyone who wishes to join and get caught up.
- I want to be able to refer anyone to a discussion. "Go see
the Linux news group; it has the answer to your modem
question." "The answer to that was posted to the Compilers
news group last May." This referral process isn't possible
with private mailing lists, since all the discussion is hidden in
- Many discussions in which I participate are not "urgent"
discussions. I do not want to be bothered by hourly EMail
from these discussions. By using news software instead of
EMail, the discussion messages are stored until I pick a time to
go read them. I reserve EMail for issues requiring a more
I use EMail for urgent and/or private one-to-few communications.
Anything public involving more than one or two people I prefer to move
to a news group.
Why not use a "Web Board"?
Web Boards are web pages that attempt to behave like news groups
and/or mailboxes. They usually offer some of the advantages of
news groups, such as message threading and public discussion.
Since the interface is your standard web browser, you don't have to
learn any new software package.
The problems with Web Boards are these:
- Too many articles. Most Web Boards don't have a way of
suppressing articles that you have already read, so you always get
all of the articles when you open the page. News reading
software can be configured to show you only the new postings that you
have not read; this is much easier to manage.
- Poor display of heavily nested articles. Most Web Boards
don't display nicely articles that are follow-on's to follow-on's to
follow-on's ... to follow-on's. The indenting level becomes so
severe that the page becomes unreadable.
- No text-only interface. Some Web Boards don't create web
pages that work in a text-only environment, such as you might run
over a modem. News servers store and move news articles as
text, allowing reasonable use even over modem connections.
- No distribution of postings. Most Web Boards cannot
redistribute postings to other machines. All news servers are
designed to be able to exchange news articles with other machines, so
your news posting can circulate as widely as you wish.
- No fetching of remote postings. Most Web Boards cannot
"receive" postings from another machine, so you cannot collaborate
with users on other computers the way you can using news groups.
Web Author: Ian! D. Allen
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