Newsgroups and USENET are, for all practical purposes, the same thing: discussion groups which permit people all over the world to share information and opinions about their common interests. There are tens of thousands of Newsgroups, each of which is devoted to a specific topic.
Newsgroups are a two-way street: you can read what other people have to say on a subject, and you can contribute ("post," in Internet jargon) your own views. It's also possible to receive and submit pictures and other non-text files.
You need a program called a "news reader." Windows95, Windows 3.1 and Mac users all have plentiful choices in this regard.
The Windows 3.1 software package from PhoneTech comes with the WinVN news reader. Windows95 users are advised to download the Microsoft Mail and News software. The premier news reader in the Mac world is News Watcher. Here's a summary of the information you'll need to set up a news reader:
Your news server is news.phonetech.com
Your mail server is mail.phonetech.com
Your email address is shown on the back cover of your User's Guide. Remember that you can use any name you wish in front of the @ symbol.
When you run your news reader for the first time you will need to download the complete list of Newsgroups from the server. PhoneTech gives you access to over twenty-nine thousand separate Newsgroups, so this may take a few minutes!
Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator can also display Newsgroup messages, and you will occasionally find a link to a Newsgroup in a Web page. In order to use these links in Explorer you need to click the View menu, select Options, and click the News tab. Then type in news.phonetech.com as the news server. The newsgroups mentioned on this page are links which you can try viewing in your browser.
That can be a bit challenging.
First, you can simply scroll through the full list of newsgroups and look at the group names. Bear in mind, though, that there are many thousands of them. Furthermore, some of the names are not very helpful - for example, what exactly is the topic of discussion in 5col.general? (Your humble Webmaster looked at several postings and he still doesn't know.)
Even alt.animals.felines.snowleopards, which seems pretty specific, had at this writing only two postings and neither had anything to do with animals, let alone leopards. The alt. in the name indicates that this Newsgroup was created outside of "official" USENET channels, possibly by an individual Internet user. Many of these alt. groups are seldom used, and some contain offensive language and/or pornography.
It's not fair, however, to tar all alt. Newsgroups with that brush. For example, alt.radio.scanner did indeed contain several posting having to do with police scanners which could be very helpful to someone with an interest in the subject. Just be aware that you never know what you may find.
The newsgroups which begin with "official" USENET classifications tend to be slightly more reliable. Some of these are biz. (business), comp. (computers), rec. (recreation), sci. (science) and soc. (social issues). For example, comp.lang.c++.moderated is devoted to discussions of the C++ programming language. "Moderated" Newsgroups are those in which submissions are approved for quality and relevance before being posted.
All news readers permit you to search the list of group names for key words. For example, a search for "woodworking" turned up rec.woodworking.
You can also find newsgroups which might interest you with AltaVista. Before searching change "Search" from "the Web" to "Usenet." For example, an AltaVista Usenet search for "Stairmaster" found references to misc.fitness.misc and rec.sport.triathlon.
There are many similarities: both permit people from all over the world to discuss a particular topic or area of interest and to share news and information which might be impossible to find by other means.
The biggest difference is that submissions (or "posts") to mailing lists are automatically sent via email to each of the list's subscribers and are unavailable to anyone else. The computer which handles the mailing list (called a list server) doesn't store these messages; it simply forwards them to the subscribers.
Newsgroups, on the other hand, aren't "sent" to anyone. Newsgroups are stored on a computer called a news server. If you want to read the current posts in a particular group, you must "come and get them" by downloading them from the news server with a news reader program.
Each post is stored for a week or so, and then deleted to make room for newer ones. As a result, the posts in each group turn over on a regular basis. Just because a group is empty today doesn't mean that it has never received any posts, or that it won't receive some tomorrow. If you don't check a newsgroup for several weeks, you won't see the posts which have appeared and disappeared during that interval.
Not what you would probably think.
All news reader programs permit you to "subscribe" to newsgroups, but this doesn't mean that the news server is notified in some way that you are interested in those particular groups. In fact, "subscribing" to newsgroups takes place entirely within your news reader program, and has nothing to do with anything outside your own computer.
News reader programs permit you to select (or subscribe to) specific newsgroups for two main reasons. First, you don't have to scroll or search through the full list of thousands of groups just to find your favorites. Your subscribed groups are displayed in a separate list. Second, the news reader program keeps track of which posts in each group you've already read, so that you see new posts immediately.
Using your news reader program to subscribe to your favorite groups permits you to read new posts to them quickly and efficiently. You can still read the current posts in any of the other newsgroups at any time.