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One Person's Historical View

Subject: FAQ: Historical Reflections of the Genealogy Newsgroups
Newsgroups: alt.genealogy,soc.genealogy.misc,soc.genealogy.computing
Posted: March, June, September, December
From: Margaret Olson
Modified: 1999/03/13

QUESTION: Why are there so many genealogy groups?

Every so often someone wonders in one of the newsgroups about WHY alt.genealogy is out there in addition to all those soc.genealogy groups - and all those mailing lists? Why are the lists organized this way? Some form of that question shows up every so often. I replied online to one of the messages once, and someone suggested it be reposted every so often as a FAQ, as there are new "wonderers" around here all the time. So - for what it's worth - here's a sort of a history.

It used to be fairly easy to keep track of groups. No more. The major newsgroups are the 25 soc.genealogy groups, divided by topic, (almost universally available) and alt.genealogy (slightly less widely carried). A rash of* groups have shown up on some sites, but propagation of those is very bad. They may be marginally useful within a single large provider like AOL or maybe netcom where the subscribers are in effect talking to other subscribers of the same ISP, but they are very unlikely to be in contact with a vast majority of the people who read alt.genealogy or the soc.genealogy groups. At my site those they do carry each get 1 or 2 vulgar spams every week - and very little else. As the ads say, "Your mileage may vary", but, in my opinion, mailing lists are more useful for that kind of narrow focus list.

Why do we have mailing lists? Why not just have newsgroups? For the mailing lists with gateways to newsgroups, it's a matter of preference. A lot of people like them. Also, subscribers to email- only services can receive newsgroups this way, and people at sites which have poor news feeds can be sure this way that they are getting all the messages. However, you need a pretty big mailbox to get all the groups. Spammers write to email lists, too, though RootsWeb is catching and refusing that which it can identify. For areas of narrower interest, mailing lists are a much better choice. Alt.genealogy and the soc.genealogy newsgroups are international but newsgroups for individual families are not carried internationally, Mailing lists, however mail anyone who subscribes no matter where they live. Where are these mailing lists? A lot are at, and there are many other hosting sites, as well. Most of the surnames-specific mailing lists and some of the regional mailing lists which were at moved to RootsWeb in 1997 after a spam attack forced the closure of the site. Those "Maiser Lists" - 1000 or more of them - moved to Rootsweb en masse. There are now several thousand more mailing lists there. In August 1997, the mailing lists with gateways to the soc.genealogy newsgroups moved to RootsWeb after a 2+ year stay at Apple Computing's site. The gateway lists had had a short stay at before moving in April 1995 to eworld. The biggest of all genealogy mailing lists, ROOTS-L, is also at There are also genealogy groups on subscription services such as Compuserve, and AOL and the Fidonet groups are also going strong. So newsgroups are only a part of this mix. And with the explosion of the Web, we have query boards (GEN-CONNECT and GEN-FORUM, among others) and we have IRC Chats and numerous other ways to correspond. It was not always so. I'll stick mostly to major newsgroups here. I will post a separate message with a list of the genealogy newsgroups and their associated mailing lists.

Why not use soc.genealogy.misc? That is the question which precipitated this FAQ. Alt.genealogy really doesn't compare to soc.genealogy.misc or any one of the soc.genealogy newsgroups. Strictly speaking you will find the "soc" groups referred to as part of Usenet, and the alt groups as part of the Alternet. Alt.genealogy gets any and all kinds of genealogy messages, and more than its share of some which are not genealogy. You need to compare it to the total posts to soc.genealogy misc/methods/computing/surnames.* for comparable groups. I think international messages probably don't occur as often in alt.genealogy because people interested in non-USA and non-Canada genealogy find out about and use the "ethno" soc.genealogy groups and the regional soc.genealogy.surnames.* groups for their posts. Also, Alternet groups may not be carried as widely outside the US.

++++++ HISTORY - pre-1995 - soc.roots
About 1983 in the early days on the net, a newsgroup named net.roots came upon the scene, named presumably because of the popularity of Alex Haley's book, Roots. In 1987, in the great renaming of newsgroups, net.roots became soc.roots. Soon after, a mailing list ROOTS-L and the soc.roots newsgroup were joined, at first manually, and then with a gateway. This joint group grew, but sometimes people would look among the expanding lists of newsgroups for "genealogy" and didn't find soc.roots so they'd start alt.genealogy. (It's rather easy to start an alt group), but as soon as they learned about soc.roots they'd move over there because it was much bigger and better, due in good part to the ROOTS-L link, so alt.genealogy would become dormant. Alt was pretty much seen only in the US, and it wasn't (still isn't) carried by some sites. Alt still has poorer propagation than the Big-8 of rec, soc, sci, talk, news, misc, comp and humanities. In the summer of 1994 alt.genealogy was almost non-existent and soc.roots was large (90 messages a day was considered large in those days... really!) - and about a dozen people (I was among them) decided it was time to ask to split soc.roots into organized sub-groups so we went through the process of asking for a vote to create 7 groups. There were several things we wanted. One was to give the groups names with "genealogy" in them so that people could find them. Another was to start separate "ethno" groups to allow people outside the USA places to discuss genealogy without having to wade through all the US posts. Thus soc.genealogy.french/german/jewish were proposed. The moderator of Jewishgen, a Fidonet echo and mailing list, wanted to connect that list to soc.genealogy.jewish, so that was part of the proposal - to have soc.genealogy.jewish be moderated and to have a gateway to Jewishgen. (I'm going to shorten "soc.genealogy". to s.g. most places here - save a byte or two). Another thing we wanted was to get the surnames message into a separate group and require "good" subject lines for those messages (look at some of the really uninformative subject lines you see in alt.genealogy which are surnames queries and you'll understand what we were trying to improve upon). For that reason. s.g.surnames was proposed to have moderators. We also decided to try to funnel the computing messages into a separate group and to ask for another group only for "methods". The methods group needed to be moderated, too, in order to work as intended. We assumed the computing group would stay on topic, so didn't propose any moderators. We arranged for mailing list gateways to all the groups so we could have archives and an alternate method of access. We were required to name the group which would get the messages which didn't belong in the other 6 groups "soc.genealogy.misc" - so the vote asked for renaming soc.roots to soc.genealogy.misc. Well, the "split" discussions got rather contentious, and finally the ROOTS-L gateway was removed because of that and because the mailing list could not split along with the newsgroups. Some people got all hot and bothered and cranky, it was a pretty noisy time in the old soc.roots. Alt.genealogy began to grow at this time, partly because of a later-aborted effort to link it to a very large Fidonet Echo and also because it attracted the people who were most upset at the committee which had proposed such a preposterous and destructive thing as splitting the successful soc.roots group. The move from military/educational dominance through the influx of BBS (FidoNet etc) gateways and commercial entities like AOL and Prodigy and Compuserve, all of whom bowed to the wishes of subscribers to have access to newsgroups and the net, meant a constant stream of new people were gaining access. We split soc.roots at the right time. That was only 5 years ago - it seems much longer than that :-)

When the soc.genealogy vote passed (to the absolute amazement of some of the die-hards who believed moderators were an evil idea and that one-stop-shopping was the only real way to carry on genealogy) many people went to alt.genealogy, swearing never to set keyboard to any of the soc groups. They liked (and still like, I think) all the messages mixed up together in one place. The antagonisms have long since gone away, and people now find the groups they like and ignore the ones they don't like, and when there is a gap which needs filling, new requests for new groups show up as RFD and CFV messages for new soc.genealogy groups. The differences in reading preferences and the fact that a lot of people new to the net find "alt" before they find "soc" has made alt.genealogy quite successful - and it is a good alternative group for those who prefer the style - if their ISPs carry it, that is. With the new mailing list gateway, even those people will have access to alt.genealogy. There were some who would have liked to see alt.genealogy fold up and go away and have everyone use the soc.genealogy groups - but it wasn't realistic, and a lot of people really prefer the more open atmosphere they see in alt.genealogy. It is an alternative to the structure of soc.genealogy.*.

Meanwhile the soc.genealogy groups took off like crazy, and the original 7 were soon joined by 11 more (the marketplace group, a medieval group and 9 ethno/geographical groups). Soc.genealogy.italian came into being in May 1997 and a reorganizion of into soc.genealogy.britain and soc.genealogy.ireland was successful in July 1997. A major reorganization of the soc.genealogy.surnames newsgroup also took place in the summer of 1997, adding regional groups. A computer program moderates the 7 groups, automatically posting to the "right" groups, as defined by the places in the subject line. has taken the place of soc.genealogy.surnames, containing one copy of each message posted to any of the other groups. It is expected that there will be future requests for other regional groups as traffic warrants. So - soc.roots has evolved through 7 initial soc.genealogy groups to 25 groups. For a short time in the fall of 1997, there were 27 until soc.genealogy.surnames and were removed in favor of their replacements. Some sites which never remove anything may still have these two groups - hey, some ISPs still have something called soc.roots, but all three are in fact dead groups.

++++++ ROOTS-L
ROOTS-L has taken off like crazy, too. It gets close to 200 messages a day - has "pre-screeners" (low-key moderators) and is truly a great mailing list with dedicated volunteers and loyal readers. It's thriving without the newsgroup link. There is now a spin-off GEN-NEWBIE-L mailing list which had it's roots in ROOTS-L. So even they, who were opposed to the original soc.roots split, have made changes and adapted to growth in an excellent way.

++++++ SPAM
One thing that alt.genealogy (and the soc.genealogy groups to a lesser extent) is junk messages - the ads and chain letters crossposted to many groups - and the responses from angry people who unwittingly also crosspost to all those and other groups. I guess a.g gets more of them it's because the jerks find "alt" before "soc". The spammers, however, are invading more and more newsgroups - and mailing lists. What to do when you see the ads and spam is the topic of another FAQ - and you'll probably find one of those in news.announce.newusers if you look. It is definitely a problem. Responding to SPAMS doesn't work. Just try to bypass them - and take your blood-pressure medicine :-)

Dr. Brian Leverich, who among other things co-moderates GENMTD-L soc.genealogy.methods, and Karen Isaacson, who has been a long-time co-listowner of ROOTS-L and the owner of the Roots Surname List, have built and developed a home for genealogy in Their hosting of the mailing lists associated with the newsgroups has been a wonderful thing for us all - and they have big plans for the future. Visit and see what they have. This is not the only genealogy host, but it is the largest non-commercial site by far.

There are 25 soc.genealogy newsgroups - and most of them have mailing list counterparts. You have the choice of reading a mailing list (like GENCMP-L) or a newsgroup (soc.genealogy.computing). Messages to/from either show up in both. A list of the current groups will be posted separately. You can keep up with changes to the addresses of mailing lists by visiting and for newsgroups by visiting

Margaret Olson or
last updated 9/3/99


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