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Newsgroup Participation and Citizenship: Some Basic Information
by Margaret Olson

an article which first appeared in the
Journal of Online Genealogy, Volume 1, Number 2, August 1996


How do I find and subscribe to newsgroups?

Ask your service provider about how to find newsgroups on your newsserver and get whatever help files they have for subscribers. If you are using an off-line newsreader, reading the manual is a good idea. If you are using a newsreader on the computer where you have your account (America Online, a Freenet, Compuserve, an Internet Provider, or so forth), then the system support people will be able to help. If you are using a Web browser such as Netscape, use the "help" features of the browser, and if you still have problems, ask the support people at your service provider.

How do I learn how to use newsgroups?

Read news.announce.newusers for a week or two. If you are new to the Internet, you will often be called a "newbie." There is a newsgroup for newbies called news.announce.newusers. I would recommend that all people who are new to newsgroups read all of the message postings in that group for a week or so. You'll add some new words to your vocabulary -- such as newbie, netiquette (net etiquette), flame (to criticize another electronically), and FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions - files posted regularly in individual newsgroups), as well as a lot of others. You will also learn about emoticons (or smilies) -- those sideways faces smiling :-), winking quizzically ;-/, or wearing glasses and laughing 8-0. People use these in newsgroups and in email. Also, you will learn that TYPING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is considered SHOUTING, which is something for which you may get flamed! :-)

Many newsreaders have advanced features that allow users to filter messages. With these filters, the user can highlight--or perhaps "kill"--posted messages from certain authors or on certain topics. Even experienced readers may want to review such options every so often. If you do not have the time to read all of the messages posted to the newsgroup, having the software select particular messages for you can be a welcome time-saver.

I have some newbie-type questions. Who can help?

Try the newsgroup news.newusers.questions. There will be a lot of other newbies asking questions, and some helpful people there who answer them. If you have inquiries that are better addressed in a genealogy newsgroup, ask them in such a group, but wait until you have gotten a feel for newsgroups in general before asking.

How do I find the genealogy newsgroups?

This will depend on your newsreader. Most will give you a method for searching all of their newsgroups for a keyword or string of characters, then choosing the ones you want to read regularly. Try searching for "geneal" and you will get most of the genealogy groups. When searching, remember that we spell it geneAlogy, not geneOlogy. :-) That is a common newbie misspelling that results in finding no groups. Also remember to save your list of selections.

You may find alt.genealogy and 17 soc.genealogy newsgroups, as well as some other local groups or non-English language groups. The names will indicate what topics can be found in the groups. Alt.genealogy is a general newsgroup covering any genealogical topic.

Soc.genealogy.computing covers software and the newsgroups themselves. You may want to read it for awhile, as the FAQs for all of the soc.genealogy newsgroups that have FAQs will be posted there once during any given month. There are some very useful FAQs about how to use the genealogy newsgroups posted to soc.genealogy.computing. One describes the different groups, another is about genealogy group etiquette. FAQs get posted at different times during the month.

If you are using the Web, go to or to and look for the mailing list and newsgroups links. Some Internet searching tools (such as Yahoo, Altavista, and Lycos) are available from both of those URLs, also. With those, you may find some more interesting places to visit.

If you cannot find a newsgroup that you know exists, it is possible that your news provider does not carry it. Ask the support people nicely whether they can get it for you. They may be willing to add it. Not all providers carry all possible groups.

OK, I'm ready to read genealogy newsgroups. What now?

Before jumping in with your own messages, "lurk" for awhile. Watch to see how others are writing, asking, or answering questions. Get a feel for the group. When you are ready to make a post, remember that your message will be seen all around the world by thousands of readers. Jokes and references to towns in your county may not make sense to people halfway around the world. Make sure the message is relevant to the group to which you are posting, and be sure you include a useful and informative "Subject:" line. Many people do not read messages unless the subject appears to be interesting. By all means, be polite and don't SHOUT! :-) Take the time to compose a coherent message with complete sentences and properly spelled words just as you would if writing through the postal mail ("snail mail").

When responding to a post, you have a choice of responding by email directly to the original poster or you can post a "followup" to the newsgroup. If your message won't interest anyone except the original poster, send email. If you are answering a post, try to include a small bit of the post to which you are replying so that readers of your message will know to what you are referring, but don't quote the entire message. That irritates people and isn't necessary.

How reliable is the information people are posting?

You won't know how reliable the information is until you check sources, but you will find good ideas and pointers to good information, and you will find some pretty bad information, too. Newsgroups are great for reading and exchanging ideas, but for doing good research, you need to follow up critically on the ideas you get. You'll meet some pretty terrific and helpful people, though.

I want to sell something. May I do that?

No, you should not post information about things you are selling, unless you are posting to the soc.genealogy.marketplace. This group is intended for advertising about goods and services relevant to genealogy. Advertising is considered off-topic in the other groups.

I read a message last month and now it's gone. Where is it?

It is probably gone. Messages are stored on individual news servers for varying lengths of time, depending on how much disk space the server has and on how many newsgroups they carry. Most sites will keep messages from a few days up to a few weeks. If you see a message that interests you, save a copy to your disk.

I posted a message yesterday and now it's gone. Where is it?

It is probably still there. Your newsreader quite possibly has a feature that only shows you the new messages in a group, and does not show you messages you have already read unless you ask specifically to see them all. Check the instructions for the newsreader to see how to tell it to show you all messages, not just the unread ones.

I posted a message 30 minutes ago to soc.genealogy.surnames and it hasn't shown up in the newsgroup yet. Why?

You need to be patient. Soc.genealogy.surnames is a moderated newsgroup. Your message was sent to one of the moderators by email, and that moderator will check the "Subject:" line and may make some adjustments to that "Subject:" line before posting the message to the newsgroup for you. If the "Subject:" line cannot be made to fit the strict format required for that group, the moderator will return it to you by email with a suggestion regarding what is needed to have the message approved. The moderators aren't on constant duty. They are volunteers with real jobs and families, but they do check their messages at least once a day, and usually check several times a day.

Soc.genealogy.african, soc.genealogy.jewish, and soc.genealogy.methods are moderated newsgroups also. You should normally see your post to a moderated group within 24 hours or less.

I posted a message and nobody responded. Now what?

There are a couple of common reasons why people may not be responding. Maybe your question was too specific. (For example, you probably won't find anyone who has personal knowledge about your parents unless your siblings are reading the groups.) Maybe your "Subject:" line didn't attract attention. Maybe you asked about a name but didn't include any places or dates. Maybe you are being a bit too impatient. Try reframing the question and post it again in a few weeks. However, don't post identical messages over and over again, or you're likely to get "flamed" for it.

I was flamed by an unpleasant sort of character. How should I reply?

Maybe you shouldn't reply at all. There are too many helpful pleasant people out there to spend any time worrying about the unpleasant ones. Starting an online fight wastes the time of thousands of people and won't endear either of you to the rest of the newsgroup readers. If you want to fight it out in email, that's your business, but it's probably better just to forget it.

I saw the same message in seven different newsgroups. What a waste of time.

It is a waste of time and computer space to post seven identical messages. If you must post to more than one group, it should be on-topic for all and you should post by putting the names of all of the groups on the same "Newsgroups:" line in the message. Separate the names with commas, and don't include any spaces. This is called cross-posting (as opposed to multi-posting), and is considered good because it saves space as the message is sent only once, and it saves time for readers with intelligent newsreaders, because it will be marked as read for all groups in which it appears after it is read the first time.

There was an advertisement having nothing to do with genealogy in one of the newsgroups. How should I react to that?

You have probably encountered some "Spam" (a message posted to many groups at the same time, with no regard whether it is on-topic). You probably didn't see the Spam on one of the moderated newsgroups. Moderators filter these out, which is a definite benefit of moderation. Unfortunately there are a lot of people trying to take advantage of what they see as a free way to advertise and they are universally despised, but that doesn't stop them. Alt.genealogy gets hit with these more than the other groups do, probably because of the nature of "alt", and mostly because it comes first in the alphabet of hierarchies.

First, do not waste genealogists' time by making a public reply to the newsgroup. If you cannot resist, do not include the entire offensive message in your reply to the newsgroup. Also, very carefully check the "Newsgroups" and "Followup-To" lines in the message you are about to send. The person who sent it probably included many unrelated newsgroups in his cross-post and, if you are not careful, you will find yourself posting to all of the same groups, compounding the problem. Remove all except the one group from which you read, and say in your message that you have done so.

Second, if you wish to complain to the perpetrator, check his/her mailing address to make sure it looks like a real address. Send him/her a response directly, telling him/her as politely as possible that it was off-topic and not appreciated. For the best effect, send a copy of your message to his/her postmaster. The address will be postmaster@ or abuse@. Think twice about taking this course of action, however. Some of these people will use the return address from your email to put you on some junk-email list or they may "mailbomb" you in retaliation. You may just want to ignore the offensive message, after all.

There is a place to complain about net abuse, but it is better to let the experienced posters among you handle doing so. The newsgroup, is frequented by people who deal with major problems with spammers and the like.

I have a complaint about the moderators of one of the genealogy newsgroups.

The proper group for discussing the newsgroups is soc.genealogy.computing. Use this group to raise your objections, if you wish. If your complaint is that you don't like the fact that the group is moderated, you may as well forget it. Moderation was part of the vote that was taken when the groups were proposed, and removing the moderation will not happen without another vote. Likewise, to add moderators to unmoderated groups would require an official vote.

About the Author: Margaret Olson retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in April 1995, and currently lives in Urbana, Illinois with her husband. She has two children and three grandchildren. She began researching her family history in 1985. Since discovering soc.roots in 1989, she has been an active participant in newsgroups and mailing lists. She served on the soc.roots reorganization committee, and has at times served as a mediator in discussions regarding newsgroups.

Copyright 1996 by Margaret Olson. All Rights Reserved. Any republication of this article requires the express consent of the author and must include notice that the work was first published in the Journal of Online Genealogy.