Guide to Mail and News

(Version .92)

Netiquette   RfCs   Name   Address   Newsgroups   Style   Design   HTML   Abbreviations   Terms   Signatures   Postings   Files   Quoting   Crosspost   Spam

The following text is meant mainly for newcomers who don't have that much experience with Usenet ("News") and e-mail.

Besides the technical problems with software installation and configuration as well as hardware set-up, there are a few simple rules of behaviour, meant to make life easier.

Netiquette

'Netiquette' is a set of guidelines regarding the expected behaviour of a 'netizen', very much like Etiquette in 'real life'. You'll find there are guidelines (or even 'unwritten rules') how to keep Usenet a place amicably usable by very different kinds of people. Netiquette has grown a long time and many a discussion has been done about it. Every long-time user on Usenet has a very clear idea of what it means, and some hierarchies have managed to fit it into a single document for referal. You'll find info on Netiquette together with a lot of other useful texts in news.announce.newusers and news.answers. Questions about usenet can be asked in news.questions. Every Usenet user should be aware of Netiquette.
One compilation of Netiquette guidelines is provided in RfC1855.

RfC [1]

Though the name originally means "Request for Comment", you'll find there the documents defining the standards for the whole of Usenet and Internet. Other than Netiquette, which can be interpreted more rigorously or relaxed in different hierarchies or by charta in special newsgroups, this is not the case for RfCs. RfCs contain the information about the format of usenet articles, transport mechanisms and assignments of the various technical instances.
In most cases the user doesn't have to bother with the RfCs, since most of it should be taken care of by the news-client and the newsserver. Of course there are still some settings the user has to take care of for himself.
The RfCs most important in this context are probably RfC822, RfC850 and RfC1036.

The Name

All of us got a name from our parents, which is, by tradition, divided into a first name and a last name. If you want to be taken as a valued member of the net-community you should enter the full name into the appropriate places.
The reason is simply that, that you should stand in for what you say with your name. The experience unfortunately shows, that people writing with pseudonyms tend to hide behind this assumed anonymity. The contents often are of corresponding dumbness.
Another point is, whoever is active in Usenet for a prolonged period of time, will eventually get the chance to meet some of their audience in 'real life'. Actually this happens more often than one might think at first glance. This should be taken into account, if one seriously thinks about forgeing their name.
By the way, a significant part of the experienced users makes use of automatic filters, preventing articles with faked name and address entries from showing up in their news-clients.

The E-Mail-Address

It's part of the idea, that it must be possible to react to an article. Even in Usenet, where the discussion in the groups is preferred, the option for private comments and questions is necessary. The usage of a faked or distorted address is not only seen as rude, but causes various problems even to people not at all involved with the author.
The e-mail address can be found in the 'From:'-header of every article, a second (preferred) address can be supplied in the 'Reply-To:'-header entry.

Choice of Newsgroups

It is highly recommended to ask questions and comments to a newsgroup fitting the topic. Questions about Usenet and regarding difficulties, normally encountered by newcomers, are on-topic in news.answers. Questions regarding issues with the own ISP should be posted into the internal groups (group names starting usually with the ISP's name) of that ISP, if there are any.
To talk about actors, authors etc, you should look into the rec hierarchy and the rec.arts groups (the alt.fan and alt.books groups offer even more). If the favourite topic is computers, there should be something in the comp hierarchy.
To check the settings of your news-client, send your postings not to your favourite discussion group, but to one of the specialized .test groups. There may be a local test group on your news-server and there are a number of other test-groups. Two of them are alt.test and news.test. There are even some automatic reply services ('bots') running, which answer to your posting with date and time of receiving. So you can check, if and how fast your postings are delivered into the wide world.
If you find out, that there is a group in existence, that doesn't show up on your news-server, then write a kind mail to the newsmaster asking him to add it.
Before writing to a newsgroup you should always read the articles that are already there and search for FAQs, if the topic at hand is already discussed and perhaps answered. There are only few things more boring than the same discussion over and over again. The behaviour to read a group without posting to it is called 'lurking', the lurking person being a 'lurker' - nothing derogative in those expressions.

Style [2]

It's always the best to read a while in a group to find out, what happens there, for example if the regulars want to talk only seriously or if some joking around is welcome. You can adapt that tone, but be careful: If you're taking things too far, you might offend people. Always keep in mind that written language isn't the best way to transport irony. To transport at least part of the emotional background there are 'emoticons' or 'smilies'. The most common are :-) indicating humour and ;-) indicating humorous irony (winking). To identify emoticons, tilt your head to the left and look at them as if they were pictures of faces.
In Usenet an informal language is the normality, if one is addressed very formally, it's a sign that the author wants to dissociate from one.
Esp. in groups with technical topics, you should always keep in mind, that the other writer's in the group are normal people, answering questions in their spare-time without getting paid for it (might be different in some special support groups). A friendly tone will help to get answers.

Text Design

To set off passages of the text, there exist a number of established methods:
_word_ = underlined; *word* = bold; /word/ = italics; WORD = SHOUT
Not that often used are #Coloured#, $Dull$ and ^Bright^.
A number of news- and mail-clients can automatically recognize and display the emphasis.

Furthermore you should take into account, that not all chars visible in Windows have an equivalent in the (extended) ASCII set (ISO-8859-1). This especially accounts to the chars with the codes 0128-0159 (e.g. typographic quotation marks). All non-Windows users won't see them as intended.

HTML and VCards

There are some news and mail programs allowing articles encoded with HTML. HTML is the standard according to which the flashy pages in the World Wide Web are designed.
For Usenet, being a text-based medium, HTML has a number of disadvantages. HTML makes the same text about 50% (or more) larger, without adding any information. Many people cannot read HTML at all and for the others it depends very much on the software they are using, how it looks like. You should always keep in mind, that not all Usenet users have access to Microsoft or Netscape products, actually most experienced users won't use them for mail and news at all. To say it short: HTML prevents your information reaching the audience.
For mail, things may be a bit different, if you make sure that the recipient can read HTML and accepts it. If you don't know this, ask before using HTML.
Some news and e-mail programs can generate so-called 'VCards', more or less the equivalent to business cards, attached to every article. These can contain a lot of information about the sender as phone numbers, real life addresses, and so on - but they don't contain information of value to the article. Don't use them in Usenet. Not only is to be doubted that you want to leave such a trail, it's also a waste of bandwidth, since a VCard is usually as large as a medium sized news-article. And most usenet users can not read them, anyway. A better way to add some information on you, is to use a signature.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

Since you're allowed to be lazy, but not dumb (at least not both at the same time), various abbreviations entered the vocabulary of the common Usenet user. I'll mention only some of the most important:

Terms and Expressions

There seem to be problems keeping some expressions distinguished from another.
An e-mail is also called 'mail'. It is sent to an e-mail address. The verb fitting the context is 'to mail'.
An article sent to a newsgroup is called 'posting', 'message' or article. You 'post' or 'write' to a newsgroup.
Answering to an article is 'to reply' (obvious one) and the articles following up on a postings are called 'follow-ups'.
A Thread is built up of articles referring to each other, as indicated by the References header-entry.
A newsgroup is one of the numerous forums available for lots of different topics. The newsgroups articles are stored and distributed via news-servers.

Signatures

A lot of people use so-called signatures (short: 'sig'), which are added automatically to their articles. The idea of signatures is to add some additional information on the author, e.g. name, title, job-description, homepage or something in that direction. It is even usual to put a favourite quotation there - which is more or less an information on the author, too.
A signature has a simple format. It starts with '-- ' (i.e. <enter>, hyphen, hyphen, blank, <enter>) to divide the posting's text from the signature and is followed by a maximum of 4 lines with each a maximum length of up to 80 chars (better only 72-76 chars).
If this is not enough for you, please set up a homepage or similar location, where everyone in need of it can access the additional data. Then just include the URL in the signature.

Postings

Posting to a newsgroup, you should try to express yourself clearly. If you ask a question you should describe the problem as explicitly as you can. You shouldn't expect, that the 'experts' on the group want to make guesses about what the problem really is. The subject of the posting should be carefully selected to fit the contents. If the topic of a thread changes, the subject should be adjusted.
The maximum line length should be 72 chars, to allow for some quote-levels without exceeding the magical border of 80 chars.

Attachments, Pictures and Files

To make it short: Newsgroups are meant for discussions. All that is not text is alien to most newsgroups. By mere comparison of sizes of a normal text-posting and a medium-sized picture you can see, that usenet is not the ideal distribution mechanism for that sort of data. Program files add the risk of embedded viruses, and can't be executed by a large part of the audience (having another Operating System, or even another kind of processor).
But even for that purpose newsgroups do exist. If you really need to distribute your files through Usenet, you can put the file in an appropriate group in the alt.binaries.* hierarchy - do not post it to a normal discussion group! If you're in doubt, if binaries/files are allowed for a special group, consult it's charta. If the charta doesn't explicitly allow binaries, they are not allowed.
The correct way to get binaries involved in a normal group, is to put the file(s) on your webpage, on a ftp-server or post it to a binary-newsgroup and then only include a link/pointer (i.e. the URL or Message-ID and the newsgroup's name) in your message to the discussion group.
It's rather similar for e-mail. You only should send large mails or attachments, if the recipient expects them. If in doubt, ask! If one sends unsolicited very large e-mail of more than 100kByte, or even some MByte size, or sends many small e-mails summing up to such a large size, they are effectively 'mail-bombing' the recipient's mailbox and may have to face the loss of their own account and legal actions. Recipients capable of avoiding unwanted messages without downloading them first, won't read it anyway. To make it clear: Mail above a reasonable size will be deleted by many users directly on the server. Mails blocking the mailbox because of size and number are 'mail-bombs' and can be prosecuted in most countries. The action can be compared to throwing a 'molotov cocktail' into a letterbox.

Quoting

It's common to quote the part of an article you're referring to. The rule 'the fewer, the more' applies here. Normally the other readers will have the original article to read the rest there. Only if reacting to rather old postings, a full quotation might make sense. Short and senseful quoting makes the text easier to read and saves time and money while downloading the News.
The comments to quoted text should be below the quotation, adding a blank line between the quoted and your own text. Quoted text is marked with a leading ">" (pointy bracket, greater than sign). Is a text fragment quoted more than once during a thread, you can backtrack to the original author by checking the number of indentations.
To make identifying the author easier, name him in the very first line of your posting, above the quoted text.
Example of how your article might look:

 Joe Public wrote:
 
 >John Doe wrote:
 >>Anybody got any new jokes to tell?
 >
 >I say, I say, I say
 >Walks a man in a pub...

 That's a pretty worn-out one. *yawn*

Crosspostings

A crossposting (short: x-post) is an article sent to more than one newsgroup at once. This is very rarely necessary and hence should be avoided. However, if there is a good reason to crosspost, you should consider setting the 'Followup-To' header to the newsgroup where the article should be discussed. Otherwise the discussion is torn apart in different groups and keeping track is rather difficult. The Followup-To should be mentioned in the article's body, at the beginning or the end a short 'Followup-To set' or even shorter 'F'Up2' suffices, so that the surprised newbie isn't missing his postings. A special Followup-To is that to the 'poster', indicating the wish to further discuss the matter only per private mail, not in the group.

Unwanted Advertisements

Even in Internet and Usenet there are some black sheep, wanting to abuse the possibilities for their own advantage - some even in full knowledge of illegal actions.
The people who send their junk to newsgroups and e-mail addresses are called 'spammers', the junk can be 'Spam', UCE (Unsolicited Commercial e-mail), UBE (Unsolicited Bulk e-mail) or 'Velveeta'. The variants experienced specially in News are 'Spam' or ECP and EMP (Excessive Cross-/Multiple Posting).
If you receive unwanted mail, which you recognise as abuse, you can complain at the abuse@provider.domain or the postmaster@provider.domain e-mail addresses of the spammer's ISP (Do not mail the spammer directly, it'll only validate your address to the 'Bad 'uns'.). But be careful! Often the name and address given in 'From:' is not that of the actual sender. The actual origin can only be found out by analysing all headers, since spammers often try to disguise their identity. This isn't always easy and needs some experience.
Such cases of abuse are discussed in the newsgroups news.admin.net-abuse.email and in news.admin.net-abuse.usenet.
It's not a good idea to try avoiding spam with so-called 'spam-traps', effectively faking the e-mail address. It will only lead to problems at innocent servers and people. Better ways to reduce the amount of junk-mail is to filter for known spammers in the mail-client or directly on the mail-server (or by using a filtering mail-forwarder). Many mailreaders allow you to easily set up mechanisms to sort out mail not sent explicitly to one of the own addresses (in 'To' and 'CC' headers) or to an subscribed-to mailing-list - which is the case for most spam. That way you don't have to bother with the junk every time, but you can check if something valuable made it there, every other day or once a week or so. Best way to avoid spam is, of course, never to write in usenet (or in public forums at all) in the first place...

Last but not least remains to wish you fun and success.

Copyright 1999 Uwe Milde (with kind support of dcpmn, comments welcome)
   Usage and reproduction of this text only with full attributions.

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