What is Usenet ?
Usenet is one of the oldest "sections" or parts of the Internet, after email and some older technologies like Archie, Veronica, Gopher and the like. It is a collection of discussion groups that can be accessed by a dedicated newsreader, like the excellent - and free - Xnews or via the web like Google Groups (more on web access vs dedicated Usenet access later).
How many of these "discussion groups" (or, more accurately, "newsgroups") are there ?
At my last count, there were approximately 120,000 newsgroups, with more being created on a regular basis.
Can I access them all?
You can access most of them, yes (literally: tens of thousands) Why the caveat ? Because some newsgroups (usually no more than a dozen or so) will be specific to a given ISP or access provider. Others, your Usenet provider may not necessarily carry them, though this is often rectified simply by sending a request to your Usenet provider, asking them to carry the group.
What kind of groups are there ? What topics can I find ?
Anything. Literally: Anything
Are you into gardening ? alt.home.lawn.garden
Are you looking for fellow mechanics into your favourite cars ? alt.autos.ford or alt.autos.fiat or alt.autos.audi or alt.autos.4x4.chevy-trucks or... The list goes on - there are 138 groups from my provider alone in the alt.autos. hierarchy.
How about cooking ? alt.food.cooking or alt.discuss.cooking or alt.food.bbq or ... 68 groups in alt.food. hierarchy to name a couple.
Home repair ? alt.home.repair - Learning how to be a webmaster ? alt.www.webmaster - Trying to sell something ? I see 227 city-specific buy/selll groups.
The list goes on: I am very fond of telling people this: There is nothing that you can think of that either isn't specifically covered by a Usenet newsgroup or in a closely related newsgroup.
What about censorship / parental controls / language filters ?
Usenet is best described, at least in terms of content control, as "organized anarchy". There are no filters or controls in newsgroups, with the exception of moderated newsgroup, which are groups in which posts are first approved by a person or a program before being sent out to the world at large. (Moderated newsgroups are in the very tiny minority on Usenet).
While you may find groups where some people post off-topic notes, spam or are generally disruptive, most groups generally do a good job of policing themselves. In general, someone who has nothing relevant to contribute to a newsgroup are ignored by the regulars. They get bored and move on. If you are using a dedicated news program, you will most likely have the option of blocking (or "killfiling" in Usenet parlance) people you dislike or do not wish to read.
It should be said, however, that sometimes, Usenet is not for the faint-of-heart; If your children are using usenet, it is a good idea to have them do so in a supervised manner: Just like in chat rooms and web boards, there can be some not-so-nice people in Usenet that parents would be well advised to keep their children from posting to.
What is the benefit of using a commercial usenet service, when I can get it for free from Google Groups ?
There are several reasons. First and foremost, we've all heard the expression "You get what you pay for" - This is no less true with Usenet access than anything else.
A dedicated newsfeed will give you more newsgroups, longer retention (articles are kept much longer, so you can search and read further back in a groups' history) and faster access and updates.
In many newsgroups, you will find that many of the 'regulars' might not take a poster as seriously from a "freebie" news provider as they would from a "real" news provider.
Speed is also a big issue with news providers, especially if you are into binaries. Most free news providers will not give access to binaries groups at all. Even for (especially for) text newsgroups: With a dedicated news reader, you are getting what you're looking for: Newsgroup content -i.e. text. When using free news providers, especially web-based, you are downloading website overhead, plus any advertising they wish to push at you.
Personally, if I am looking in a home repair newsgroup for help on how to fix a plumbing mess-up that I made, I want to see the responses to the questions I posed and not have to sit there while some website transfers irrelevant banners to my desktop.
What about local content ?
While there are over a hundred thousand newsgroups, there are tens of millions of cities, towns and villages in the world :) That being said, you will often find groups dedicated to your closest large city. For example, I live near Pembroke, Ontario: My favourite "local" hangout in usenet is ott.general - a general discussion newsgroup for Ottawa, Ontario. You will also find general discussion groups for your province or state, as well as your country in general.
What about in-depth discussions ? Is this a bunch of kids talking about video games ?
While there are newsgroups dedicated to video games (Which I, as a gamer, have found really useful!), there are groups dedicated to mathematics, physics, astrogeology, politics, policing, law, business, programming, learning... the list goes on and on and on.
Many of these newsgroups are very active. can.politics, for example, sees hundreds and hundreds of posts per hour from people talking about the political parties, news headlines, elections and what-not. You will find some very passionate people in Usenet, be they focused on politics or astrology (You should see some of the discussions in alt.astrology!) If you believe strongly in a topic and enjoy debating in, Usenet is just the place for you. Unlike the web, there is no one that can "kick you off", silence you, ban you or edit your words.
Usenet discussion groups can also put you in touch with people working to make a difference in things you care about. For example, recent discussions in the newsgroup can.internet.highspeed have caused a great many people to get in touch with their MPs and MPPs about the perceived unfairness of recent CRTC actions and rulings concerning the Internet. Newsgroups like news.admin.net-abuse.email keep systems administrators aware of spamming and network abuse issues, keeping the Internet running a litle smoother for everyone. Groups like alt.support.cancer are great not only for moral support, but spreading awareness about treatments and thereapies for related diseases. This list, too, goes on and on.
Does my ISP provide Usenet Access ?
It used to be a common feature amongst ISPs to include full Usenet access to all their subscribers. Over the past few years, the majority of ISPs have either eliminated their Usenet access to customers entirely, or offer severely reduced usage, with reduced speeds, limited groups, limited retention and/or (more often and) no binaries access.
A good, dedicated, Usenet provider will give you full access to a majority of newsgroups, text and binaries access, full speed access (as fast as your connection can handle) and long retention periods. Personally, I've been involved in Usenet for more than 20 years - Even back when it was Fidonet packets being sent between computer bulletin board systems at three o'clock in the morning: Usenet has grown much richer and broader in scope than even I could have ever imagined. I used to be a hard-core believer in the "fact" that an ISP should provide Usenet access as an integral part of it's service. I, however, am what is referred to as a "text junkie" - I love my discussion groups: I like being involved in quick back-and-forth engagements in active newsgroups and I like the option of being able to search back, several months or a year if I feel like it, in a particular news group.
When I finally got tired of long wait times for newsgroup updates and frustrated with a retention period of just thirty days, I decided to give a commercial Usenet provider a try. Moving to a commercial usenet provider for Usenet access is quite literally like transitioning from a ten speed bicycle to a Ferrari. Groups in the tens upon tens of thousands: Group retention of years insead of 30 days - Even the binaries are kept for a year (which, if you are trying to find an old file that someone published six months ago, missing out because of *one* missing part is the very definition of frustration.