A newsgroup is a collection of internet users who are interested in a particular topic. The topic may be a technical one, for example the LINUX operating system, or a recreational one such as fly fishing. Members of a newsgroup send messages associated with a particular issue such as the date of release of the next version of LINUX or the efficacy of using certain fiies on certain rivers. Each message – known as a posting – will contain the user's thoughts on the topic. Once posted these thoughts are responded to by other users. For example, one user may say that they have got solid information that the next version of LINUX will be released next week. The collection of responses to a posting and the original posting is known as a thread.
Newsgroups can be moderated or unmoderated. If a newsgroup is moderated a member will examine each posting and determine whether it should be posted. There are a number of reasons why postings are rejected: one major reason is that it is not relevant to the area that a newsgroup covers; another reason is that the posting is abusive to another user. There are no restrictions on posting to unmoderated newsgroups.
Newsgroups are accessed by using a special purpose software utility known as a newsreader; although there is an excellent search site known as Deja.com which allows access to newsgroups. Figure 3 shows a particular posting displayed by Deja.com.
The September that never ended
In the early days of the internet newsgroups suffered a major drop in the quality of contributions every September. This was due to the fact that many students who commenced university at that time, were given their first internet accounts and started using newsgroups. After a comparatively short time, the standard of discussion rose as the students realised what was a valid and what was an invalid posting to a newsgroup. However, one September, according to internet veterans, the standard of contributions fell even further and never really regained its previous standard. This was the September when the large American internet provider America Online allowed its members access to newsgroups. This September was known as the September that never ended.
Many newsgroups form part of the collection known as Usenet. This consists of a large number (30 000+) of newsgroups which are organised hierarchically and rooted in a number of categories such as which designates newsgroups that deal with recreational topics and which deals with computing topics. The newsgroup designated as , shown in Figure 3, is an example of a technical newsgroup which forms part of the hierarchy.
Newsgroups are normally employed by ordinary users of the internet and have not really been associated with e-commerce. However, a number of companies are beginning to wake up to their potential. For example, a number of software companies assign staff to read the postings in newsgroups which are devoted to one of their products in order to field any questions which might arise about them: it provides a good impression to future and present customers if a company will provide help about a product without, for example, users having to ring a high-tariff phone line.
Other companies are also beginning to embed newsgroup technology into their web pages in order to create customer feedback groups which enable them to decide on future upgrades and new products.