Using Usenet

Jeff Chapman discusses the benefits of using newsgroups for genealogy.

TO MOST PEOPLE TODAY, the Internet and the World Wide Web are one and the same. This is a shame, because although the web is an incredible resource, it is really only one of several popular varieties of Internet-based communication. One of the most important, yet most neglected, Internet-based communication systems is Usenet.
         Many definitions have been applied to Usenet, none of which are completely accurate. Roughly speaking, however, Usenet is the name given to the loose, worldwide network of sites that carry Usenet newsgroups and Usenet news (in Usenet parlance, news is a general term for content and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with current events). These sites pass newsgroup postings back and forth, allowing users of the newsservers to read them online using newsreading programs or web browsers with news capability such as Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer.
         Why is Usenet so much more complicated than the web? One of the largest factors is Usenet's age: Usenet has been in use since 1979, as compared to the web which has only been around for a few years. At the time when Usenet was developed only the extremely technically-inclined used computer networks and the term user friendly hadn't really been coined. While an ugly header like "Path:!!!!!!!!! auvm! ATI.ES!" may be frightening to you or I, it is a thing of beauty to a true techhead.
         Another factor is Usenet's anarchistic nature. Whereas the web has a few semi-governing bodies such as the W3 Consortium and the InterNIC (to say nothing of Netscape and Microsoft), there are no central authorities on Usenet. System administrators can exert some control over their own users, but no one can exert control over Usenet as a whole. This means Usenet is very slow in evolving.
         While Usenet is a little more complicated than either the web or e-mail, the quality and quantity of information available on Usenet more than make up for this. Surfing the web is like watching TV: you flip through channels, see lots of pretty pictures and hope one of the shows will mention the information you need. Participating in Usenet is more akin to talk radio; there's not much to look at, but there are many interesting conversations, and if you have a comment or question you can feel free to speak your mind in a public forum.
         Perhaps it is this fully participatory environment that leads to so much information being exchanged on Usenet. The traffic of messages on Usenet currently exceeds 500 megabytes a day according to NetPartners' Usenet Storage Space Calculator. Discussions take place in more than 15,000 topic-specific newsgroups, including at least 20 newsgroups devoted exclusively to genealogy and dozens more with some interest to genealogists. The most popular genealogy newsgroups receive hundreds of articles a day. Articles posted to the main genealogy newsgroups (those that begin with "soc") will probably go to sites on every continent with a potential audience of more than three million readers.

Newsgroup Hierarchies
Usenet newsgroups are organized into several large trees, each of which is broken down into more and more specific topical sub-trees, sub-sub-trees, etc., in much the same way as files are organized on a PC. The first part of a newsgroup name identifies the main hierarchy to which it belongs. Most major genealogy newsgroups belong to the "soc" hierarchy, "alt.genealogy" being one important exception. The different parts of a newsgroup name are separated by a dot: in theory, each dot should represent a further narrowing of the subject matter. For example, "soc.genealogy.computing" is more specific than "soc.genealogy" (the genealogy newsgroups are much better organized in this respect than most of the hierarchies on Usenet). Each newsgroup contains articles, or messages, which (hopefully) are related to that newsgroup's subject.
         Let's take a look at the best-known resources for genealogy on Usenet.

alt.genealogy: This group is set aside for general discussion of all things genealogical. This group is unmoderated, which means there are no restrictions on posting. The alt.genealogy newsgroup was originally created by someone who didn't realize that the now-defunct soc.roots newsgroup had already been set aside for this purpose. Since that time, however, it has become one of the most popular genealogy newsgroups, in spite of the fact that it is carried by far fewer newsservers and thus has a much smaller audience than newsgroups in the "soc" hierarchy. In a way, this also contributes to the large volume of messages on alt.genealogy: because alt.genealogy is outside the soc.genealogy hierarchy, many messages posted to soc.genealogy are cross-posted to alt.genealogy.
         At times, alt.genealogy appears to be an unofficial "soc.genealogy.usa+canada", as the vast majority of the content here is related to North American research. Often, the general cluelessness on alt.genealogy leaves the impression that many of the users here simply aren't aware of the proper genealogy newsgroups and only use alt.genealogy because it is alphabetically first. soc.genealogy.african: The purpose of soc.genealogy.african is to provide a forum for people to discuss the genealogical considerations of Africa and the African diaspora. The group is open to anyone with an interest in the genealogy of Africans including inhabitants of Africa, voluntary emigrants, involuntary emigrants (such as slaves), immigrants, colonists and their descendants.
         The newsgroup's FAQ states that the scope of soc.genealogy.african includes language, history, migrations, slavery and the realities of researching public records and genealogical archives. Appropriate subjects include questions of local customs and history, or of regional or national history which affected the lives of these people and which are difficult to research in the present.
         This newsgroup is moderated, meaning that all articles posted to the newsgroup must be approved by a moderator. Moderated newsgroups tend to have a slightly higher quality of messages, as abusive messages, mass advertising, test messages and other highly off-topic messages are not permitted.

soc.genealogy.australia+nz: This group covers the genealogy of people of New Zealand and/or Australia, both native and immigrant. Though the group is unmoderated, the guidelines posted on the 20th of every month request that there be no commercial postings or surname queries.

soc.genealogy.benelux: This is the newsgroup set aside for those doing genealogical research in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The majority of articles in this newsgroup are in Dutch, though there are a handful of messages written in English or French.

soc.genealogy.computing: This group is set aside for the discussion of all aspects of genealogical computing, including Internet-based genealogy, GEDCOMs and genealogy databases on CD. In theory, this is the place to discuss the reorganization of the soc.genealogy.hierarchy, but in practice that debate rages much more ferociously in the other groups. Most of the messages in soc.genealogy.computing debate the pros and cons of genealogy software. A large number of messages here begin with a three-letter-acronym announcing the software being discussed, such as FOW, FTM, PAF and TMG (Family Origins for Windows, Family Tree Maker, Personal Ancestral File and The Master Genealogist, respectively). Many bugs and unexpected difficulties with software are reported here before the software developer has even heard of them; in fact, some of the genealogy software developers keep up with the messages in this group and do their best to defend their software against criticism. Filled with product news and user advice, soc.genealogy.computing is truly a must-read newsgroup for those who like to keep in touch with the various aspects of genealogical technology.

soc.genealogy.french: Most articles posted to soc.genealogy.french are in French, and originate mainly in France, Belgium, Canada and the US. Many of the articles are surname queries, but there is also some discussion of French history and migration patterns.

soc.genealogy.german: According to the FAQ, soc.genealogy.german was created to help genealogists who are interested in German and German-American genealogy. "German" here means the German language, so this list should be useful for researchers of German, German-American, Austrian, Swiss, Alsatian and Eastern European German genealogy. Most articles posted here originate in either the US or Germany.
         Though English is the dominant language in soc.genealogy.german, a significant minority of articles are in German which poses a problem to many readers of the group. The soc.genealogy.german FAQ addresses the problem in this manner: "Q: I don't know German. What should I do?" "A: The best overall solution is to learn German."

soc.genealogy.hispanic: This newsgroup receives less than 10 messages a day on average, making it one of the least-used soc.genealogy groups. Most of the articles here are surname queries written in Spanish.

soc.genealogy.italian: Proponents of this newsgroup describe its purpose as the discussion of Italian genealogy and family heraldry. On May 8, 1997, the vote over the creation of soc.genealogy.italian passed by a margin of 199 to 27. As of this writing the group has not yet been created, but it can be expected to become a popular group in the near future.

soc.genealogy.jewish: The soc.genealogy.jewish group exists to help those searching for Jewish ancestors. This moderated group contains surname queries, geographic queries and discussions related to the unique concerns of Jewish genealogy, including the Jewish diaspora and the fate of relatives during the Holocaust period. Soc.genealogy.jewish is closely tied to an associated mailing list and website, all of which call themselves JewishGen. An archive of all previous postings to soc.genealogy.jewish since 1993 is located on the web (

soc.genealogy.marketplace: This group is the designated area for user discussion of products and services, as well as for commercial announcements. Traditional Usenet procedures heavily discourage advertising in newsgroups not specifically designed for commerce. People who post 'spam' advertisements into inappropriate newsgroups are the most hated, but even advertisements posted directly to a product's target audience can cause readers to become antagonistic.
         If you intend to advertise a product or service in soc.genealogy.marketplace, there are a few things to bear in mind. First, remember that this group is for commercial announcements, not hard-sell marketing hype. The article should be a brief description of the product or service and a pointer to where more information can be found. It is unacceptable to crosspost offers between soc.genealogy.marketplace and other newsgroups. If a post is appropriate for soc.genealogy.marketplace, it does not need to be posted in the other soc.genealogy groups. Remember that Usenet is worldwide. If your product is specific to one country, mention that in your ad.
         Always be wary of advertisements posted on Usenet! The lack of a central governing body, the ease of faking Internet addresses and the extremely low cost of posting to Usenet make it the perfect medium for non-legitimate businesses. Check up on any business or genealogist before making any payments or supplying any confidential information. In fact, feel free to publicly ask about someone's business reputation in soc.genealogy.marketplace - that's what the group is here for!

soc.genealogy.medieval: This newsgroup exists for the discussion of the genealogy and family history of ancestors who lived in the medieval era. The FAQ for the group defines the medieval era as "the period extending from the breakup of the (Western) Roman Empire until the time public records (such as church, tax, and census records) relating to the general population began to be kept. This period would extend roughly from AD 500 to AD 1600, but these limits are not intended to exclude related topics of discussion lying outside of these boundaries, e.g., royal or noble genealogy in earlier or later time periods."
         Geographically, the group focusses mainly on Europe, though the FAQ states that articles on medieval genealogy in other areas are welcome. Some suggested items of discussion include royal and noble descents, feudal property, the value of pre-historical sources and the adoption of surnames and insignia by families. Thankfully, there are very few surname queries in this newsgroup.

soc.genealogy.methods: In many ways, this group is like a second soc.genealogy.misc, as the range of discussion here is extremely broad. The relative merits of websites, databases, computer software, indexing systems, preservation supplies, professional genealogists and dozens of other aspects of root digging are discussed here. The quality of messages here is slightly higher than in soc.genealogy.misc as the moderator attempts to keep the discussion on track.

soc.genealogy.misc: This unmoderated newsgroup, like its predecessor soc.roots, is intended for any genealogy-related posting that does not seem to fit into one of the other soc.genealogy newsgroups. Possible topics include announcements and requests targeted at an international audience, questions about which newsgroup best suits a particular subject and advice and information related to genealogy in general. It is considered bad form to post both to soc.genealogy.misc and to some other newsgroup. If your article belongs in that other newsgroup, it does not belong in soc.genealogy.misc.

soc.genealogy.nordic: This newsgroup for the discussion of root digging in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland is surprisingly little used. Perhaps this is because English is the language of choice in this newsgroup and other newsgroups exist for genealogical discussion in Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish in the alternate hierarchies (discussed below).

soc.genealogy.slavic: In theory, this newsgroup supports discussion of genealogy throughout eastern and southeastern Europe and Russia; in practice, almost all the articles are written in English and originate in either the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland or the US. This is most likely because the Internet is not widely available, or at least not widely embraced, in many other Slavic countries.

soc.genealogy.surnames: A unique group, in that most announcements and discussions are forbidden. All messages posted to soc.genealogy.surnames must be surname queries. The group is moderated to ensure that each surname query has an informative subject line in a standard style to make searches of the group and its archives easier. All articles posted to the group are reviewed by a computer program called the automoderator for correct format. According to the FAQ, the automoderator is not very smart, and will reject all articles that do not have the subject line in exactly correct format. Read the articles "Posting to soc.genealogy.surnames" and "commonly used place name abbreviations" (posted regularly) for more information about standard formats.
         Almost all the surname queries in soc.genealogy.surnames are posted by North Americans, as people of other nationalities tend to post their surname queries in one of the other soc.genealogy groups. Many people find the constant barrage of surname queries in groups other than soc.genealogy.surnames off-topic and annoying.
         On May 6, a Request For Discussion (RFD) was issued calling for the creation of seven new soc.genealogy.surnames subgroups, namely usa, canada, britain, ireland, german, misc and global. Proponents of these new groups believe this will reduce the reading load on those who are only interested in a particular area and will also reduce the need for people to post surname queries in the other soc.genealogy groups. Opponents argue that the split is unnecessary and that it will only lead to more crossposting. In early June a Call For Votes (CFV) will be issued, and the new groups may come into existence shortly afterwards. This extremely popular and busy group is for genealogy and family history discussion among people researching ancestors, family members, or others who have a genealogical connection to any people in any part of the British Isles. Most of the postings here originate in Great Britain and Ireland, followed by the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and various other Commonwealth countries. Possibly because of Usenet's bias towards the English language, this is the most popular subgroup in the soc.genealogy hierarchy. Finding over a hundred new messages here each day is not uncommon.
         While many of the articles in are extremely well composed and informative, the majority of the messages are junk. Though the FAQ advises people to post their surname queries to soc.genealogy.surnames, this newsgroup is often filled with surname queries, articles complaining about surname queries, articles defending surname queries and articles begging people to stop discussing surname queries. Another hot topic is the proposed split of this group into soc.genealogy.britain and soc.genealogy.ireland. Perhaps these problems will stop after the new groups are created. Editor's Note: this group has since split up into and soc.genealogy.ireland.

soc.genealogy.west-indies: This relatively new soc.genealogy newsgroup exists to promote discussion among people living in the West Indies, people who passed through the West Indies and their descendants. Most of the discussion is in English, though there are also queries relating to people of Spanish, Dutch, French, African and East Indian descent.

         There are also various alternate hierarchy genealogy groups, including aus.genstat, fido.eur. genealogy, fido.ger.genealogy, fr.rec. genealogie (mostly in French), no.slekt (general genealogy topics, mostly in Norwegian), no.slekt. etterlysning (searching relatives/ ancestors, mostly in Norwegian), no.slekt.programmer (computer programs, mostly in Norwegian), sfnet.harrastus. sukututkimus (mostly in Finnish), swnet.sci.genealogi (mostly in Swedish) and around 10 other groups carried by Pnet, Fidonet or Othernet. These groups are carried by far fewer newsservers than the main groups, and thus have a much narrower audience. It is probably safe to ignore these alternate hierarchy groups unless they are particularly well-suited to your needs.
         As mentioned, the genealogy newsgroups aren't the only newsgroups on Usenet with useful resources for genealogists. The hierarchy contains more than 100 different groups devoted to family names from Abair to Zerbe, in which people who share a common surname can discuss family matters, reunions and genealogy. Adoption is a very popular subject. It is discussed on nine different newsgroups, the main group being soc.adoption. There are several newsgroups devoted to the discussion of heraldry, including and rec.heraldry, and quite a few groups set aside for historical discussions which might be of interest to genealogists, including alt.war.civil.usa, soc.history, soc.history.medieval, soc.history.moderated, There are also many newsgroups related to the culture of a particular ethnicity, such as alt.culture.cajun, alt.scottish.clans, and the entire soc.culture hierarchy (which contains a newsgroup for virtually every nationality), where genealogical discussion will not be entirely out of place. Genealogists planning to travel in order to pursue their hobby will be interested in the information and advice found in the hierarchy.

How To Join In
Accessing Usenet is quite simple, providing one is already connected to the Internet and has some familiarity with e-mail and the web. Those who use a properly-configured copy of Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer can access any newsgroup by simply entering "news: soc.genealogy." onto their location line. Easier Web-based navigation can be found through Usenet indexes like DejaNews. For optimal management of news and newsgroups, however, you should consider downloading proper newsreading software. Newsread-ers have more advanced features than web browsers, such as the ability to subscribe and unsubscribe from different newsgroups, keep track of different conversations and ignore particular users. Shareware and freeware newsreaders for Windows and Windows 95 are available for downloading at The Ultimate Collection of Winsock Software. Forté Software's Free Agent is highly recommended. A collection of different newsreaders for the Macintosh are indexed at Macintosh Software on the Net. Those connecting through a UNIX interface will need to use a UNIX-based newsreader such as rn or trn.
         If you're used to the web, you'll probably find Usenet a little complicated and ugly in comparison, but you'll grow to love its personality.

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