Issue 1 - Summer 1994

Surfing the Internet: A Political Guide for Beginners (page 1 of 2)
By Sam Kritikos
Chicago Third Wave Study Group

Are you the kind of person that is interested in progressive politics and enjoys a good conversation?

Do you find that some of your friends just do not have enough time to exchange ideas over coffee?

Well, take courage because there is help over the Internet! The electronic superhighway is here to stay and it offers many opportunities for contact with like-minded people from all over the world.

Of course communicating on the Internet is not the same as actually meeting someone--the warmth of human presence, the magic of the dialectic over a teacup is not there. But participating in a discussion over the net is better than intellectual isolation and compromise, and in some respects it even advances over actual conversation!

For people not experienced in the Internet all that probably sounds confusing and implausible. I can hear strong voices from the back of the room: "What exactly are you talking about?" they ask.

The Internet refers to an international electronic network that connects computers over long distances, and so it also connects the people that use them. In the last year or so the Internet have hit the public conscience with a vengeance. It seems that everywhere you look there are books that try help to learn how to get connected. So assuming that you are a new user, what we are trying to do here is to provide some basic information that might make your net experience more enjoyable. We would like to think that if you have never logged in, what follows would entice you to get a connection from a local provider.

Actually "connection" is an ambiguous term, because there are many types of connections. For example many people only have access to electronic mail (email), i.e. they can send messages through the net to other people who are also connected. Email is of course a very powerful way of personal expression, but it is restricted to only two people and to the subjects they find interesting in common. The particular kind of service we are going to examine here, though, is the USENET newsgroups.

Every newsgroup is like a bulletin board on which people can post messages, except that in this case we have electronic messages. If you find something interesting, you can just respond to i t, by posting your message commenting on it. Believe it or not there are thousands of discussions groups on the USENET. It is difficult to be sure for the exact number because almost every day new groups are formed, and old ones are dissolved when interest in their subject has fallen.

Roughly though there are more than 7000 groups on the USENET, ranging from groups dedicated to computers, to political and cultural issues. Before we discuss some of them a word about their names.

Newsgroups of similar content come together in groups called hierarchies. Every name of a newsgroup is a series of strings of characters separated by dots. The string that denotes the hierarchy comes first. For example a discussion group dedicated to the discussion of beer has the name:


In this case "alt" for alternative, the name of the hierarchy in which this group belongs. Some of the more popular hierarchies include:

  • comp for computer subjects
  • sci for discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec for recreational subjects, hobbies etc.

As in many other areas in the Internet, there is a flexibility in the process of name selection. For example we do not know exactly why beer was put in the "alt" hierarchy and not in the "rec" one. We certainly find newsgroups such as:

rec.food.drink rec.food.recipes ...

in the "rec" hierarchy. Whatever the reason a particular the name might be, the name chosen for a group is supposed to reflect the content of the discussion. That is easier said than done, consider for example the following two groups:

alt.activism alt.activism.d

which on the face of it they look almost the same. Somewhere along the line someone proposed the second group, and after the appropriate discussion and required voting, the second group came to be. We looked up the descriptions and they both talk about radical political and environmental activism. The mystery of the two names aside, the content and subject of the discussions is similar. Here is a small recent sample from alt.activism.d.

Subject: Re: Justice in onion fields Date: 15 Apr 1994 17:33:30 GMT

These union demands seem reasonable to me. Especially the part about the effect of heavy containers on inducing back problems. It would have been better if the article had said how much these workers make.
He who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense.
One of the things to notice here is that on the subject line we see the string: "Re". That denotes a response to somebody's previous posting whose subject was "Justice in onion fields". Another recent posting:

From: Subject: Re: Men's Rights Movement Date: 14 May 1994 20:23:50 GMT

I'd rather rise above the feminists and show that people in the men's
movement (and anti-feminist movement) can say something nice about
women. Women are not the enemy, feminists are.
you imply in that first sentence that feminists have only bad things to
say about men. that simply isn't true -- for me or for many of the
feminists i either know personally or read. if i make a statement about
women being discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged because of ... I don't think you two are talking about the same kind of feminism. You don't seem like the more common type that say that all sex is rape even in marriage and marriage should be banned and all men are evil... ...

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