Saturday, March 25, 2006

Talk Radio vs Usenet

In an earlier post, I commented on the unedifying nature of talk radio—hosts giving one sided arguments in favor of the views they and their listeners share. That raises an obvious question: If one is interested in political issues, what are better ways of getting information about them?

My favorite solution is Usenet, a part of the Internet that predates the web, although nowadays many people use the web to access it. To the user, it looks like an enormous collection of bulletin boards; my ISP currently supports more than a hundred thousand of them. Each Usenet newsgroup is a conversation on a topic, with topics ranging from writing speculative fiction to obscure computer languages to obsolete video games to political ideologies. The conversation takes the form of a series of posts organized into threads, viewable, if you have a decent newsreader—many are available for free—in ways that show who is answering whom on what. It is a form of communication much superior to realtime instant messaging, especially when the conversation involves more than two people.

A newgroup is a conversation, but also a community—a group of people who routinely interact online. Not all of the talk is about the group's topic. Once you know people, it's natural enough to get into talking about their lives, arguing politics, discussing the world. Such off topic threads can distract from whatever the newsgroup is supposed to be about, but they are also one of the attractions of Usenet. It is more interesting and more informative to discuss national politics, or differences among different countries, or how to bring up children, with people you know and respect for what they have to say about the group's topic, than it is to have similar conversations with strangers.

Which brings me back to the question I started with—how to get information on political issues, and, in particular, how to get a clear idea of what the arguments are for both sides.

Currently, my best solution is a Usenet newsgroup whose nominal subject is science fiction fandom (rec.arts.sf.fandom). The group contains intelligent and well informed individuals with a variety of political views. I can be reasonably sure, when the conversation turns to the Florida election controversy (2000) or Israel vs the Palestinians, that there will be at least one competent supporter of each of the main sides in the controversy and at least one competent opponent. By reading their posts I can, easily and entertainingly, inform myself of the best case that can be made for each side.

In that newsgroup as elsewhere, there are also incompetent defenders of both sides, certain that their position has all truth, justice and virtue and oblivious to the other side's arguments—the sort of people political talk shows are intended for. Their posts can also be entertaining, although less informative. Once one has been part of the conversation for a while, it is pretty easy to figure out how to separate the wheat from the chaff.


At 6:46 PM, March 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Usenet has been surpassed by web message boards and blogs, unfortunately. I find that newsreader interfaces are much more efficient for interacting in and browsing through discussions than a web browser. But, the better technical solution may not always be the more popular one.

To your point, the main thing seems to be having a diverse group of participants, whether it's on usenet or web message boards. It's a good place to practice how to argue.

At 8:59 PM, March 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greetings David,
I always enjoy your Ideal blog, & was especially interested in your discussion of Usenet. How do I access Usenet? I tried your example after http://rec.arts.sf.fandom It failed.
I much enjoyed the visit at Harvard some years ago.
Sincerely, Jim McGregor, Las Vegas NV

At 12:16 AM, March 27, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

The easiest way to access Usenet, although not the best, is to go to:

which is google's search engine for Usenet. It's very useful if you are trying to locate a post someone made sometime in the last week—or decade—of which you only remember a few words, and it can be used to read current posts on a group, but it isn't ideal for that purpose.

The usual way is to check with your ISP for information on their News server, which most ISP's will have, download one of the free newsreaders (I use MT-Newswatcher on the Mac, don't know what a good one would be for Windows), and give it the information from your ISP so it can find the server.

I think some web browsers have newsreaders built in, but I use Firefox, which doesn't.

Hope that helps. As js290 suggests, you can probably do the same thing by finding the right blog or webbed message board—but in my experience so far, Usenet works better for the purpose.

At 10:45 AM, March 27, 2006, Blogger Roger Collins said...

Many times over the years when I've wanted to read something interesting on politics, law, or current events, I would advance search Usenet for any articles recently posted by David Friedman. There is an art to Usenet involving just the right mix of diplomacy and direct, personal involvement, and you are a master of that art. Unfortunately, sci fi and ancient history are not my areas of interest; miss you on the libertarian groups.

At 12:11 AM, March 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you were such a latecomer to blogging. IMO, the blogosphere vastly surpasses the USENET and message boards/forums in the ability to filter quality information and opinions.

At 8:52 AM, March 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the communication companies in the world are testing TV services over IP.

Imagine what that would allow you to do.

While you're watching a television show, it would be perfectly able to join an IRC-like chat with everyone else that is watching the show.

You should also be able to create an NNTP-like newsgroup that corresponds to the show or channel and discuss topics with other viewers that way.

There will also be links to relevant blog-like commentary.

I predict this will revolutionize politics. Someone sitting at their television/computer could run an entire online campaign.

At 4:27 PM, March 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A minor technical correction:

You said:
Usenet, a part of the Internet that predates the web, although nowadays many people use the web to access it.

Usenet isn't part of the Internet. It was originally carried entirely on non-Internet lines (it started out mostly carried on dialup connections, running UUCP). And, even though the Internet is the transport mechanism that carries most of Usenet, it's historically different.


At 9:40 PM, April 03, 2006, Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

A good newsreader for Windows is Forte Agent, which is also available in a free version.

I got into usenet right around ten years ago. Even then, it was being overrun by spammers and toilet stall graffitists, and has since only gotten worse. The biggest tragedy was the ruination of the sci. hierarchy, as creationists and other nutjobs shouted down the real scientists.

My favorite newsgroup, which despite some shaky times is still one of the more civilized places in usenet, is alt.quotations. A surprisingly feisty and high-traffic ng is And one ng with a rich, rich archive, and which I wish I could budget more time to participate in, is soc.history.what-if.

One thing that usenet is good for, sometimes, is finding a journal article. If a piece is subscription only, and it's too recent to show up in the periodical indices, it's even odds that some unscrupulous somebody has posted it whole into a newsgroup, retrievable via


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