10 March 2017

Why newsgroups aren’t email

This article is based on material authored by members of the news.newusers.questions Moderation Board and nnq-workers mailing list.

Many newcomers to the net use ‘mail’ as a universal term for any message that you send to other people via computer. However, in reality mail and news are two fundamentally different systems which occasionally intersect in confusing ways.

Mail is private communication

When you send an email message, you determine exactly who is supposed to receive it, whether it be one person or a specific group of people. Your outgoing email server uses a set of rules called the Simple Mail Transfer protocol (SMTP) to forward your message either directly to the recipient’s incoming mail server, or to an intermediary server that, in turn, forwards the message in the recipient’s direction.

The final result is one copy of the email message in each specified recipient’s private mailbox.

News is public communication

When you send a newsgroup article (message), you have no control over who will receive it, except by your choice of newsgroup. Your news server exchanges articles with its ‘neighbouring’ servers using the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP).

Your article should appear on every news server that carries the newsgroup, scattered all over the globe.

Types of client software

Separate programs for news and email

People sometimes use email and news with two different software packages:

  • If you send someone email, you use an email program, and the reply (if any) appears in your mailbox; you have to use the email program to read it.
  • If you post a news article, you use a newsreader program, and any follow-ups (public responses) appear in the newsgroup in which you posted originally; you have to use your newsreader program to read them.

Even if you use such a separate newsreader program, it may allow you to send email in response to a news article, directly to the author, instead of posting a public response. Some programs even allow you to do both simultaneously, that is, post a public response and email a copy to the original author. The terminology for doing this varies from one newsreader program to another.

One unified program for both email and news

Many people use the same program for both news and email, perhaps even for browsing the web. For example, Mozilla Thunderbird and Pine handle both news and email.

When you use such a software suite, news articles and email messages usually look almost the same, both when reading and when writing. When replying to a news article, you typically have the choice of posting a news article, sending an email message to the original poster, or both. One of these may be a default setting.

You therefore need to be very careful when replying to a message, to make sure that it goes where you want it to go. Accidentally broadcasting a private message to an entire newsgroup can be very embarrassing, and impossible to undo.