The Usenet isnt flashy. At first glance, it looks very much like other forums you may have used, such as the Compuserve forums or the ones connected to AICPA Online or other Web sites: Someone posts a message and responses follow in growing threads. However, despite its low profile and the misunderstandings that surround it, the Usenet is potentially more useful than the Web. Access to it is easy and it loads quickly. And because no single group controls any part of the Usenet, divergent opinions flourish. No special software is needed; if you can get online, you probably have everything you need to take advantage of this vast, continuously changing collection of online discussions. Its no wonder, therefore, that, in its quiet way, the Usenet has become so popular.
THE USENET: WHAT, WHERE AND HOW
Many people, even technology experts, refer to the Web and the Internet as if they were synonymous. However, the Web is simply one way of using the Internet. E-mail is another use of the Internet, and so is the Usenet. Just as the Web is divided into individual Web sites, the Usenet is divided into thousands of newsgroupseach one devoted to a particular subject, such as taxation or Xena: Warrior Princess . A newsgroup is simply a collection of posted messages on a particular subject and responses to them. However, newsgroups differ in important ways from more proprietary forums such as those connected to a Web site. Web pages, and the forums connected to them, are someones property. Newsgroups dont belong to anyone. Newsgroup messages essentially flow through computers called news servers all over the worldthey have no central location.
Your Internet service provider (ISP) probably has a local news server, just as it has a server to manage your e-mail. The newsgroups and individual messages you have access to at a given moment vary based on how quickly your ISPs server, and other servers it is in contact with, move the information. Both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator have newsreaders, the software tool you need to access newsgroups. You use your newsreader to choose, or subscribe to, newsgroups youre interested in. Newsgroup names indicate which of the several major categories they fall into. For example, a group called rec.dog. poodles refers to a recreational newsgroup for dog lovers who own poodles. A misc newsgroup is one that doesnt fall into any one of the established categories. Alt newsgroups tend to be the most freewheeling. Many, but by no means all, of the alt groups cover adults-only topics, giving the whole Usenet an undeservedly racy reputation.
If newsgroups dont belong to anyone, who starts them and who makes sure that, for example, dalmatian owners dont start posting messages in the poodles group? Anyone can create a newsgroup, but the process is lengthy, complicated and not recommended for novices. Essentially it involves obtaining a consensus from the Usenet community. Once a newsgroup is up and running, its hard to edit unless its moderated (described below). However, those who violate the posting rules of a particular group will face angry responses, or flames, from the other members. For details on starting a newsgroup, go to www.geocities.com/ResearchTriangle/8211/newgroup.html .
Starting out. The first newsgroup a novice should visit is news.announce. newusers, which offers advice to newbies. Misc.test is just for making sure you know how to read and post messages. Using any other newsgroup to test your skills by posting extraneous messages is considered rude. Also generally frowned upon are overly long messages and advertisements. Some newsgroups invite sharp debate; others are for more genteel discussions. Each newsgroup has its own personality. Read a selection of messages in a given newsgroup before posting any yourself.
WHAT YOULL FIND
Once you feel comfortable with your newsreader, go to misc.taxes.moderated (M.T.M.), one of the most popular newsgroups for accountants. Although it is mostly tax-oriented, it often includes postings on broader issues, such as the Uniform Accountancy Act. As a moderated newsgroup, its a partial exception to the generally anarchic Usenet. Although you post questions to all newsgroups the same way, in a moderated newsgroup your message is actually routed first to a moderator, who decides if its appropriate for posting. The M.T.M. group filters out messages from tax protesters, for example. (However, even in a moderated newsgroup, there is still plenty of room for disagreement and debate.) Most of the messages are from consumers with serious questions, CPAs, enrolled agents and tax attorneys.
A place to network. Ed Zollars, a practitioner in Phoenix and a member of the AICPA tax technology committee, finds M.T.M. a great place to network. After reading messages for a while, you find out which people are knowledgeable in certain areas and you keep coming back to see what else theyve posted. One participant I met on M.T.M. is well-versed in stock options and qualified plans. If theres a question online about those topics, I know Ill learn something from him. Although technically for professionals, M.T.M. has seen some of its most useful threads started by consumers. A question about the deductibility of certain medical expenses sparks discussion of some very fine details of tax regulations. You have to follow long threads to the end to get all the useful information. Zollars said the site is especially popular with small practitioners because, unlike CPAs at big firms, they have few or no colleagues to network with daily. And many are reluctant to talk too much to other local practitioners who are their competitors. But online Im sharing information with CPAs in other states, so theres no competition issue.
Heres an example of how a message turned into a discussion. A Boston consumer had a question about a mortgage interest deductionhis father was lending him most of the downpayment. A Pennsylvania enrolled agent explained the tax situation for him and his father. A tax lawyer added that the IRS sets minimum rates in related-party transactions. An accountant advised that such transactions were red flags for the IRS so the consumer should keep clear records. Someone else said the whole family should know about the loan because such intra-family transactions can cause arguments among other adult children later on. Half a dozen practitioners, who normally never would have met, got the benefit of each others knowledge and advice. However, I do feel sorry sometimes for some of the nonprofessionals who post messages because, by the time weve beaten the question to death, they may be more confused than when they came in, said Zollars.
A place to learn. Gene Prescott, chairman of the tax technology committee, stresses the teaching value of M.T.M. and the Usenet in general. Last year, with the new tax law, all practitioners on M.T.M. got a handle on it faster than anyone else. He said even the best and fastest printed and e-mailed newsletters couldnt match the Usenet. There were 100 tax professionals sharing their experiences and knowledge. It takes only about a day to get the messages postedthats fast information. Prescott said his firms entire professional staff had full-time Internet connections to enable them to take advantage of M.T.M. and other groups. He thinks of newsgroups as practical, perpetual CPE. (Prescott said that although newsgroups can increase competence, they are not approved for actual CPE credits.) Zollars said the threads the newsgroup generated when Roth IRAs came out helped him get up to speed well before any of the conventional publishers had material available.
But to get the full benefit of M.T.M.or any other professional-oriented newsgroupZollars suggests a few guidelines. Even though Usenet rules arent posted, you will know if youve broken them. First, he said, messages tend to sound harsher than their authors intended. So be kind. And remember, when you read a harsh response to your posting, the sender probably didnt mean it the way it sounds. Zollars warned against posting a query and asking other participants to respond to you personally by e-mail. Thats saying that you dont have time to check back with the group, but others do.
M.T.M. is one of the best-run newsgroups for accountants, thanks largely to its volunteer moderator, CPA Dick Adams, who quickly screens out inappropriate messages. But there are newsgroups for many interests. Two Web sites will help you find what youre looking for. Deja News ( www.dejanews.com ) catalogs newsgroup postings, allowing you to search across many newsgroups, not just the few youve subscribed to. At Liszt ( www.liszt.com ), you search for newsgroups by key word, such as auditing, tax or technology. Searches will turn up many government sites that, although not set up for discussion, provide quick, efficient postings of new rules and regulations. For example, gov.us.fed.treasury.irs.announce contains IRS-related material from the Federal Register. Alt.accounting has more extraneous material than M.T.M. but also contains a number of interesting technology-related messages. Alt.business.internal-audit is for internal auditors. Newsgroups are being created all the time; continued visits to these two Web sites will help you find the groups that are right for you.
Both Zollars and Prescott suggested some additional tools if youre planning to be a frequent Usenet participant. (They have used these themselves although not exclusively.) Your ISP and Web browser probably give you the software and connections you need to visit the Usenet, but you can upgrade from economy to business class for a minimal investment.
Agent, from Fort, is a newsreader with bells and whistles. It has filters to help you highlight the messages you want and skip ones you dont. It also allows users to easily read messages offline. Its cost is $29 for a downloaded version and $40 for a disk or CD-ROM. Go to www.forteinc.com for details.
Your ISPs news server may not be moving the messages quickly. For example, if your ISP is the Acme Company, you are dependent on Acmes servers to move your messages and bring other peoples messages to you. However, you can buy faster access. Newsguy ( www.newsguy.com ) provides quick access to the Usenet through its own servers, instead of your ISPs, for a few dollars a month. Also low-priced, Supernews ( www.supernews.com ) advertises quick access to over 30,000 newsgroups. Prescott has found that Netscape Communicator 4.05 (a suite of Web tools) handles news well.
In general, to buy extra services like these is to say, Im not waiting for the bus anymoreIm taking a taxi.
THE ULTIMATE FORUM
Whether you stop by a few groups occasionally or visit dozens regularly, newsgroups can provide access to colleagues and information not readily available in any other way. The technology of newsgroups is not readily intuitive: Its hard to grasp the idea of millions of messages bouncing from one computer to another in groups with little or no control. But the Usenets open architecture and ease of access are its strength: Not only can everyone online participate, but everyone does .