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Subject: So You Want to Create an Alt Newsgroup
This article was archived around: 11 Aug 2001 21:23:31 -0500
Version: $Id: alt-creation-guide,v 1.52 2001/04/20 15:54:52 barr Exp barr $
This FAQ is Copyright 1995 by David Barr and The Pennsylvania State
University. This document may be reproduced, so long as it is kept in
its entirety and in its original format.
There are no Guidelines or Rules for creating alt groups. There is no
one "in charge" of the alt hierarchy. The key to creating a successful
alt newsgroup depends only on convincing the thousands of news
administrators across the globe to carry your newsgroup. Here are some
tips that will help you achieve this.
This article is based on common-sense and real-life experience. This
is not an attempt to codify rules or guidelines for alt, but merely a
guide to help people get the most out of alt, as well as a reflection
of some established procedures.
This guide is split onto three parts. The first part covers some
technical background as to why alt is the way it is, and how it fits
into the larger Usenet.
The second section lists many common reasons proposed alt groups are
rejected. Some are technical, and some are philosophical.
The third section includes some miscellaneous suggestions on making
your alt group achieve the widest audience possible.
This guide is also available on the World Wide Web at:
http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/~barr/alt-creation-guide.html. Note new
You can use use the e-mail server at rftm.mit.edu to request the FAQ
if you do not have access to the web. Send an email message to
email@example.com, with the following text in the body of the
1. Technical background
* What is alt?
Contrary to popular belief, "alt" is not named because it is for
"alternative" topics. Back during the dawn of the modern Usenet,
it was decided that newsgroups should be created by following a
clearly defined set of "Guidelines", involving formal discussions
and a voting procedure. There was a significant number of people
who felt that there should be a provision for a place where people
could create groups without having to go through any discussion or
votes. Thus alt was born. It is a hierarchy that is "alternative"
to the "mainstream" (comp,misc,news, rec,soc,sci,talk) hierarchy.
"ALT stands for 'Anarchists, Lunatics, and Terrorists'." -
firstname.lastname@example.org (Eric Ziegast)
* Votes? Did someone say vote?
Let me repeat. There are no votes in alt. Period. If you want to
gather an "opinion poll" for your own purposes to see how popular
the group will be, great. Do not post votes to alt.config. Every
few months someone says "hey I've got a great idea for a newsgroup
alt.widget, what do you think?". Someone responds "I vote yes!",
causing a chain-reaction of posts to alt.config, lasting for days
or weeks. These serve no purpose but to annoy readers of
alt.config, and to distribute dozens of messages across the globe
that should have ended up in someone's mailbox instead. Please,
use a Followup-To: poster in your header and gather votes by
e-mail. Then post a summary after a week or two.
* News Administrators:
Alt newsgroups are not created everywhere all at once. Each site
has a news administrator, who ultimately decides whether to carry
a new newsgroup on that site. Nevertheless, for simplicity, many
sites automatically honor all requests to create a new group and
(by default) ignore all requests to remove groups. Newsadmins can
be very busy people who don't need the hassle of hand-approving
every group. Thus, alt newsgroups are not necessarily created in a
way that is fair, or just, or logical. That's life.
* How do alt groups get created?
Like any group in Usenet, a group gets created (typically) when
someone sends out a special "control" message to "newgroup" it.
This is injected into the news system mostly like any other
article that you read, except it has special syntax. Different
sites on the net behave differently when one of these messages
arrives. The news software has various ways of acting
automatically on the message based on who sent it, and what
hierarchy the group to be created is in (alt in our case). With
respect to alt, some sites will automatically honor any "newgroup"
control message it sees, and some will mail the message to the
news admin who will make the decision to carry the group or not.
Read on on the section "Some Postitive Suggestions." Do not ask me
how to send a control message, because I won't answer you. I don't
have the hours it takes to go back and forth finding out what kind
of news system you have, what kind of access you have to the
system, and if you've followed the other guidelines as specified
in this document. For more information, check out
* Newsgroup Name Components:
A newsgroup name, e.g. alt.foo.bar-bar.baz, is made up of a series
of dot-separated components, in this case alt, foo, bar-bar, and
baz. The articles in newsgroups are usually stored in your
machine's directory hierarchy. Basically, every component of the
newsgroup name corresponds to a directory or subdirectory of the
same name, and that subdirectory typically takes up 512 or more
bytes on the machine all by itself. Also, since accessing any
group requires eventually reading the contents of the directory,
if there are lots of subdirectories off of alt access for any
single article in alt can theoretically suffer a performance hit.
Also, some newsreaders are hierarchically organized. To read
alt.folklore.computers, you select alt, then select folklore, then
computers. If there are lots of needless top-level components
(e.g. More than four levels deep), then this is more work for the
person reading news.
* What is a newsgroup name for?
A newsgroup is a collection of articles with a common purpose. A
name for a newsgroup serves several purposes.
+ It tells those who want to read the group that this group is
+ It tells those who do not want to read the group that this
group is not for them.
+ It classifies similar groups together so that:
o the group name can convey more meaning than just what
can fit in 14 letters. (e.g. alt.music.monkees vs.
o similar groups can be placed logically nearer to each
other in sorted or hierarchical listings.
o It makes those who are interested in various aspects of
a more general classification more able to find specific
groups. (For example, those interested in philosophy can
search for "philosophy" in the newsgroup name to find
general groups as well as those about specific
philosphies like alt.philosophy.zen)
o The top-level hieararchy is not a jumbled mess of
thousands of newsgroups, with often ambiguous names.
o Small sites can more easily choose the kinds of
newsgroups they want to get fed. (e.g. only alt.tv.*,
and alt.sex.*, or no alt.binaries.*)
* Newsgroup Longevity:
There are some people who insist that once an alt newsgroup is
created, it can never be destroyed, no matter what. These people
make sure that whenever someone tries to remove a group, it gets
re-created. Even if these people were not on the net, occasional
mistakes (in such situations as people setting up new sites) can
cause almost-dead newsgroups to get revived everywhere. Thus, alt
groups are effectively immortal, at least for the foreseeable
future; they can't be removed or even re-named. Alt groups never
die, they just fade away. However, some alt groups fade away
faster than others.
2. Common Reasons Proposed Groups are Rejected
* "Harmful" newsgroup names:
Newsgroup names which have components that are composed of the
characters other than the letters 'a' through 'z', plus the
characters '-' and '+' are considered non-standard and not
encouraged. Numbers may be used as long as there are no
all-numeric components. (e.g. alt.2600 is not valid) Some odd
characters can tickle bugs in some software, or require news
admins to make special modifications in order to carry the group.
Newsgroup components must be non-empty. (like "alt..foo") One joke
group, ".cabal", was created and lots of software mysteriously
stopped working in bizarre fashion.
* Component Too Long:
Some systems cannot handle a newsgroup name component that is
longer than 14 characters. Thus alt.fan.bgcrisis (length of
"bgcrisis" = 8) instead of alt.fan.bubblegum-crisis (length of
"bubblegum-crisis" = 16). This restriction may be becoming less
and less critical, as software like INN handles this better. C
news unfortunately enforces this limit, and makes it hard to
accommodate exceptions. The author has no immediate plans to
change this limitation. One proposed revision of RFC 1036 proposed
to formalize the 14 character limit, and some have started
removing or not accepting newsgroups which exceed this limit.
* Useless Components:
If you take away components at the end of the name, you should not
be left with a directory name that is unlikely to have any other
newsgroups in it. Thus alt.fan.bg-crisis instead of
alt.fan.bubble.gum.crisis (other "alt.fan.bubble" newsgroups?). In
other words, don't use a dot as a word separator, use a dash.
* Joke/Revenge/Shock Group:
Because of newsgroup longevity (see below), newsgroups which are
started just to get people to laugh at the name, and/or to get
revenge on some specific person, and/or to shock people, are
discouraged. They tend to generate a flurry of articles
(sometimes) for a maybe even a month or two, but quickly die.
* ".word.word.word" Ending:
The first group was "alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork". Since then,
dozens of lookalike groups have been created. This was kind of
funny at first (5 years ago) but the joke is old.
* "All-numeric part of newsgroup name:"
There is a technical reason why this is a bad idea. Most newsgroup
articles are stored as numbered files in a directory - for
example, article 119 of group "alt.indianapolis.500" would be
stored on most Unix systems as
"/usr/spool/news/alt/indianapolis/500/119". Other systems store
articles in a similar manner. This creates a problem for some
systems where "alt.indianapolis" might be a valid newsgroup, since
"alt/indianapolis/500" would supposedly mean the 500th article in
alt.indianapolis. While this isn't expressly against the rules of
newsgroup naming today, there is a proposal in the works that
intends to make significant changes and more strict specification
of news, and this restriction is in place in the new proposal. If
you want your group to survive, you may wish to plan for the
future. See "Further Reading" at the end of this FAQ for more
* Top-Level Mess:
There are dozens of newsgroups named alt.something, where
something is a very specialized subject. Wouldn't it be nice if
there were some classification scheme for them? Well, there is;
you can name your group alt.food.something, or
alt.sport.something, or whatever.
* alt.acronym groups:
Related to "Top-Level Mess" is the attempt to name the newsgroup
based on some acronym. (alt.acm, alt.aclu) This is extremely
unwise. First off, an acronym is not a good identifier of what a
newsgroup is about. Groups like these tend to have a significant
amount of traffic devoted to answering "hey, I just found this
group alt.abd, what's this group about?" Weekly FAQ postings don't
help. Remember alt is a worldwide hierarchy. Just because an
acronym is popular in the US, doesn't make it recognizable to most
people in the rest of the world. Second, acronyms are not unique.
You'd be surprised how many trade acronyms there are, especially
in the chemical and medical professions. One person's organization
is another person's chemical or disease. Third, alt.acronym groups
are hard to find when you're just browsing around. If they're
interested in chemistry, people will search for 'chem' in the
newsgroup name, not 'acs'. (American Chemical Society) See below
* Big 8 Move Threat:
Because of newsgroup longevity, many newsadmins will actually
oppose creation of a group if you suggest you may want to move it
to the "big-8" hierarchy (rec, soc, talk etc.) sometime in the
future. Try to create it there first. On the other hand, some
newsadmins will then suggest you try out an alt group before
trying to create a "big-8" group.
* Extremely Limited Interest:
Yes, alt groups can be created for subjects that the "big-8"
hierarchy wouldn't touch, but if the discussion you propose is
extremely faddish, or silly, or of extremely limited or regional
interest, some newsadmins may oppose it.
More on "local" or "regional" groups in alt. Usually they are a
bad idea. Remember that your articles will be traveling across the
globe, on the disks of hundreds of thousands of machines. People
in Saudi Arabia generally don't care much about great places to
eat in Houston, Texas, USA.
* Not Proposed in alt.config:
Some newsadmins will not create any groups that haven't been
discussed in alt.config (and after waiting several days for the
responses). Posting your idea for a new group to alt.config is a
very good idea anyway. Someone may have already created the group
you proposed, or something similar. They may also point you to a
mailing list that you might not have known about. They also will
probably tell you if your group is poorly named.
Eric Ziegast has this to say about alt.config:
"You don't have to take their advice, but then again, who wants to
start a fight? At least when people discuss a group first in
alt.config, news admins throughout the world can decide whether or
not to accept/feed your group if/when it's created. If people like
your group suggestion, you will be considered a net.hero, and your
group will likely exist until the end of time (which is currently
January 2038 for Unix)."
* "If Other Silly Newsgroup Deserves To Exist, Then So Does Mine"
Since anyone can create a newsgroup in alt without fanfare,
frequently anyone does. It's not a question of whether either
newsgroup "deserves" existence. Think carefully about this point:
you're willfully likening your proposal to all the silly and
ridiculous newsgroups that already exist in the alt hierarchy. If
you really want people to take you seriously, don't you think you
can find a better argument?
* "But No One's Forced To Accept It" Considered Irrelevant:
Sure, no newsadmin has to accept your group if they don't want to;
but the newsadmins are going to curse you for the hassle of having
to decide on it -- when it gets created and every time it gets
re-created. Also consider the consequence on the readers of the
newsgroup. If their articles are only getting to a small minority
of sites, is it even worth it?
* "But All These People Agree" Considered Irrelevant:
You might get 20 people who haven't read this FAQ to agree that
your newsgroup is a good idea. This isn't likely to convince
anyone either, if any of the reasons above apply.
3. Some Positive Suggestions
* Propose your group in alt.config. Be sure to include the proposed
newsgroup name or topic for the group in the Subject line. Listen
to constructive criticisms. Wait at week or so before acting on
it. News propagation is not instantaneous, it sometimes takes as
long as a week just for an article to be sent out and a followup
to be sent back. Beware, the "discussions" in alt.config can seem
very petty, vindictive, and altogether unpleasant at times.
Alt.config is frequented by news admins, news.wannabes, net.gods,
and net.idiots. Sometimes it's a wonder that anything useful comes
out of it, but the alternative is total anarchy and mob ethics.
Look past the ad hominem attacks, the finger pointing, the name
calling, and political posturing. There are actually a few people
in alt.config with good ideas on creating groups.
* Look for an appropriate place in existing alt hierarchies.
alt.binaries, .books, .comp, .culture, .fan, .games, .lang,
.music, .politics, .religion, .sex, .society, and .tv are all
fairly well accepted. Keep top-level hierarchies as broad as
* If the group your proposing is specific to the United States, then
consider using the growing us.* hierarchy. Post your idea to
* Put groups about sports under alt.sport. Put groups about
individual sports teams under alt.sports (plural).
* Spell the newsgroup name correctly. (or at least choose the most
popular spelling :-) )
* And please, try using existing Big 8 newsgroups, existing alt
newsgroups, or mailing lists before insisting on creating another
alt group. For example, don't create alt.drink.recipes when
there's a perfectly good group already, rec.food.drink, with wider
(and probably more well-informed) readership.
* If you are trying to create a sub-topic of a high-traffic Big 8
group, try to attempt to get the Big 8 group split first before
attempting an alt group. For example, if you're tired of wading
through rec.sport.golf for college golfing, don't try to create
alt.sport.golf.college, try to create rec.sport.golf.college
first. If the group is high-traffic, most likely readers will
welcome a legitimate split.
* If you want to create a group about something that has an acronym,
try one of the following instead: don't use the acronym, but
rather a generalized name of what the acronym is about
(alt.society.civil-liberty instead of alt.aclu; spell out the
acronym ; or put the acronym inside of a sub-hierarchy that
clearly identifies what the group is about. (alt.autos.bmw instead
* If your group is related to current events, then create the group
under alt.current-events.*. Note that alt.current-events.* is for
short-lived current events, not extended discussions about some
ongoing topic that just happens to be in the news today. Remember
that there's already an existing group for current events:
* If you intend people to post binaries, pictures, or other large
files to your group, create or use an existing group under
alt.binaries.*. You can create a group for discussion of a topic,
just use another group under alt.binaries.* for posting of large
files. (Example: You'd discuss a comic strip under alt.comics.*,
but post pictures of comics under alt.binaries.pictures.comics.*.
Newsadmins will thank you for this, as they typically expire these
groups more quickly to compensate for their large size. It also
allows small sites to participate in discussions about a topic,
yet not get deluged with large files. It is generally considered
rude to post large files to a discussion group.
* Once you decide that it's time to create your newsgroup, contact
your local news administrator, not me. If you are a news
administrator, the consult your news software documentation on how
to issue a "newgroup" control message. The format of Usenet
messages is defined in RFC 1036, which you may want to refer to.
Alternatively you can modify someone else's control message if you
forget all the syntax. Just look in the "control" newsgroup. It
would be too hard to give a cookbook recipie for sending out a
newgroup message, given the dozens of operating systems and news
software programs out there. Contact a knowledgeable person at
your own site - not me. If you don't know how to reach any
knowledgeable people at your site, (or you are the knowledgeable
person at your site) I feel sorry for you. Try sending mail to
"usenet" or "news". Failing that, try "postmaster" or "root".
One thing that is nice is to include a "For your newsgroups file:"
line in the body of the message, to automatically have news
software enter a description for the newsgroup. Many newsreaders
use this description. The format is:
For your newsgroups file:
alt.group.name.here A one-line description
Make sure that those two lines above are each on the beginning of
a line, and that the first line appears exactly as you see here.
Do not include any spaces between the lines, and do not try to
make a description which spans a line.
* Also, many sites do NOT automatically honor "newgroup" messages;
the news software at these sites will send mail to the news
administrator, who will who will evaluate your request and decide
whether or not to create the group. It is an extremely good idea
to include a paragraph or two in the body of your control message
explaining the purpose of the group, and if you have followed
these guidelines. Remember that above all, for good or bad, you
have to convince news admins to carry your group. Spending a
little bit of extra effort will pay off. Also, it may take a
couple of days for the control message to propagate and be acted
upon, so don't expect instant availability of the new group,
particularly if you post the control message on a Friday night.
Epilogue by Mark Weber:
Here ends the lesson.
This may sound like a lot of rigamarole, and it is. The purpose is
to discourage creation of alt groups that might be better off as
mainstream groups, or that might be better off left uncreated.
Don't take this all too seriously, though. The "alt" net is the
last remaining refuge away from the control freaks, namespace
purists and net.cops (like myself) that maintain and enforce the
mainstream newsgroup guidelines.
There is still some room for spontaneity out here on the "alt"
frontier. Successful groups have been created without following
these suggestions. Almost any non-forged, serious newgroup message
will at least be considered by most news admins. Some groups have
been created just on a whim. The concept behind the group better be
good (or a least entertaining), though!
For Further Reading:
* There's a good guide of how to decide on a good name for your
newsgroup, from David.W.Wright@bnr.co.uk. See "Guidelines on
Usenet Newsgroup Names", crossposted to many newsgroups including
alt.config, news.groups, and news.answers.
* There exist several RFC (Request for Comments) documents that
pertain to Usenet news. The draft proposal for the restructuring
of Usenet news articles is also publicly available. These
documents are not for the faint of heart, however, and are quite
technical in nature, but if you are truly interested in how Usenet
works then they should be a fasinating read. For more information
on these subjects, look for the following documents. RFC documents
are available on a number of sites, most notably
rs.internic.net:/rfc and nic.ddn.mil:/rfc.
* There's also "How to Write a Good Newsgroup Proposal" by
email@example.com (David C Lawrence). It is posted
regularly to news.announce.newgroups. While it is written to
address formal RFD submissions for the so-called "Big 8"
newsgroups, most all of the arguments contained therein apply
equally well to alt. It's worth reading.
* To generate a newgroup, check out "How to Write a Good Newgroup
Message" by Brian Edmonds.
Credits: Based on previous work by:
+ jamie at cs.NOSPAMsfu.ca (Jamie Andrews)
"Common Reasons Why People Oppose Proposed Alt Newsgroups"
+ firstname.lastname@example.org (Christopher Samuel)
"Creating a new "alt" group -- guidelines" originally by
email@example.com (Mark H. Weber)
+ firstname.lastname@example.org (Eric Ziegast)
"Welcome to ALT"
With submissions from:
+ email@example.com (Tim Pierce)
+ firstname.lastname@example.org (Joe George)