Why newsgroups are not e-mail

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

Mail is private communication. You determine exactly who is supposed to receive your message, whether it be one person or a specific group of Computers which are on the Internet exchange mail using software which follows a protocol (set of rules) called SMTP. When you send an e-mail message, the final result is one copy of the message in each specified recipient's private mailbox.

News is public communication. You have no control over who will receive your message, except by your choice of newsgroup. Computers which are on the Internet exchange news using software which follows a protocol called NNTP. When you post a news article, the final result is tens or hundreds of thousands of copies of your article, one on each news server that carries the newsgroup, scattered all over the globe.

On many systems, people read/send mail and read/post news using two different software packages. If you send someone e-mail, you use an e-mail program, and the reply (if any) appears in your mailbox; you have to use the e-mail program to read it. If you post a news article, you use a newsreader program, and any followups (public responses) appear in the newsgroup(s) in which you posted originally; you have to use your newsreader program to read them.

However, the boundaries between mail and news can be somewhat fuzzy, at least at first glance, for two reasons:

First, most newsreader programs allow you to send e-mail in response to a news article, directly to the author, instead of posting a public response. Some allow you to do both simultaneously, that is, post a public response and e-mail a copy to the original author.

The terminology for doing this varies from one newsreader program to another. Netscape 3 uses "Re: News" for a public response (only), "Re: Mail" for an e-mail response (only), and "Re: Both" for a public response with e-mail copy.

Second, some software packages (most [in]famously Netscape and Pine) combine both news and mail functions. This can be confusing because newsgroup messages and e-mail messages look very similar to each other. You may need to be very careful when replying to a message to make sure that it goes where you want it to go.

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Last Updated: Monday, January 3, 2005

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