Is it a Swamp or a Wetland?

No area of Internet culture is so widely denigrated as the bustling life of Usenet, the "newsgroups". There are thousands of these on-line chat groups (5200 of them accessible from Penn at last count), and they run the gamut of human expression of interest. Most famous of all, perhaps, is (which I found an instructive place to visit a couple of times, but I wouldn't want to live there), and in general the level is closer to that of mass culture than that of the academy. This is troubling for the long run, because these people are the General Readers we all used to believe in and think it appropriate to write for. Perhaps it's best to think of these groups as the dormitory and common room bull session that we've all participated in, only now made public and thus subject to some scrutiny and, in the long run, improvement. Perhaps we are not seeing the deterioration of public discourse but the publication of what has been private and irresponsible, with a real chance of extending the range of serious discourse.

But as we get Usenet at Penn, there are indeed many things of high value. First of all, there is a long list of groups whose names are of the form, which Penn pays for to bring us regular professional news bulletins. (You can get current weather for any U.S. city on the Internet as well.) There are a total of 325 of these Penn groups, offering very specialized focus in some cases (country by country or state by state for the US), with others giving headlines, sports scores, and the like. The pedagogic utility of these lies in the relevance of specialized news (, e.g.) to specific academic interests. Students can and should be encouraged to pursue their interests.

There are other groups useful for reasons the participants in them didn't necessarily intend. A slew of newsgroups whose names begin with the country code "de.", for example, originate in Germany and are written for the most part in German -- a good place to practice reading, and even writing, colloquial German on topics of current interest. (Elsewhere, soc.culture.german discusses German affairs in a mix of German and English, and alt.usage.german expressly discusses enough questions of German usage to satisfy a German Safire.) Other national groups are not heavily represented on Penn-received newsgroups, but there is a whole run of Japanese groups, with many postings in Japanese. Go on for "gopher" resources or go back to the start of this guide to new tools for teaching.