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What happens when the effectiveness of your favorite search engine turns against you, when it becomes almost too effective to be useful, giving you so much information that you're not sure where to start?... Well, my overworked friend, you're in luck. Today, I'll be covering the holy grail of information gathering: asking people... In the process, I will also show you some of the better locations to begin your searches and give you a few pointers in getting the most out of your queries.

  1. Getting Help the Free Software (and Open Source) Way
  2. What You Should Know Before You Get Started
  3. Newsgroups
  4. Mailing Lists
  5. IRC Channels
  6. Putting it All Together
By: Norbert 'Gnorb' Cartagena
Rating: starstarstarstarstar / 9
October 09, 2003

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Although the best sources of information might notbe on theWeb (after all, the World Wide Web is only a component of theInternet), thereis one place which is considered by many to be the best and quickestsource ofinformation on the internet: Google.com.This website is probably the best general resource you have at yourdisposal.As a member of both the Silicon Valley Linux Users Group (SVLUG) andtheSuncoast Linux Users Group (SLUG), I've seen more than my share ofreferencesto this website. As a writer, I've often relied on it for quick bits ofinformation. As a developer, however, the newsgroupssearch on Google.com is even more valuable. As far as Open Sourcesoftwareis concerned, if you need to find the meaning of almost any errormessage forany piece of software, you have no further to go than the newsgrouparchives athttp://groups.google.com.

This being said, aside from this rather behemothexception,which can, in all honesty, command a category all its own, newsgroupsandmailing lists are probably the slowest of the methods covered. Don'tmistakethis last statement to mean that they are not quick, however. In somelistsyou're likely to receive your answer within a minute from the time youpost thequestion, which is better than can be said for some searches. As Imentionedbefore, the problem with search engines comes when you either get toomanyanswers, not enough, or when your problem requires a bit of humananalysis,wisdom, ingenuity, and direct intervention. In any of these cases,newsgroupsand mailing lists make great alternatives.

Now, at face value, the process of finding anewsgroup ofworth and then finding your subject being discussed within those groupscan bea bit of a hassle (in the same way that this was a bit of anunderstatement).If this is all you're looking to do, then do yourself a favor and stickto thesearch engines. Think about it; Go to your favorite Newsgroup readerand typein PHP at the “GroupFind”prompt. When I did it, I got a listing of thirty-six different groups.Don'teven ask how many hits I received when I typed in Linux; this is just as useless asgetting that hundredthousand hits that I got before.

In contrast, some searches can be small and to thepoint.Searching for MySQL yielded one list (mailing.database.mysql)with approximately 635 messages. On the other hand, Zope returned noresults.That wouldn't give me much hope of finding my answer already there, butI canalways shoot off a message to a list and ask for help. At the veryleast, I canexpect to be pointed in the right direction. For example, in the caseof Zope,I'm can send off queries to the comp.lang.pythonlistand expect at least some success. You results will vary, depending onyourmanners, the number of participants, their willingness to help, and thenatureof your question. Note, however, that having a reliable, fast newsgroupreadercomes in very handy when doing this sort of thing, so choose yoursoftwarewell.

To save you some time, I've compiled a list of thebusiestgroups (that is, the ones with the largest amount of volume) that Icould find.In this case, the old saying that “there's strength in numbers”certainly holdstrue.

  • Python: comp.lang.python,which beat out alt.fan.monty-pythonby about 1245 entries.
  • Perl: comp.lang.perl.*,especially .misc.
  • PHP: comp.lang.phpand php.general were pretty close.
  • Java: comp.lang.java.*,especially .programmer.
  • MySQL: mailing.database.mysql, whichwas outnumbered by microsoft.public.sqlserver.*,especially .programming, by about 800 queries.
  • XML: comp.text.xml, microsoft.public.dotnet.xml,and micosoft.public.xml.
  • Linux: *.comp.os.linux.*(Surprised? I didn't think so. The “*” beforehand is for those groupsin other countries, such as pl, fr, es, and de.) An especially largenumber of messages was also available at the linux.* groups, especially....debian.
  • GNU: gnu.*, particularly .emacs.
  • BSD: comp.unix.bsd.*,especially .netbsd.misc, .freebsd.misc, and .openbsd.misc. Also fido7.ru.unix.bsd,a Russian newsgroup had a large enough readership to deserve mention,although I presume most of my audience consists of fluent Englishspeakers.

 (*Note: This list deals only with OpenSource relatedcomponents. Other components, such as Flash, have a good following, butare notwithin the scope of this article.)

This is just a sampling of some of the largest listsout therein the field of Open Source. If you're serious about using newsgroupsas asource of information then go ahead and pick a few to make yourfavorites andfamiliarize yourself with them. Doing this will save you time andfrustrationin the future.

As a final note, remember that message boards,although nottechnically newsgroups, can often be even quicker than newsgroups. Ifyou wantto try one out, check out our message boards here at DevShed.I invite you toput your comments about this story on those boards. It's probably alsoa greatplace to ask newsgroup, mailing list and IRC related questions!

>>> More Practices Articles          >>> More By Norbert 'Gnorb' Cartagena

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