Usenet was created at Duke University by two students, it uses a server to hold 'posts' from users to which other users can append their replies. This is rather like having a pin-board in a hallway where people can pin up their note, other people then come along and pin up their replies.
In the same way you need a 'browser' to access the Web you (generally) use a program called a news reader to access Usenet. There are web-based Usenet access services, notably Google Groups, however these tend to get abused by spammers so many people set their news readers to ignore messages from web based services.
You can find dedicated Usenet readers, notably Forte Agent, but most e-mail programs (inclucing Microsoft Outlook and Windows Mail) include a news reader, the screenshot shown below is the Windows Mail program running under Vista and shows a typical news group in use.
Usenet is not part of the World Wide Web, it has been around a lot longer than that, but like the Web it uses the Internet as a host for its services.
Usenet caught on amongst students at the universities with Internet access (the internet was only opened to the public in the 1990s). The system soon evolved something called Netiquette, a set of rules on posting (for example WRITING IN CAPITALS indicates you are shouting) and Usenet is also the origin of the 'emoticon' such as :-) and :-0.
Each september the new intake of students would arrive and, ignorant of the rules, would annoy a lot of users. Then AOL provided Usenet access (they tried to pass it off as a part of AOL) and millions of people discovered news groups, many of whom never bothered learning the rules. Other ISPs also offered Usenet access and with the many thousands of groups available millions of non technical people arrived in the system. This became known as the 'Eternal September'.
To deal with this problem the news reader programs allow you to mark specific posters so you never again see anything those people post, so people who abuse the system are often just talking to themselves as no one is seeing their posts. There are also 'moderated' groups, in which the post is directed to the moderator, who decides whether the post should be uploaded to the server, once common these moderated groups are now less often seen as it is a lot of work on a busy group.
There are of course web based forums, however in practice I have found these less useful than Usenet, they are harder to navigate and generally contain less useful information. I note that a lot of these 'forums' actually harvest their content from Usenet groups, however you then have no way of replying to the original group. Personally I will always access Usenet first, going on to faf about with web forums later on a read-only basis as following threads on the forums is a nightmare compared to Usenet.
Wiki's are generally better than forums, but they are a one-way information service, there is usually no easy way to ask a question, having said which services such as Wikipedia are superb (providing you bother to check the data they offer with other sources).
The social networking side of Usenet has largely been supplanted by services such as Friends Reunited, Facebook and Twitter, but these are not much use for technical enquiries, for which Usenet is still the best option. Technical enquiries includes all computer related matters but also motor cars, fishing, dress making, model making and what have you. If you have an interest in 'doing' things rather than merely consuming you should have Usenet access. A positive side to the shift to web based services is that most of the nutters have migrated there, so life on Usenet is now less often disrupted.
Recently a lot of budget ISPs have not been providing Usenet access, cutting their clients off from what is one of the more useful parts of the Internet. If the service is not available via your ISP there are both free (usually text-only) and paid for (text and binary) Usenet access providers. Google offers limited Usenet access, but posts from Google are often blocked by users as a lot of spam originates there, so your question may not get an answer.
Groups I use regularly include uk.rec.models.rail, alt.models.scale and alt.binaries.images.vintage-engineering, you can read the first two via Google Groups but Google does not allow access to binaries groups.
Most news groups have an FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), either posted regularly in the group of put up on a supporting website. It is definitely worth reading the FAQ, if you annoy people they will just 'plonk' you and never see your posts again, even if you then clean up your act.
A news group is easy to start if you have full Usenet access, if people use it it stays alive, if they don't it fades away and if no one posts it will eventually be removed. The original system only allowed plain text messages but later the 'binaries' category was included, allowing IT students to pass round code, and millions of people to exchange naughty pictures. Naturally there were soon rather a lot of groups, covering just about any subject under the sun. Journalists soon cottoned on to this and their 'research' was often a trawl through Usenet sometimes backed up by a spot of searching on the Web. Naturally the users noticed and there were some rather splendid scams where fake stories were discussed on the news groups only to appear in the printed media in due course. Probably the most famous was the Motor Cycle News Scam but doubtless people now use Usenet to influence what appears in the 'news' generally.
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