What’s the best way to share views with others online about topics of interest to you, whether related to work, a hobby, health, family matters, social matters, politics, religion, or anything else you’re involved with, reading about, or thinking through?
The three main Internet-based media for such dialoging are social networks, blogs, and discussion groups. Other electronic media exist as well, including but not limited to instant messaging, texting, and videoconferencing. They have their benefits, but not for serious, thought-out group messaging.
Discussion groups came on the scene first, arising long before the Internet explosion of the mid-1990s, and in many ways they’re still the best way to tap into the minds of others and open up yourself. There are, in turn, three main kinds of discussion groups: email-based, Usenet, and Web-based.
The largest email-based discussion group network is Yahoo! Groups. You can search for, peruse, and join groups from the Yahoo! Groups Web site at http://groups.yahoo.com. You can also participate in the discussions from Yahoo!’s Web interface, but the strength of email groups is the speed and convenience of using your favorite email program. The biggest downside to email groups is the clunkiness involved in sharing photos to illustrate what you’re talking about.
Usenet groups share many of the same plusses and minuses of email groups, though there are important differences. The largest aggregator of Usenet groups is Google through its Google Groups Web interface, at http://groups.google.com. You can use Google’s interface to participate, or you can use most email programs. But specialty Usenet programs such as Agent, at www.forteinc.com/agent, provide more tools.
The biggest difference between email and Usenet discussion groups is that the former are typically moderated while the latter are typically not. Moderation reduces the frequency of abusive arguing, or “flaming,” that’s common in unmoderated online groups. But it can also hinder the free exchange of ideas if moderators promote or protect the organization or industry they work for or otherwise rein in discussion with too heavy a hand.
Many Web sites have discussion groups associated with them, and this can be a good way to talk about the specific issues the site is involved with. The main advantage to most Web-based discussion groups is the ease with which photos can be shared. Instead of having to upload them to a separate Web space and then link to them, you can include photos within the message you post to the group. Another advantage is that, unlike with email or Usenet groups, you can typically edit your posts after you post them, correcting mistakes both silly and serious.
Blogs burst on to the scene in 2001, although these Weblogs, or online diaries, had their origins earlier. The main advantage of a blog is that it provides a microphone for the person setting it up, offering control over the subject matter and the degree of interactivity. This is also the main disadvantage.
Blogs are primarily a talking-to rather than dialoging medium. They’re often a way for people to hold forth. Unlike other types of online communication, the ethic is more akin to “Come to me and hear me speak” rather than “Let’s hash this out together.” Blogging also exacerbates the problem of splintering, or Balkanization, of online communication about any given topic. Blogger, at www.blogger.com, provides an easy way to build your own blog, but it’s also home to millions of them. Owned by Google since 2003, it lets you create a blog in more than 30 different languages.
Among the most notable examples of blogging have been the numerous ones set up by soldiers serving in the Iraq war. Politicians are also now blogging in greater number, with blogs providing them another outlet to reach voters and constituents, as are journalists, with blogs providing them a way to offer readers more in-depth punditry.
Social networks, which are Web sites where those with similar interests can communicate by discussing, instant messaging, blogging, and other means, are the newest way to talk online. Social networking reached critical mass in 2005 with the popularity of MySpace, at www.myspace.com, a service that describes itself as a way to meet your friends’ friends. Other popular general-interest social networks are Bebo (www.bebo.com) and Facebook (www.facebook.com).
Business social networks have also sprouted online, ranging from those for chiropractors to real estate agents. Participants share not only ideas but referrals. These, like all social networks, share with all types of online discussion media the key benefit of easy communication over distance.