Finding Intelligent Conversation Online

by Greg Knollenberg
The Internet Writing Journal, July 1998

Today's online communities can provide hours of interaction with like-minded souls on an endless array of topics. People can meet and interact with others for general discussions or arrange pre-scheduled events and meetings. With a few years of development behind them, many online communities have large numbers of active members engaging in conversation at all hours of the day. For a writer, these communities can provide feedback on ideas, critiquing, and the opportunity to listen to or communicate with experts in specialized fields.

Online communities allow for interaction through several different formats such as chat rooms, discussion boards and discussion groups. These facilities can be found in websites and other resources online ranging from discussion boards on a small ezines to community sections on major newspapers. There are sites that function as a community such as Talk City, while other sites might have a community section within their websites -- as a complement to the website's other content.

To find an online community or discussion of a particular subject you need to look for chat sites, message boards, mailing lists and newsgroups. These can be found in ezines, online magazines, websites, newspaper sites, city sites and ISPs such as AOL and CompuServe. This article will give you a general overview of how to locate live events, as well as discussion groups and individuals who share your interests.

Discussion/Message Boards

Online discussion or message boards can provide excellent opportunities to discuss current events, popular topics, solve technical problems and meet others. They can also serve as an answer service for a company to provide feedback or online support. Also known as online forums, these discussion boards take the form of bulletin boards and allow users to post questions to the public or respond to comments and queries from others.

There are countless discussion boards online and you can find them everywhere from personal homepages to major newspapers' websites. To find discussion of your topic you need to locate sites that pertain to your subject and then investigate further to see if any of the sites you find have discussion board facilities. Once you have located some discussion boards you will then need to see how active they are. You can do this by checking the number of recent posts, looking to see if people respond to the posts of others or by posting a message yourself -- introducing yourself to the other users.

Some of the major online hubs such as search engines and online services have huge discussion board facilities, such as Excite and America Online. Because of the large traffic on the major Internet hubs their communities will have active discussion on a great variety of topics. Many online newspapers and leading websites for a specific topic will also have forums where visitors can engage in discussion.

Another way to find forums is to use a search engine called Forum One, which searches numerous discussion boards for posts related to your keywords. Forum One also provides links to several hundred websites with popular online discussion boards in its Forum One Recommendations section.

Newsgroups

Newsgroups, also known as Internet Discussion Groups, are popular vehicles for online discussion. Newsgroup discussion can be viewed online or read with a newsreader. Online services such as AOL include a newsgroup reader that activates automatically when a newsgroup is selected. Newsgroups can also be read with Microsoft Outlook Express, Netscape Communicator's Collabra or with one of the many newsgroup reader software tools available. Look through the software links to newsreaders on 4newsgroups.com, if you do not already have access to a newsreader. For more information about newsgroups read the following article, "What are Internet Discussion Groups?" available on Dejanews.

Finding newsgroups is fairly simple. You can use Dejanews, which is one of the largest providers of newsgroup discussions, which is sure to continue expanding as it now allows individuals and companies to create their own newsgroups. You can also read previous newsgroup postings on the Dejanews website using its search facilities. Another way to read newsgroup postings online is to search through the search engines that allow you to search newsgroups. Nearly all the major search engines have this feature; see the article, "Effective Use of Search Engines" for more information on using search engines. Liszt, is another excellent newsgroup resource; you can search for a keyword and Liszt will bring up related newsgroups. University of York Newsgroup List, Refence.com, 4newsgroups.com, Supernews and the Usenet Info Center Launching Pad are also good resources on newsgroups and newsgroup information. In your searching, if you can find a moderated newsgroup related to your topic you are in luck. A moderated newsgroup will have a moderator, which is live person that will feed out inappropriate postings to the newsgroup, such as commercial postings and unwanted spam, a time-consuming process that is much appreciated by the other newsgroup readers.

Once you have found newsgroups related to your subject, you will want to observe the pattern of general discussion before chiming in. Newsgroups typically have simple rules regarding how discussion takes place. Because proper etiquette is necessary to be accepted by the group, check to see if a FAQ (frequently asked questions) is available from the newsgroup itself to see if any special protocols are required. You can read more about Newsgroup etiquette in "Rules for posting to Usenet." Of course, you don't have to post anything at all to read other people's postings. Many people do not post at all, but still read regularly -- an activity that is known as "lurking" to the newsgroup community.

Mailing Lists

Mailing Lists, or discussion lists, are distributed by email, and allow each subscribing member of the list to comment or respond. Each individual email is sent around to subscribers of the list. Discussion lists have become a popular method of Internet discussion. Many mailing lists are also available in a digest form, where the subscriber will receive one file containing all the messages at the end of a specific time period, usually 24 hours, instead of receiving a message each time there is a comment or response.

There are several places to begin looking to find a mailing list on your topic. Liszt, which maintains a searchable database of thousands of mailing lists is an excellent place to start. Other good resources are Paml, CataList, Reference.com and Tile.net. Recently a new company named, Audettemedia, began launching different moderated discussion lists on specialized subjects. To see what they have to offer visit http://www.audettemedia.com/.

Chat

Online chat takes place in a variety of formats depending on the software being used. Formats of online chat include text-based chat -- with text that scrolls by as the users engage in conversation, chat where the user is represented by a small graphic, called an avatar and chat in virtual 3-D Worlds. Chats can also be presented a number of ways. There are open chat rooms in which "free chat" takes place, organized chats where people decide to unite to discuss a specific topic and there are moderated chat rooms with assigned guests and speakers. The chats where you will learn the most are the moderated chats or live events -- there are hundreds of these occurring daily all across the Web.

Finding chat rooms for general discussion is a matter of searching through websites related to your topic to see if they have a chat room and when it is active. You can also enter one of the large chat communities, although it may sometimes be difficult to find pertinent discussion of your topic once you are connected. Often the larger chat sites may have initial levels of general chat with little organization and several conversations may be occurring at once. However, if you investigate further into other rooms you will likely find the type of discussion you are looking for. When you find a chat room where intelligent conversation relating to your topic of interest is taking place be sure make note of its location by using the bookmark or favorite places feature on your browser.

Some large online chat communities can be found on the websites of Excite, Yahoo!, Talk City, WB3, Tribal Voice, BeSeen, ParaChat and Chat Planet. 3D Worlds where individuals are represented by small graphics known as avatars can be found at: Virtual Places, The Palace and Active Worlds. More 3-D Worlds can be found on WebCrawler's Graphic World index. Individual chat rooms on numerous subjects can also be found on chat resources such as iChat.com, the Ultimate Chat List, Emporium's Chat List, Meta Chats, the WebCrawler Chat Website List and the WebChat Navigator.

Finding live events, or moderated chats with authors, celebrities or experts in the field you are interested is not as difficult. Several online services are set up that allow you to find live events. These are Yahoo! Net Events, AOL Live (AOL Keyword: AOL Live), Yack, Open 24 and On Now. Computer-related live events can be found on the ZD Net Chat Events page. These sites list upcoming events including details about the speakers, topics, the location of the chat and the time the event will take place.

Other Communities

Another type of community is the large-scale services established by the Mining Company and Suite 101 where web guides run individual sections of the site and interact with community members. Other online communities are networks of personal homepages. These communities can be found online wherever free homepages are given, such as Geocities, Tripod and Xoom. Other communities also exist in the form of ezines, where the community contributes to the publishing of the ezine and many of the articles or stories are by the readers themselves. These small communities may also support a message board or chat room.

Many people also engage in direct contact with other individuals without venturing to any websites. Instead, they use instant messaging software such as AOL Instant Messenger, ichat or PAL, which is available from Excite. With this software you can track friends and family online and send live messages back and forth.

A Busy Web

Although this article can provide you with numerous places to begin your search for online communities and live events, its up to you to decide what works best for you. There are likely to be numerous communities, discussion groups and live events that will peak your interest. So, the next time you're feeling bereft of intelligent conversation on your favorite topic, fire up the computer and go search for some kindred spirits in cyberspace. Good luck!


**Greg Knollenberg is the CEO of Writers Write, Inc.




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