Articles

Personal Computing: Discussion Groups from E-Mail to Web 2.0

MySpace, Facebook, and Ning can also be used for group discussion.

by / April 11, 2008

Most people these days know how to do e-mail. You probably also know how to send e-mail to multiple people. But you may not know how to do group discussion in the most efficient way, particular when there's a lot of interaction.

Deciding how to best do group discussion depends on your purpose and level of technical sophistication.

At the most basic, group discussion involves e-mails sent among a small group of people about a coming event, for instance, relatives or friends discussing arrangements for a party or vacation. All you need to do here is place recipients' names, separated by commas, in the To field of your e-mail program. When recipients respond, their responses go to the group.

One potential problem with this is that everybody sees everyone else's e-mail address. This is typically not a concern with family or friends, but it could present a privacy issue if the group discussion is business-related and involves those who don't know one another.

You can protect people's privacy in sending out an e-mail in such circumstances by placing their e-mail addresses in your e-mail programs Bcc field, which is short for "blind carbon copy." Recipients don't see others' e-mail addresses, but they can respond only to you, which makes this technique appropriate only for announcements, not discussions.

A further limitation in placing multiple recipients in either the To or Bcc e-mail field is that the anti-spam protections employed by Internet service providers typically limit how many people you can contact at once this way.

If you expect a lot of e-mails to go back and forth, with a club or other organization, for instance, a better choice is to go with a service specifically designed for group discussion. There are a number of options, free as well as pay. The best free option is Yahoo Groups, which is supported through advertising.

Yahoo Groups is best known for its thousands of public forums on topics ranging from art history to zoology. But you can also use it to set up private group discussions involving people you choose. Using their e-mail addresses, you can send invitations to join to up to 50 people at a time.

Yahoo Groups gives you lots of tools for managing any group you start.

Typically participants send and receive messages to the group using their regular e-mail program, via individual messages or as a daily digest of each day's messages, but they can alternately elect to use the Yahoo Groups Web site for this. One option for group owners is to allow group participants to hide their e-mail addresses, though in this case participants need to post messages through the Web site.

The Yahoo Groups site provides the tools that participants can use to manage how they want to receive messages. Participants can create profiles for themselves there, optionally including a photo. The site also acts as a searchable archive of participants' past posts. A calendar feature lets the group owner send automatic e-mail reminders to participants about an upcoming event.

Yahoo's main competitors, Google and Microsoft, also provide services similar to Yahoo Groups, Google with Google Groups and Microsoft with Microsoft Live Spaces.

Many other group discussion options are out there as well.

Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Ning can also be used for group discussion.

Other services let you set up group discussion at your own Web site,

including phpBB and KickApps, both of which are free.

If you've been around computers for a long time, you probably remember mailing lists, the forerunners of e-mail group discussions such as Yahoo Groups. Mailing lists are still around, with the best being GNU Mailman, which is typically a free offering if you're a customer of a Linux- or Unix-based Web hosting company.

Web hosting companies may offer premium group discussion services for a fee. EMWD Hosting Services, for instance, charges $4.95 per month for the use of servers that are optimized for group discussion.

Still other services let you conduct live meetings over the Internet, with the two most popular Web conferencing offerings being Cisco System's WebEx and Microsoft Office Live Meeting.

At the lower end, instant messaging programs such as AOL Instant Messenger, also known as AIM, and Yahoo Messenger also permit group discussion in real time.

One of the Internet key benefits is communication over distance. Taking advantage of this benefit can sometimes necessitate going beyond simple e-mail.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

 

Reid Goldsborough Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.