What's the best way to share views with others online about topics of interest? No matter the topic, there are several ways to connect with people who have similar interests.
The three main Internet-based media for such dialoging are social networks, blogs and discussion groups.
Discussion groups came on the scene first, and in many ways, they're still the best way to tap into the minds of others. There are, in turn, three main types of discussion boards: e-mail based, Usenet and Web-based.
The largest e-mail based discussion group network is Yahoo Groups. You can search for, peruse and join groups from the Yahoo Groups Web site, and participate in the discussions from Yahoo's Web interface. The strength of e-mail groups is the speed and convenience of using your favorite e-mail program, while the biggest downside is that they're sometimes clunky when sharing photos to illustrate a point.
Usenet groups share many of the same pluses and minuses of e-mail groups, though there are important differences. The largest aggregator of Usenet groups is Google through its Google Groups Web interface, which you can use to participate, or you also can use most e-mail programs. But specialty Usenet programs such as Agent provide more tools.
The biggest difference between e-mail and Usenet discussion groups is that the former are typically moderated while the latter aren't. Moderation reduces the frequency of abusive arguing, called "flaming," that's common in un-moderated 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 stifle 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 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 uploading them to a separate Web space and then linking to them, you can include photos within the message you post to the group. Another advantage is that, unlike e-mail or Usenet groups, you can typically edit posts after publishing them, correcting mistakes, either silly or serious.
In 2001, blogs burst on the scene. These diary-style entries provide a voice for the writer, giving control over the subject matter and degree of interactivity - this is the blog's main advantage.
But it's 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.
Among the most notable examples of blogs are the numerous ones set up by soldiers serving in the Iraq War. Politicians are also now blogging in greater numbers, with blogs providing them another outlet to reach voters and constituents. Journalists, too, have turned to blogs to offer readers more in-depth punditry.
Social networks, where people with similar interests communicate and convene electronically, are the newest way to talk online. This method reached critical mass in 2005 with the popularity of MySpace, a service that describes itself as a way to meet your friends' friends. Other popular general-interest social networks are Bebo and Facebook.
Business social networks have also sprouted online, ranging from those for chiropractors to real estate agents. Participants share not only ideas, but also referrals. These, like all social networks, share with all types of online discussion media the key benefit of easy group communication over distance.