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Personal Computing: Social Networks vs. Blogs vs. Discussion Groups



October 25, 2007 By

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, and 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: 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. You can also participate in the discussions from Yahoo's Web interface, but the strength of e-mail groups is the speed and convenience of using your favorite e-mail program. The biggest downside to e-mail 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 e-mail groups, though there are important differences. The largest aggregator of Usenet groups is Google through its Google Groups Web interface. You can use Google's interface to participate, or you 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 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 reign 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 e-mail or Usenet groups, you can typically edit your posts after you post them, correcting mistakes both silly and serious.

Blogs burst on the scene in 2001, although these Web logs, or online diaries, they 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 if any. 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 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


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