There are many different ways to get people together to discuss something on the Internet. Here are some of them, with some tips on advantages, disadvantages, and where to look for more information on how to create them.
Usenet newsgroups are "distributed" among tens of thousands of "news servers" operated by Internet service providers, universities, companies and other organizations. Each server receives copies of all messages in a newsgroup, and stores them in a sort of database. News servers automatically exchange these messages among themselves, to keep each other's databases up to date.
Each participant in a newsgroup reads messages from, and posts messages to, his/her "local" news server, using news-reading software such as the newsgroup module in Netscape Communicator or standalone software such as Forte Agent.
A mailing list is possibly the simplest kind of forum. Participants "subscribe" to a mailing list by having their e-mail address placed on a list of addresses that are to receive messages about a certain topic. They post messages to the list by sending e-mail to a "list address", from whence copies are forwarded by e-mail to all the participants. The participants receive the messages along with their other e-mail and handle them the same way they do their other e-mail.
Mailing lists are normally managed partly or completely automatically using "list-server" software such as Majordomo, Listserv or Listproc. Your Internet service provider may provide this service for their users. Some Web sites also specialize in handling mailing lists, for example:
A web-based bulletin board is "hosted" on a Web site. To use it, participants point their Web browsers to a certain URL (Web address) and see a list of message subjects. They can post messages by entering them into a form on a Web page. Your Internet service provider may offer this service, or you can use a standalone provider such as:
If you have your own Web site, your Web-hosting service may have Web-board software available, or you may be able to install it. One possible source of Web-board software is Discus.
The different kinds of forums each have advantages and disadvantages in various respects:
Ease of use (for participants): Everybody knows how to send and receive e-mail (right? :-). Using a mailing list involves little more than knowing where to send a message so that it gets posted, which is usually taken care of by your mail software's "reply" function. The main problems from the participant's point of view are:
With a Web-based bulletin board, participants have to figure out how to use each particular board's interface, which can (and probably does) vary from one board to the next. But they don't have to worry about their mailboxes while on vacation; all the messages are stored on the board's hosting site, which removes old messages as necessary.
With a newsgroup, the "user interface" varies from one person to another, depending on the software he/she's using (Netscape Communicator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Forte Agent, etc.), but it's the same for all newsgroups (for that person). So if you know how to access one newsgroup, you know how to access them all. Also, similar to a web-board, the messages are stored on your news server, which "expires" old messages automatically, so you don't have to worry about your mailbox.
Management issues: With a mailing list or Web board, the "owner" can have complete control over who participates and what gets posted. Most newsgroups are unmoderated, which means that anyone can participate and can post anything he/she wants, subject only to "peer pressure" from other participants, and/or regulation by his/her own Internet service provider. This can make it hard to keep a newsgroup focused on a particular topic.
Some newsgroups are moderated, which means that someone (or a group of people, or even a software "robot") examines all postings before they actually appear in the newsgroup. These groups can be controlled much like a mailing list or Web board, but frankly, if you're new to all this, you probably don't even want to think about creating a moderated newsgroup, because it involves major technical issues that even experienced newsgroup users have to struggle with.
Publicity: To some extent, newsgroups publicize themselves. People can "stumble upon" them while browsing through the list of newsgroups that their server provides. They can also find groups by using search engines such as Google Groups (formerly DejaNews). People can also find Web-based bulletin boards by doing Web searches on the topic, and mailing lists by using a search engine such as the one at http://www.topica.com/, but both probably depend more on "word-of-mouth" publicity.
Ease of creation: Once you've found a "host" site for your mailing list or Web-based bulletin board, you can set it up quickly. Because it doesn't physically "exist" anywhere else besides the host site, you don't have to get anybody else's permission besides the host site operator's.
But newsgroups are distributed among tens of thousands of news servers all over the world. In order for a newsgroup to be viable, a significant number of server administrators must create the group locally on their servers. Therefore, you have to generate support for your newsgroup among other people, in order to convince those administrators (either directly or indirectly) that it's worth while to create the group. Exactly how you do this depends on what kind of newsgroup you want to create.
Ease of removal: If a mailing list or web-based bulletin board doesn't work out, or if you can't continue to run it for some reason, it's easy to discontinue it, because it "exists" on only one server. But it's practically impossible to remove a newsgroup completely from all of the servers that carry it. You can simply abandon it, but then it accumulates garbage and spam.
So, all things considered, if you want to create a forum for a specific, well-defined group of people (your friends, your company's customers, college classmates, a church congregation, etc.), and if you want to have some control over what goes on in the forum, you're probably best off creating a mailing list or Web-based bulletin board. If your potential audience is widespread and not very well definable in advance (in terms of specific people), and your topic has widespread interest, and is not already being covered by another newsgroup, then it may be worthwhile to try to create a newsgroup for it. But doing this is very much a "political" process because you have to gain the cooperation of a lot of people, so you should learn about the process in advance and observe it in action for a while by watching other groups being created, before you try to do it yourself.
This individual document is maintained by: Jon Bell
(jbell at presby.edu).
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Last Updated: Monday, January 3, 2005