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A Short History of Online Discussion Groups
by Jen Edwards

Since some very bright people figured out how to connect computers together, people have been talking to other people online. Many different types of discussion groups have been created over the years; places where people can write, read and share articles, messages, software and other sorts of information.

Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) were the first type of online discussion groups developed and were popular from the late 1970s through the late 1990s. In the early years of computing, a user with a personal computer could dial up to a computer that hosted a BBS. He could then leave a message for any other users that dialed in the main computer. If two users dialed in at the same time, they could split the screen and carry on a slightly slower than real time conversation. Everything was accomplished through a piece of Terminal software, and the entire system was text based. Users could also share software and data on a BBS. One of the most common uses of BBSs was online games, many which are still popular on BBSs today. BBSs are still in use, however most take advantage of the Internet and connect online using Telnet software rather than dialing in on a specific phone line.

The Usenet news system started in 1980 and was also heavily used through the 1990s. The format is similar to email, but rather than carry a message from single user to single user, Usenet carries messages posted by a user to many readers. Unlike email, anyone can read articles posted in any newsgroup. No membership is required, no log-on to sign up for, and archives are always available. Articles are posted by users and organized into categories and subjects. News Client software is used to post and read articles. Many of today’s email clients incorporate these news readers.

In the 1990s, the Usenet system and bulletin board systems sort of evolved, merged, and changed to give us Internet forums, also known as message boards or discussion boards. Internet forums are generally created for a specific community, such as users of a certain piece of software, or with a broad topic in mind, such as running or knitting. Topical forums are often associated with some organization such as a magazine or company. In most forums several main topics are defined by the administrator; users can then post whatever they like under the relevant topic heading. Readers of the forum can usually view posts by date or topic thread.

In many situations, internet forums are the most useful of the online discussion groups. The creator of the forum can clearly define what topics are relevant and let the users know what conduct is appropriate. Discussions between can take place over time, with several different users joining and leaving a “conversation” as they wish. Just about all major software corporations have forums where their users can communicate with each other, exchanging information and helping each other to troubleshoot problems.

Here at JMU the most common use of forums is in Blackboard. Instructors can create forums for their classes in which the students can communicate with each other. This is an ideal place for students to share files, review essays and papers and discuss topics with other students. Some courses are taught entirely online, using the discussion boards in place of classroom sessions. Students can post responses to readings and discuss questions with other students. (Blackboard also contains a chat feature for real-time conversations. )

Logs, short for weblogs, were created in the late 1990’s and became hugely popular in recent years. A blog is a sort of online journal kept by one person on a website with entries added weekly, daily or even hourly. Only the author can add entries to their blog, but some blogs allow visitors to add their own comments and discussion about the author’s entries. Software packages are available to make creating a blog very easy.

Blogs empowered individual users to post their own thoughts and opinions on whatever topic interested them. They opened the door to personal websites where users could post their own thoughts and opinions on whatever topic interested them at the moment. It was no longer necessary to have a product, service, or indeed anything of substance to devote whole webpage to it.

Blogs about politics and technology quickly become enormously popular. Blogs such as Slashdot have been responsible for releasing information on new technologies much earlier than the traditional news channels. American politics and the war in Iraq are some of the most popular topics with bloggers.

The most recent addition to the world of online discussion groups is the wiki, which means “quick” in Hawaiian. A wiki is simply a web page or group of web pages that anyone can edit. No skills other than typing are necessary to add information to a wiki. Wikis were created by Ward Cunningham in 1995, and his group still maintains the first wiki. The largest and most well known wiki is Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

One of the advantages of the wiki is its simplicity. No web skills are required to add information. Simply click to edit a page, start typing, save, and voilà: instant webpage. However, this advantage is arguably the biggest disadvantage of a wiki. Anyone can add whatever they like to a wiki, possibly creating a jumble of chaos and disinformation. Proponents of wikis argue that the community involved in the wiki will simply delete wrong or inappropriate information.

On a wiki, any user can simply delete the negative entries that are not relevant or constructive for the overall topic on that page. On the other hand, if a community reaches a consensus over what information should be included on a page, they run the risk of disseminating false or incomplete information. Many users who believe a lie can shout down a single user who knows the truth.

Systems Librarian Mary Ann Chappell has created a password-protected wiki for Carrier Library staff; it will contain a growing amount of information about the new library building, as well as other library projects.

The following resources can tell you more about wikis and other discussion groups:

WikiWikiWeb 
http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?WikiWikiWeb

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

The BBS Corner 
http://www.dmine.com/bbscorner/

Google Groups Beta 
http://www.google.com/googlegroups/tour/index.html

 

E-mail comments and questions to:
leidinrm@jmu.edu


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