The first $100 phone bill I ever had was the month after I bought my first modem, sometime in 1983. I had just discovered the online world through electronic bulletin-board systems (BBSs), and spent the wee hours of many mornings waiting for text to crawl across my screen at 300 bits per second, sent across the phone lines from computers all over the country.
I enjoyed the online communities so much that I briefly considered setting up my own BBS, but I had neither the time nor the resources to invest in it then. But today I did essentially the same thing on the Internet in about 10 minutes, and it didn't cost a thing.
I suppose a term like "computer-mediated interactive online community" would be more precise, but I like the term "bulletin board" in this context. When you use an old-fashioned BBS, you typically log in, scan through the list of available discussion areas, and go into those areas to list messages, read them, and respond to them. It's a bit like a big cork bulletin board where people leave notes for one another (or for everyone in general) and check back periodically to see if anyone has left a note in response. And there are different boards for different discussion topics.
Usenet News is a similar, global, Internet-based facility, and your Internet service provider probably provides Usenet News access. But if you are interested in setting up a discussion group of your own, and if you have a Web browser with access to the Internet, you can create what amounts to a Web-based BBS yourself for free. Today they're called "virtual communities."
To learn more about how this works, I decided to try it out by setting up a Heacock family virtual community, so that members of our extended family could post messages from time to time. (Yes, I know the telephone is an instrument well-suited for this task, but since I discovered e-mail, I've largely forgotten how to use my telephone.) Most of our family is online these days, and although some of us send out annual holiday letters and the like, our own online message board might make it easier for us to stay in touch, and probably more frequently.
There are several free virtual community services (and a few that you can pay for, if you're so inclined) on the World Wide Web. The one I chose to set up was provided by DejaNews, http://www.deja news.com. When you visit the site, you can click on the "Communities" link to search or browse for existing groups or to create groups of your own. The community directory page also has a link called "Create a Community Here." If you haven't created a community before with DejaNews, you must register (provide your name and e-mail address) and set a username and password.
Next you'll have to give your community a name and a description, and choose a general category in which to list it, if it will be listed publicly. You can choose to have your group open to all (anyone can become a member of your group), open with restrictions (people can come and read messages as guests), or private (invitations only). You must also specify whether your group will have "adult content" or not. Be sure to read the "Deja Communities Terms and Conditions" section before you create the group.
I chose to create a private community, and the next step was to send invitations to my family members. I listed their e-mail addresses and wrote up a little note to attach to the invitation. DejaNews then sent out an e-mail message to everyone on the list with my note attached, and with the URL of the family community page, with instructions.
The community page itself is easy to use, and there are all kinds of extra features, such as a polling function that allows you to create a poll for your group members and display continuously updated results, and a place to list URLs of interest to the group.
A virtual community could be created by a school teacher or professor for interaction with students. A work group could create one for collaboration in the workplace. Your hobby or civic group could use a virtual community for interaction, sharing ideas, posting minutes, perhaps even virtual club meetings when the weather is bad.
Similar facilities are available from Excite!, http://www. excite.com/communities/, and Yahoo!, http://clubs. yahoo.com, and other places on the 'Net. They all have similar features and capabilities. And if you'd like to learn more about the virtual community concept, there is an interesting article about the development and evolution of the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, http://www.well.com), which has been doing virtual communities of one sort or another since 1985.
-- Doug Heacock is executive director of the Kansas Research and Educational Network at Kansas University. You may address questions to him in care of the Lawrence Journal-World, 609 N.H., Lawrence 66044, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.