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Online Discussion Groups
Chat, Message Board, Newsgroups and Internet Mailing List
by Nan Hawthorne
There are four types of online discussion groups:
  • Chat
  • Newsgroups
  • Message boards
  • Internet mailing lists
These terms for different types on online discussion are often misused or mixed up. The differences tend to lie in how you access them. All are means for individuals to connect with others with similar interests and discuss them., there are online discussion groups on every imaginable topic,. And polymer clay has its share.

You will find all four defined in this Cyclopedia to help you make the most of online polymer clay research and connections.

To use a different medium to make the distinction, let's use magazines:

  • If you receive a magazine by mail, it's like a mailing list.
  • If you have to go to the library to read a particular magazine, it's like a newsgroup.
  • If you read the magazine from the small library at your club or other small group., it's like a forum or message board.
  • If you just talk with others about the subject of the magazine rather than reading it, it's like a chat.

Chat is real time communication via the Internet. It can also be accessed via other communications tools, but the most common are chats available via web sites or "Instant messenger." A chat may be attended by as few as two people or as many as the chat room (the actual screen on which the discussion appears) can hold. Usually each person speaking is identified by a username (a code name chosen for the purpose of chatting). As each person types (or speaks - see following) his or her words appear on the chat room screen for all others to see. They can then type their own comments.

Chats can be very chaotic and confusing. Organized chats should use what is called "chat protocol." This is a set of basic guidelines for using the chat. When there is a moderator or facilitator, a person who wishes to make a comment or ask a question types either a "{!" or "?". The moderator will then "call on" that person. As each person writes his or her comments, s/he should break up the lines so others will not have to wait a long time to read the entire comment or series of comments. S/he should end each partial line with an ampersand (&) to dignify that s/he is not finished and with the word "go" if s/he is done. This protocol helps keep chats orderly. There are other accepted protocols as well.

Voice chat is becoming more common and popular. In it one simply speaks into a microphone rather than typing out a message. Often both voice and text can be used.

Messenger services are simply chat available on a computer desktop to anyone subscribed to it, and these include Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Windows Messenger. ICQ ("I Seek You" is another very popular messenger chat service.) You can learn more about the history and use of chat at The advantage of chat is its immediacy. Its disadvantages are its chaos and the fact that chats are usually not saved for later reading.


Newsgroups are one of the original online discussion forums. Also called "Usenet" they are highly organized by category or subject. These are indicated by the newsgroup name. For instance rec.crafts.polymer-clay is the newsgroup in the recreation/crafts hierchy that focuses on polymer clay.

While USENET usually required access to a news server through a local ISP, (and newsreader software to read and post) anyone with a web browser can fjord the wild and wooly world of newsgroups, thanks to Google Groups. You can read and post to thousands of differnt newsgroups, on practically every conceivable topic. Google also maintains an archive of USENET going back to 1981. The archive contains nearly one billion separate messages.

You can, of course, still access USENET through most ISPs; contact your local provider and ask how. The advantage to this method is that you can get the binary (sound and graphic files) newsgroups that Google does not carry.

The great advantage of newsgroups is the sheer vareity of topics and subjects covered. The primary disadvantages are starting new newsgroups, and the occassional flame wars which erupt on this mostly unmoderated forum.

Read more about newsgroups at "Lost in Usenet" at

Message groups

Message groups are sometimes called bulletin boards or forums and allow individuals to discuss specialized topics with others with similar interests. These forums tend to exist on web site, such as Delphi Forums. Unless a forum is maintained and frequently cleared of older messages it is possible that a subscriber or visitor (in the case of open forums) could read any message ever posted to it. Further message boards are usually accessible in threads. That is, one particular conversation that share s a common subject line may be read in order of first to last rather than interspersed with other conversations with other subject lines.

The advantage of message boards or forums is mostly that thy tend to be located on web sites that cover a particular topic so you already know others on the forums will share your interest. Also one can often search a forum for past messages (archives) and find answers to questions without posting them anew. The main disadvantage is that, being located on web sites, one must deal with slow browsers and sometimes difficult navigation.

Each site's message boards are unique, so you should look for help files or an FAQ on the site you like to visit to understand how theirs works.

Online Mailing Lists

The fourth on the list above is "Internet mailing lists," probably the single most popular type of online discussion group. Its appeal derives from the fact that all messages posted to the mailing list are distributed by email. Instead of having to access the messages through a newsreader or on a web site, the messages all arrive in your email inbox, and you can reply the same way by email. Thanks to services like Yahoogroups and Topica mailing lists are plentiful and it is free and easy to start new ones.

You will sometimes hear the term "listserv" (no E at the end!) used interchangeably with "mailing list." "Listserv" is the exclusive name of a product by a company called LSoft ( and not a generic term, just as KleenexTM is a product in the category of "facial tissue."

The advantages of Internet mailing lists is their ease of use and can be formed by anyone any time. The disadvantage is that they are not always fully archived.

Read more about mailing lists at the Virtual Appendix at

©2003-Nan Hawthorne

Thank you, Nan. You can Email Nan at .

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