In the online world, in the "old days" (five years ago), your main choices for sharing knowledge and experiences and asking questions were local bulletin board systems typically run by individuals, discussion forums and chat rooms from commercial services such as CompuServe and America Online, e-mail-based discussion groups, Usenet newsgroups and Internet Relay Chat.
All are still around, but they've been supplemented by newer services that can be useful for business or recreation. The popularity of all these discussion services counters the notion that, above all else, people value content on the Internet. People most value communication, says Andrew Odlyzko, who heads up an AT&T Labs information science research department. In his recent paper "Content Is Not King," at www.research.att.com/
~amo/doc/networks.html, Odlyzko says people will be more likely to pay for tools that enhance communication than for text, music, movies and other content.
Yet, as much as companies such as AT&T would prefer that it was otherwise, the reality of the Internet today is that, aside from your hardware and Internet connection, most communications services are free—at least for consumers. Discussion tools for businesses range from free to pricey.
TalkCity (www.talkcity.com) is one of the best of the free Web-based discussion forums. It has fashioned itself into a full-fledged virtual community with discussion-centered neighborhoods for people of various age groups or having various interests, "real-time" chats, e-mail, private clubs, home pages, shopping and special events.
If you have your own Web site, whether it's business or hobby related, you can create a discussion-centered community on it. For message boards and chat services to be effective, though, your site needs a significant amount of traffic. To minimize the effects of "drive-by" postings and angry debates, or flame wars, you also need to actively manage discussions.
Discussion software that you run in-house ranges from the free HyperNews (www.hypernews.org) to the more sophisticated O'Reilly WebBoard (webboard.oreilly.com). The latter costs $1,799.
Alternately, you can outsource your site's community features by using a free service such as Yahoo Clubs (clubs.yahoo.com), or more feature-laden tools such as those from Prospero Technologies (www.prosperotechnologies.com). The set-up fee for the latter starts at $5,000 with monthly fees starting at $500.
The Web isn't the only locale where new discussion developments have occurred. Free instant messaging programs such as ICQ (downloadable at web.icq.com) have achieved widespread popularity, particularly among young people. Use the program to check if a bud is online, fire off a "Wassup?", get a quick response, and rap away. There's no delayed gratification here.
Instant messaging programs have also gotten down to business. Nowadays they typically also provide tools for collaborating with others on work projects including working on the same document, sharing the same program, transferring files and browsing the Web.
With instant messaging programs, however, you have to control how accessible you are to prevent them turning into a nuisance or a time sink. Security also can be a concern with business use, and in response fee-based programs such as Lotus Sametime (www.lotus.com/sametime) provide beefed-up features and in-house controls. Pricing for Sametime starts at $6,028 for the server and $19 per user.
Cutting the tether to your desktop PC is the latest rage in online communications. The Palm VII hand-held PC (www.palm.com) has lead the way. It's priced at $449, with wireless Internet service starting at $9.99 per month.
A less expensive but more limited option in wireless communication is the new Cybiko hand-held (www.cybiko.com). Priced at $129 and targeted primarily toward teenagers, it lets you carry out text-based conversations with other Cybiko users who are within 150 feet indoors or 300 feet outdoors.
If you're in business, it's smart to pay heed to consumers who are heavily into digital communication. Active online users, or e-fluentials, are thought to influence the attitudes and behavior of about eight other people, while offline, a typical person influences just two others, according to a new study from Burson-Marsteller, a New York, NY, public relations agency.
If you're a consumer, it's smart to keep in mind that online communication has its limitations. As pop psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers told me once in a telephone interview, "Computers can be used in positive ways to increase our contacts, friendships and understanding. But they don't replace face-to-face contact, the touch of a hand."
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.