Connect with ‘real’ people on the Internet

Editors note: This is one of several columns that I wrote for the Columbia Missourian. They were originally called Your Digital World

Every morning, I boot up Gina, (that’s what my fiancée has named my PC), and I surf the news sites. But before I leave my apartment in the morning I absolutely have to check for any new messages on the Bulletin Board System I read.

It’s just one of several ways people can use the Internet to communicate with each other. With all the talk about e-tailing and e-commerce it’s easy to forget that people do the point and clicking.

So what are some ways to interact with real people on the Internet? This week, let’s talk about BBSs, e-mail groups and newsgroups.

BBSs – Long before the Internet there were people who used their computer and modem to host a BBS. Just like a cork board in an office break room, people post messages, and others come by and read them. The Internet explosion put the older, modem-based systems out of business, but they were reincarnated on the Web.

On most BBSs, you click on a message to read it and can read the replies to that message. This string of interrelated messages is known as a thread. For me, I spend a few minutes each morning at TrekBBS, ( Yes, I like Star Trek. Let the jokes commence….

BBSs are passive, you have to visit the site to see the new messages. They also aren’t very interactive, unless you spend a lot of time hitting the refresh button on your Web browser waiting for posts on a thread.

To find a BBS that interests you, check out some of the sites you visit often and look for a link to discussion groups. (I found TrekBBS from

E-mail groups – Often called listserves, (or listservs), these groups are not as passive as BBSs.

When you send an e-mail to a listserve, the message gets distributed to everyone on a list, (hence the clever name). Many offices use these to send out memos to a large group, and many a person has accidentally sent a message to the group instead of one person … oops.

Outside the office, a lot of e-mail newsletters are sent using listserves. I’m signed up for several that send me information about tech support. Groups don’t have to be used for just announcements. At the Missourian, I’m on a list that copy editors use to discuss our craft.

Once you find an e-mail group you’d like to join you usually send an e-mail to a special address that subscribes you to the group (or later, to a special one that unsubscribes you.) A lot of Web pages, especially news sites, use groups to send breaking news to your inbox, and have a subscription form on the site that you can type your address into.

For an example of a discussion e-mail group, and a shameless plug, sign up for our discussion group over on the left.

E-mail groups are more interactive than BBSs, but not as much as chat rooms and instant messaging. For the low down on those check out next week’s YDW.

Newsgroups – These are the missing link between BBSs and Web discussion boards.

These post-Internet yet pre-Web creations are a lot like bulletin boards. People post messages to them and readers must take the active step of downloading the message.

The way they differ from Web-based BBSs is that you must use special software to use them.

Outlook Express has a built in news reader and comes with most Windows systems and is a free download for Macintoshes ( Most Internet Service Providers run a news server, which allows you to access the messages. You’ll need to contact your ISP to get the address of the server.

Once you’re connected to the server you need to subscribe to groups. They use a rather imposing naming scheme. The topics are hierachical and separated by periods. For example a group about Roy Orbison might be called

A good way to find groups your interested in is to head to You can search the group titles and their messages. You can also read and post messages there, but be wary of giving out your true e-mail address, a lot of evil doers scan the groups for addresses to send unsolicited advertising to.

(If you haven’t heard Weird Al Yankovic’s song “It’s all about the Pentium’s” check it out, it’s hilarious. After reading this you’ll understand the joke about “”)

About Chris

Python developer, Agile practitioner trying desperately not to be a pointy haired boss.
This entry was posted in Technology. Bookmark the permalink.