By Michael Ross
This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2240, 2004-10-01, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22 and 24) and their website.
The Internet greatly facilitates communication between any two people, provided that they are both able to access the Internet. Similarly, the Internet has made possible e-mail and chat communication to all members of a given group of Internet users. (Granted, the large-scale perversion of this concept still haunts us, in the form of spam.) When you want to communicate with a single person over the Internet, then e-mail, chat, and VoIP are all viable options.
But when you want to send your message out to a group of people who have opted into the arrangement, you have fewer options. You could create a list of their e-mail addresses, and store it in the address book of either your computer's e-mail program or in a Web-based e-mail account. But this entire list would have to be shared with everyone else on the list so that they too could send messages. Also, they would have to adapt it to their own e-mail setup. Lastly, any changes to the list could not be made to one central list, but instead would have to be made by everyone to their own individual lists — a sure recipe for eventual errors.
A superior alternative is to use an Internet-based mailing list, in which a single list of all the e-mail addresses is stored somewhere on the Internet, and usable by all members of the group, to the extent that their individual privileges allow. Messages are posted to the group by e-mailing them to the mailing list server, which then sends them out to everyone on the list. Such mailing lists have the advantages of centralized address storage and management, and are a big improvement over address book lists.
With the advent of online communities on the Web, there are now Internet "groups" that encompass all of the functionality of traditional mailing lists, but offer other features as well. The biggest player in this area is Yahoo Groups, which bills itself as "The easiest way for groups of people to communicate on the Internet".
While each individual Yahoo group can function differently from another, once you are a member of a typical group, you can easily post messages to the group by e-mailing them to the group. You can also read other members' messages, either by receiving them in e-mail messages or by accessing the message archive on that group's page within the Yahoo Group's website.
The only requirement for using Yahoo Groups is to have a Yahoo user ID, and those are free and easy to get. Registering a new Yahoo user ID only involves providing a limited amount of information about yourself (some of which may actually be true). Perhaps the most difficult part is coming up with a user ID that has not already been taken, as there are countless people already using Yahoo. Once you have an ID, you can join existing groups (if permitted by the group) or even create your own.
The Yahoo Group's homepage lists 16 categories of groups, from "Business & Finance" to "Science". Within each category, there are many subcategories. Within "Regional", for example, "California" alone has 5,358 groups; within that, "San Diego Metro" has 326. Going further, the "Cultures & Community Groups" page lists only one specialized group, in the "Naturists and Nudists" category. Hmm, perhaps that indicates something about San Diego, or the current computer user.
Rather than, er, exploring that nudist group, let's use as an example a group of which I am a moderator, namely, the SDOUG (San Diego Oracle Users Group). Once you have found the Yahoo group name (in this case, "sdoug_members"), you can easily visit the group's Yahoo homepage (e.g., http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sdoug_members/). Keep in mind that this is not necessarily the primary website of the group (in our case, http://www.sdoug.org/).
Messages and Files
While Yahoo Groups does have a few minor faults, the capabilities it offers are tremendous, especially for the individual who has tried to manage a non-Yahoo group using a long list of e-mail addresses, or a non-technical individual who has tried to set up a new group using one of the more conventional mailing list programs. Consequently, Yahoo Groups is the most popular way of organizing an online community.
In addition to sending and receiving messages using a Yahoo group, you can specify how you receive those messages: each one individually, or all at once daily, or not at all. You can also specify and later change the e-mail address at which you receive the group's messages; it does not have to be a Yahoo Mail account.
Yahoo group members can upload files into folders (which can contain subfolders) as well as specify automatic delivery of new or changed files. This is ideal for making available huge files without filling everyone's e-mail accounts. If those files are digital photos, then Yahoo Groups has special features for adding, removing, and organizing photos, in addition to creating photo albums with less effort than most photo album websites and standalone programs. The group moderator(s) can limit access to specific photos (handy for those nudist pictures).
Links and Votes
Perhaps your group has members who would like to share Internet links within the group. Rather than sending messy e-mail messages to everyone, or sending "bookmarks.html" files (for Mozilla users) or Zip-ed up Favorites directories (for Internet Explorer users), simply add those worthy website URLs to the Bookmarks section of your group's page. Each one can have a brief description, so members can more quickly find the sites that interest them.
One feature that the SDOUG group moderators have found to be invaluable, especially for learning the preferences of members, is Polls. In a matter of minutes, you can create a poll — consisting of a question plus two or more options — and have it sent out to all of the group members for their votes. For example, we could ask our members, "What changes do you want in future SDOUG meetings? 1. More pizza. 2. More sandwiches. 3. More Michael stays home."
Yahoo group polls can be easily modified before anyone votes, which is handy if you send out the poll but then notice a spelling error, or if you think of an additional option, such as "4. More nudists". (Computer group officers will do anything to attract members to meetings.) While group members vote at their leisure, any member with permission can see the poll results in progress. When the poll concludes, it can be automatically sent out to all members, or sent only to the poll's creator (so you can censor the results that you don't like, such as option #3 winning).
The benefits of Yahoo Groups are many, and the blemishes are few — and most of those will never even be seen by the typical member, but only by moderators. Plus, the price is right. So feel free to form your own Yahoo group — nudist or fully clothed — and enjoy the ease with which you can create your own online community.
Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.