This article is based on material authored by members of the news.newusers.questions Moderation Board and nnq-workers mailing list, particularly by Jon Bell (until 2005) and Thor Kottelin (since 2007)
There are many different ways of getting people together to discuss something on the Internet. This page covers a few of them, and includes information on advantages and disadvantages as well as on where to look for more information.
Newsgroups are distributed among tens of thousands of news servers. Internet service providers (ISPs), universities, companies and other organizations — in some cases, even private persons — operate those servers. Each server receives (hopefully) copies of all messages in a newsgroup and stores them in a sort of database. News servers automatically exchange these messages among themselves to keep each other's databases up to date.
Each participant in a newsgroup reads messages from, and posts messages to, his or her local news server. This is done using news-reading software such as the newsgroup module in Microsoft® Outlook Express.
A mailing list is possibly the simplest kind of forum. Participants subscribe to a mailing list by having their email address placed on a list of addresses that are to receive messages about a certain topic. They post messages to the list by sending email to a "list address". The list software emails copies to all participants, who therefore receive and handle the messages the same way as their other email.
Normally, mailing lists are managed automatically or semi-automatically, using list-server software such as Mailman, Majordomo, LISTSERV or ListProc. Your ISP may be able to provide this service for their users.
A web-based bulletin board exists on a web site. To use it, participants point their web browsers to a certain web address (URI) and see a list of message subjects. They can post messages by entering them into a form on a web page. Your ISP may offer such a service, or you can use a separate provider.
If you have your own web site, your hosting service may have web board software available, or you may be able to install it.
The different kinds of forums each have advantages and disadvantages in various respects:
Everybody knows how to send and receive email, right? ☺ Using a mailing list involves little more than knowing where to send a message so that it is posted. Usually, your mail software's reply function even takes care of this.
Main problems from a participant's point of view:
With a web-based bulletin board, participants have to figure out how to use each particular board's interface, which can (and probably does) vary from one board to the next. However, they do not have to worry about their mailboxes while on vacation; all the messages are stored on the board's hosting site, which removes old messages as necessary.
With a newsgroup, the user interface varies from one person to another, depending on the software he or she uses. That software may be e.g. Microsoft Outlook Express or Forté Agent, but for that person, it is the same for all newsgroups. This means that if you know how to access one newsgroup, you know how to access them all. In addition, similar to a web board, the messages are stored on your news server, which automatically causes old messages to expire, so you do not have to worry about your mailbox.
With a mailing list or Web board, the owner can have complete control over who participates and what they post. Most newsgroups are instead non-moderated, which means that anyone can participate and can post anything he or she wants, subject only to peer pressure from other participants, and/or regulation by the user's own ISP. This can make it hard to keep a newsgroup focused on a particular topic.
Some newsgroups are moderated, which means that someone (or a group of people, or even a software "robot") examines all postings before they actually appear in the newsgroup. These groups can be controlled much like a mailing list or Web board, but frankly, if you're new to all this, you probably don't even want to think about creating a moderated newsgroup, because it involves major technical issues that even experienced newsgroup users have to struggle with.
To some extent, newsgroups publicize themselves. People can "stumble upon" them while browsing through the list of newsgroups that their server provides. They can also find groups by using search engines such as Google Groups (formerly Deja News). People can also find web-based bulletin boards by doing web searches on the topic, and they can find mailing lists by using a search engine, but both probably depend more on word-of-mouth publicity.
Once you have found a host site for your mailing list or web-based bulletin board, you can set up the service quickly. Because it does not physically exist anywhere else besides the host site, the only person from whom you need permission is the operator of that site.
Newsgroups, however, are distributed among tens of thousands of news servers all over the world. In order for a newsgroup to be viable, a significant number of server administrators must create the group locally on their servers. Therefore, you have to generate support for your newsgroup among other people in order to convince those administrators (either directly or indirectly) that creating the group is worthwhile. Exactly how you do that depends on what kind of newsgroup you want to create.
If a mailing list or web-based bulletin board does not work out, or if you cannot continue to run it for some reason, discontinuing it is easy, as it only exists on one server. A newsgroup, on the other hand, usually cannot be removed from all servers carrying it. You can simply abandon it, but then it accumulates spam and other garbage.
If you want to create a forum for a specific, well-defined group of people (e.g. for your friends, for your company's customers, for college classmates or for a church congregation), and if you want to have some control over what goes on in the forum, you're probably best off creating a mailing list or web-based bulletin board.
If your potential audience is widespread and not very well definable in advance (in terms of specific people), and your topic has widespread interest and is not already being covered by another newsgroup, trying to create a newsgroup may be worthwhile. However, doing this is very much a political process, because you have to gain the cooperation of many people. You should therefore learn about the process in advance, and observe it in action for a while by watching other groups being created, before you try to do it yourself.
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