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Grouping together with the like-minded

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 4, 2007
(Issue 2518, Back it Up)

One of the more useful tools for community-building online has been the concept of a "Group."

Pioneered on an international scale by Yahoo a few years back, a "group" is a Web site that gathers files, a forums area, and a group e-mail digest – all open only to those who are members.

Tying it all together is the topic of the group – and those are nearly as endless as human imagination.

From Star Trek to medical conditions, favorite musical groups to collecting recipes, there are millions of groups on Yahoo alone. (The music category alone contains more than a quarter of a million groups!)

MySpace caught the group bug but quick, and groups are now one of the more popular portions of what is the most popular online destination.

Oddly enough, it all reminds me the old dial-up bulletin board systems (BBSs) – which had forums, files and e-mail where folks of a like mind could hang out together online. (I do hope that one blogger isn't going to call me a "FidoNet dinosaur" again for bringing up the BBS era ...)

Spreading like wildfire

Groups are now spreading to all kinds of places you might not expect to find them. eBay, for instance.

Recently I received an invite to join an Atari group on eBay's British site. Not sure how they found me, but it could have been from a bidder's list off of some old Atari 8-bit games I recently bid on. (Won a couple, lost a couple.)

Out of curiosity, I popped into the U.S. eBay groups index to see if there were some U.S.-based Atari groups. I found three, including one with almost 200 members. Not huge by Yahoo or MySpace standards, but still a pretty active, self-sustaining community.

Interestingly, eBay doesn't limit group topics to things you might buy on eBay. There are groups organized by geography (including a San Diego Computers & Networking group with 60 members) and by interest – alumni, cooking, photography and stay at home parents only among some of the categories listed.

The eBay groups are organized pretty much like Yahoo or MySpace groups: There's a message area and a group photo album, a list of members and even a calendar.

Latching onto Usenet

Google Groups hit on a way to hit the ground running with tens of thousands of groups already in place: The Google Groups index page includes a Usenet feed. Around since the late '70s, the Usenet was the first online newsgroup conversation area, predating even the BBS forums.

There is apparently no topic in existence that doesn't have a Usenet group corresponding to it. And if there is, you can easily start your own Usenet group to address that glaring need. The alt, comp and rec Usenet domains all seem to be present.

Best of all, it's a somewhat family-safe way to get on the Usenet: None of the binary groups – in which you can attach mp3, video files or photos (typically pornography) – are available here. There are still threads devoted to some rather prurient topics, but at least you don't have to worry about the little ones accidentally finding nasty photos, nor having your teens get you sued for having pirated music on the family PC. At least not from Google Groups.

Still, these newsgroups don't have the functionality of Yahoo, MySpace or eBay's groups: It's just a simple text-only newsfeed: No photo areas or files for download. It's darn wide in how much territory it takes in, but not real deep in what you can do here.

Other online groups

Microsoft's MSN has a large and active groups community. There are thousands and thousands of groups built around almost any topic you can think of. (And in a truly useful touch, the MSN groups have an "activity meter" when you're browsing groups so you can see if it's active or dormant before you join.)

Message areas, photo areas – it's a deep, useful environment comparable to MySpace and Yahoo.

Flickr, the photo-hosting service, also has a groups area. And no laughing, but I actually found a group devoted to photos of vintage computers! (And, yes, I joined – stop laughing, Digital Dave!)

The Flickr groups are fairly bare-bones, mostly devoted to posting photos, but each group also has a discussion area where you can talk about the photos you're posting – technique, lighting, etc.

YouTube, ICQ and Apple's dot.mac site all have groups as well. (My daughter has the iMac these days, so I couldn't explore Apple's groups.)

Guess I can finally shut up about the glory of the BBS age ...