Virtual community is anyplace where groups of people talk together on the Internet -- in mailing lists, in newsgroups, in chat rooms, or on Web sites. Virtual community can also cover more specialized situations, such as long-distance education or shared project work spaces. And it can describe some communications that aren't discussions, such as posting customer evaluations or answering opinion polls. Whenever people are aware of each other's presence on the Internet, they're likely to consider themselves part of a community.
In this article, I'll briefly cover the different kinds of virtual communities and the tools used to create them.
Mailing lists -- e-mail discussions within a group of subscribers -- are the simplest and most familiar form of virtual community. Anyone who can read and send e-mail can create a mailing list virtual community, although there are more elaborate tools for administering large lists.
Newsgroups -- a worldwide system of discussion groups, also called Usenet -- are the most abundant source of communities. Whatever the topic, there is a newsgroup devoted to it. Like e-mail, you post a message to a newsgroup and come back later to see if you've received an answer. Newsgroups are simple to participate in (if you have a newsreader) but somewhat difficult to administer.
Chats -- discussions that take place "live" (in real time) in chat rooms -- are the quickest way to connect with people on the Internet. In addition to traditional chat rooms, there are chat rooms in which you can move through a graphical world and others in which you can build your own text-based world. You can participate in chats by entering any of the many chats hosted at sites such as Yahoo! or AOL, or you can hold your own chat by opening a chat room using any of the available tools.
Web-based discussion groups -- discussion groups linked to a specific Web site -- are quickly becoming the standard for site-based virtual communities. Like e-mail and newsgroups, you post a message to a discussion group and read the response later. You can participate in Web-based discussion groups on any site that hosts one, and build your own either by hosting it yourself or by using one of the many free discussion group tools.
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