Technology Source

Digital discussions: On-line computer-mediated communication

Imagine engaging several people from around the world in a discussion and not having to be together in the same place. Imagine further that you don't even have to participate at the same time. With networked computers, this is now possible.

These discussions are called computer-mediated communication or conferencing.

Of the wide spectrum of computer-mediated communication forms, this article will focus on electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs) and USENET News, forms of on-line discussion that are available at Emory.

A bulletin board allows users to dial in (or sometimes connect via the Internet) and exchange mail, read public announcements (bulletins), and read and post messages in discussion groups, sometimes called "conferences."

The Information Technology Division (ITD) has a BBS called LearnLink which is graphical and very easy to use. Users connect to the service with client software that runs on Macintosh and Windows (3.1x, 95 and NT) systems.

Using a conference on LearnLink is very much like using e-mail. Each conference appears as a folder with messages within it (or more conferences). A person who has opened a conference folder by double-clicking it can read the messages in it and (if they have access) post new messages.

A conference can have its own administrator. For example, Tony Martin, assistant professor of geosciences, administers a conference for his Geosciences 142 class. Once LearnLink's system administrators, Gary Falcon and Steven Kopec, had set up this conference for him, Martin created sub-conferences for class handouts, discussions, electronic submission of papers, etc., and he can control access to these conferences. For example, students can "hand in" papers by submitting them to a particular conference folder, but they can't take them back out or look at other students' papers.

A disadvantage of BBSs is that they draw from a small pool of people and knowledge to respond to a question or discussion. In contrast to BBSs, USENET News offers a world-wide readership and newsgroups that cover almost every conceivable topic, from sci.astro to rec.arts.wobegon to When a query is posted to USENET News, a response often is received from many of the world's most knowledgeable people on the subject.

USENET News is a computer-mediated communication system that dates back to 1979 when a group of computer science students at Duke University and the University of North Carolina developed a modem-based network called USENET.

USENET News (also called "Net news") consists of a large number of news "groups" that are organized into subject areas. The organization is tree-structured in a way that is similar to directories and files on a computer. For example, is a news group for announcements about Microsoft Windows. It is within the group, which is within a group called comp.os, which is within a top-level group called comp. The comp group contains 740 subgroups that pertain to computing.

An effective way to access news groups is with Netscape 2.x., by simply clicking on the Window menu at the top of the Netscape screen and then clicking on Netscape News.

Due to the sheer volume of news in USENET News, particular articles are not kept around for very long, sometimes only a week, so that a user typically only sees the most recent postings in a particular group and subject.

However, there are archives of news group articles on the World Wide Web. DejaNews at claims to be "the largest collection of indexed, archived USENET News available anywhere," with 70 million megabytes of searchable data. According to Deja News, the site contains all of USENET since March 1995; their goal is to add and index all 17 years of USENET since 1979.

For information on possible BBSs that are available in your department, contact your local support person. For more information on LearnLink, contact Gary Falcon at or 727-2817. For more information on USENET, go to

Ken Guyton is a senior computer support specialist

in ITD.

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