Newsgroups via Usenet

by Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D.

Usenet, an Internet-based discussion system, is distributed world-wide and consists of a set of free "newsgroups" with names classified alphabetically by subject. Unlike email groups where messages come directly into your mailbox, you must go to the specific site carrying multiple newsgroups to post and access messages (much like a bulletin board). Specialized software is required, but usually comes bundled with other Internet software when you purchase an online account. Large programs, such as Netscape, have this capability built in. All you need to do is go to the Netscape screen while you are online, and click the "Netscape Newsgroups" button on the bottom line of buttons, just above the portion of your screen where web pages appear.

Other programs may be supplied by your service provider to help you access newsgroups. These programs are typically very easy to use. They usually list all the groups accessible. The first time through, you scroll down a very long list of thousands of newsgroups, and click the box next to the newsgroup you'd like to access in the future. This is called "subscribing" to that newsgroup. All it means is that the next time you go into this program, only the subscribed groups will appear.

You can always pull up the entire list and subscribe to others, but this is a lengthy process, and not something you'll want to do regularly. Data from these groups only downloads to your computer when you click on the name of a group to which you've already subscribed, so feel free to subscribe to as many as interest you initially. It's easy to unsubscribe later. You'll also see names of groups that are in foreign languages, because this network is used worldwide. While most posts come from the United States, other heavy contributors are in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.

Depending on your Internet access provider (the company you pay for accessing the Internet, such as America Online, Prodigy, Compuserve, Netcom or your local city-based provider) up to 10,000 newsgroups can be accessed. Providers select which newsgroups they make available to you. If you hear of a newsgroup not carried by your provider, simply ask that provider to carry it. Usually, they are happy to comply.

These newsgroups can be created and moderated by anyone who wishes to have a voice. People everywhere post "messages." They are then distributed to other networks. These messages consist of many different things, ranging from personal to professional to political. Some newsgroups have "moderators," who approve postings before they appear to assure their appropriateness for the group. They also help weed out "flames" or other derogatory messages. While some moderators can tend to be a bit heavy handed or controlling, moderated groups often provide security of knowing that an individual can post a message without harsh public response.

Mental health newsgroups tend to be found in a few specific locations, and are generally easy to spot. They often begin with "alt.support." and are followed by "loneliness, obesity, shyness, stuttering, kidney-failure, depression," etc. Others begin with "sci.med." and have extensions such as aids, pharmacy,diseases.lyme, etc. Individuals posting to these groups are generally the lay public seeking support for themselves or loved ones with the condition discussed. They provide each other with up-to-date information about latest treatments, research, providers; offer caring support; and tell their stories for various interpersonal reasons.

It is proper "netiquette" to "lurk" or read messages without posting for awhile before venturing forth with one's opinion. My experience may serve as the best source of understanding for this last suggestion. While attempting to publicize my own WWW magazine in various newsgroups, I composed a message announcing the recent publication of one of my nicotine treatment articles. I looked up all the groups related to smoking, and individually posted my announcement. Before the day was through, I had received not only a few personal inquiries about my involvement with nicotine treatment, but also two very harsh, very angry, posts demanding that I stay out of "alt.smoking." The notes vehemently demanded that I follow proper netiquette and bother to read their newsgroup "charter" before posting. I had posted an announcement for treatment to a group that was designed to support tobacco use. When I got over the brutal assault on my intentions, I went back to the newsgroup and read a few of their posts. They were iscussing where to get the best, freshest, tastiest tobacco from large vendors in various countries. Oooops! Lesson learned: read a group's messages before posting. Better yet, write a post and ask for their charter to be sent to you directly. Someone will surely reply, and gladly.

Another lesson learned: when dealing with flames, ignore them, or simply send a note of apology for your insensitivity (if that's true). Your ego w ill recover more easily if you don't try to defend yourself. Some angry people out there can be quite frightening. After you've been flamed a few times, you'll probably do what I have done, develop immunity to the personal insults, accept the lesson conveyed, and continue pursuing your goal.

These lists can be a tremendous resource not only to you, but to clients/patients who, for whatever reason, are not getting enough support/information about their particular struggle. Responses to an individuals' post can be sent to the group in general, or the original message sender can request that responses be sent directly to their personal email box. Lists will often display numerous responses to an individual's question or post, offering a wide range of responses to someone who just wants the benefit of reading about the topic without posting. These groups often serve the psychological function of an anonymous support group. It's also accessible 24 hours per day, from the comfort of one's own home, regardless of one's appearance or grooming. Where else can you get such a vast array of information with such little effort?

4/17/98

Dr. Maheu is an author, speaker, and researcher. She is the lead author of E-Health, Telehealth & Telemedicine: A Guide to Program Startup and Success co-written with Pamela Whitten and Ace Allen, published by Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Infidelity on the Internet is Dr. Maheu's second book and she's currently working her third, tentatively titled "The Mental Health Professional Online: New Questions and Answers."

For more information about her speaking schedule, see this page: http://telehealth.net/speak.html

 

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